Picturing Catholic University

By Robert P. Malesky
A procession of priests and dignitaries from McMahon Hall to Gibbons Hall.
On Oct.12, 1911, a procession of priests and dignitaries marched from McMahon Hall to the southern end of campus to lay the cornerstone for a new dormitory called Gibbons Hall. Cardinal James Gibbons blessed the stone himself. Photos courtesy of University Archives (except 4 and 7).

In May 2010, CUA graduate Robert Malesky published The Catholic University of America — a photographic history. Here he shares a sampling of historic photos and an inside look at how he put the book together.

What image pops into your mind when you think of Catholic University? Is it McMahon Hall, sitting proudly at the end of the university mall, or Caldwell Hall, with its somber façade? Is it the Basilica? Well, that’s not a formal part of the university anymore, though its presence is still imposing. Maybe it’s the dorm room you had in freshman year, or a concert in the gym, or a football game in the old stadium. Or maybe you picture Brookland, with its cozy houses and tree-lined streets? Perhaps it’s the people you remember best — fellow students, favorite teachers, maybe even an administrator or two.

I tried to keep all of those images in mind as I prepared the new photographic history of the school for Arcadia Publishing. As an alumnus myself (B.A. 1973), I had my own perceptions of CUA, but I wanted the book to ring true for anyone who had walked the campus and spent time there. I also wanted it to be a real history, not just a photo album, but one that told the story of the university through images.

I did considerable research, and now have a sizable shelf of books about the early days of the school. I spent a lot of time in Mullen Library, reading articles in the Catholic University Bulletin and other old sources. But by far I spent the most time in Aquinas Hall, at the American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives, where the audiovisual collection is stored.

There, with the help of Audio Visual Archivist Robin Pike, I pored over thousands of photos from CUA’s first 80 years. Arcadia wants its books to focus on “vintage” pictures, so I didn’t spend much time with anything more recent than 1970. Still, that meant going through more than 140 boxes of photos, which kept me in the nice, cool archives during one of Washington’s hot, humid summers.

CUA was founded in 1887. Having pictures of the university’s earliest days was crucial, but few were in the collection. Fortunately for me, when the school’s first rector, Bishop John Keane, was dismissed from his position by Pope Leo XIII in 1896, the faculty presented him with a memorial photo album. Most of the pictures are portrait shots of faculty members, but a few show campus buildings.

One picture helped out a great deal.

Photo 1

Photo 2

Photo 3

Photo 4Photo 5


Photo 6

Photo 7

Photo 8

The Middleton family owned the land that Catholic University purchased for the campus. Their manor house was built in 1803 by the original owner, Samuel Harrison Smith (photo 1). He and his wife, Margaret Bayard Smith, called it “Sidney” and entertained early Washington society there. It sat on the grassy knoll between what are now the Crough Center and McMahon Hall. When Catholic University acquired the land and the building, it gave Sidney to the Paulist Fathers, who called it St. Thomas Aquinas College and quickly began building additions. The college eventually reverted to CUA, became known as St. Thomas Hall, and stayed in use until 1970, when it was demolished. All the pictures I had seen showed the enlarged St. Thomas Hall, which was expanded both upward and outward (photo 2). It wasn’t until I looked in the Keane photo album that I finally found a picture that showed Sidney’s original incarnation.

Rector Keane’s memorial album also contained a wonderful image of Caldwell Hall, just a few years after it was dedicated in 1889 — the first building erected on campus for the new university (photo 3). The Washington Post damned it with faint praise: “The architecture is massive, simple and severe … it depends for its effects upon the eye on its severe simplicity of outline and harmonious proportions.” Designed by E.F Baldwin and originally called Divinity Hall, it became known as Caldwell Hall within a decade.

Caldwell Hall was named for Mary Gwendolen Caldwell, a young heiress who donated $300,000 to start Catholic University. Since she is considered a significant benefactor of the school, I thought I’d have no problem locating a picture of her in the archives. I was wrong. There was nothing there, so I looked at outside sources. There were no descendants to contact about photos. I went to the Peoria diocese where her mentor, Bishop John Lancaster Spalding, had resided. The diocese had photos of a young woman labeled “probably a Caldwell,” but that wasn’t definitive enough. I contacted the Louisville archdiocese, home of the Caldwell family. No luck. Finally, after more frustrating research, I tracked down an 1889 issue of Cosmopolitan magazine that contained a photo of her in an article on young socialites (photo 4). It wasn’t the best quality, but I finally had an image.

Bishop Spalding was not just Mary Gwendolen’s mentor. He was a longtime family friend and had also served as the chaplain of the New York grade school that Miss Caldwell and her younger sister Mary Elizabeth attended. But he was much more than a priest with wealthy connections. John Lancaster Spalding was a dynamic, charismatic man and the leading Catholic intellectual in the field of education. He spoke passionately about the issue and wrote several important books and treatises. More than any other person, he spearheaded the drive that led to the formation of Catholic University. I found a few pictures of him, and I like this one especially, when he was that forceful young scholar (photo 5).

Most of the photos in the collection are studio compositions. For the photograph of Catholic University’s first faculty in 1889, the studio came to the school; in this case Mathew Brady’s studio sent a photographer to campus to shoot the professors gathered on the front steps of Caldwell Hall.

It was a small group, but contained some esteemed professors, none more so than Rev. Henri Hyvernat, a leading authority on Semitic languages (photo 6). That’s him on the top left of the faculty photo (Rector John Keane is in the center). Hyvernat served the longest of those initial faculty members, from 1889 to 1941. At the Library of Congress I found a beautiful picture of him near the end of his career, and felt compelled to include it (photo 7).

Bishop Thomas Shahan, the fourth rector of Catholic University, was known as the “builder rector.” In 1909, he started a construction program focused on the Collegiate Gothic style of architecture. Gibbons Hall was the first of that style, followed by Graduate Hall (recently renamed Father O’Connell Hall) and Maloney Hall. Early in his tenure he commissioned an artistic rendering of his dream for the university. As you can see in this perspective view, Collegiate Gothic buildings dominate the campus (photo 8). If you look closely, you can see Caldwell, McMahon, and Gibbons halls, as well as O’Boyle and Marist halls at the top. The university church, which would eventually become the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, is also Gothic at this point.

The Gothic vision of the campus never came to fruition. Maloney Hall, which opened its doors in 1914, turned out to be the last of the Collegiate Gothic style buildings on campus. Once the National Shrine (now the Basilica) changed from a Gothic design to a Byzantine/Romanesque one, the rest of the university’s architecture changed as well.

Archivist Robin Pike helped me find this drawing, as well as many other non-photographic images that I included in the book. I felt it was important to include representations of CUA college life that might not be pictures. So there’s a B&O railroad ticket from downtown to University Station (which stood where the CUA entrance to the Metrorail is today), a freshman religion exam, hazing rules for freshmen and a number of other items.

Photo 9

Photo 10

Photo 11

I was also looking for the unusual, and as I went through the boxes of photos, I found a number of surprises. Back in the 1930s, football was huge at the university. Coach Dutch Bergman led the Catholic University team to victory in the Orange Bowl in 1936. I found a good photo of him with a group of fellow coaches from 1939, and thought one of the men looked familiar (photo 9). It turned out to be “Slingin’” Sammy Baugh, quarterback for the Washington Redskins (then only in their second year in Washington, D.C.), and future NFL hall-of-famer. Here he is wearing a CUA T-shirt. Coach Bergman is next to him at the left of the photo.

I was always on the lookout for photos that would resonate with alumni. Often that meant focusing on the buildings, especially those that have disappeared over the years. The first dormitory I stayed in at CUA was Albert Hall. I found lots of pictures of Albert (which was originally named Keane Hall), but one in particular impressed me. Albert Hall was the first dormitory for lay students and it was the first building erected along Michigan Avenue. This picture from 1896, shortly after Albert was built, shows just how sparse the campus looked at that early stage (photo 10). Albert Hall was demolished in 1970.

When I was a student in the late 1960s and early 1970s, we all spent time in the administration building (photo 11) on Michigan Avenue. That’s where you went for student loans, housing and all sorts of things. It was originally built in 1903 by the Catholic Missionary Union. The building was torn down in 1996.

There are dozens of other interesting photos in the book: Father Gilbert Hartke with George M. Cohan, James Cagney, Walter Kerr, and three U.S. presidents; Monsignor Patrick Skehan examining the Dead Sea Scrolls; Bishop Fulton Sheen as a student in 1920; Emerson Meyers and his Moog synthesizer (one of the first); and of course the visits by Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. The hard part was not so much choosing which photos to put in, but which to leave out.

Through it all, the staff of the American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives went out of their way to help. Robin Pike spent hours at the scanner, and did a superb job. And now the archives has many more images available digitally than before I started this project.

Once the photos were selected, the writing could begin. That took about a month and a half, and as each chapter was completed I would send it to Victor Nakas, associate vice president for public affairs, for review by him and University Provost James Brennan. Together, we made sure the book was as accurate and inclusive as possible. The final result does, I think, tell the story of the university in an accessible and engaging way, and will give any alumnus plenty of reason to feel a little nostalgic and proud.

Copies of Robert Malesky’s book are available for purchase at the CUA Bookstore on campus and online, as well as at bookstores and online services such as amazon.com and Barnes and Noble.

Photos courtesy of University Archives (except 4 and 7).