Almost Fifty: The End of Covenant Seminary's Original Administration Building

December 21, 2009: At the intersection of Conway Road and Balcon Estates Drive, an old white-columned building stands. Three-storied and painfully unattractive from the back—its facing mirrors the old homes that once lined the streets of this neighborhood. Perpendicular to neither road, the building is angled, poised—as if to proclaim some message. But whether through time her message has been “Welcome to the City” or “Now leaving the Country”—all is now silent in the end of the end of the waiting.

The building has a history that predates its incorporation into the once burgeoning institution of which it is currently part—Covenant Theological Seminary. Built in the early 1900s, the building used to sit at the site of St. John’s Hospital’s current extended care unit—where it served as a twenty-room convent for the Sisters of Mercy. Covenant Seminary was offered the building in 1960, when St. John’s was set to construct a $14 million facility at the same site.

The Seminary’s student newspaper reported that month, “It was a long-awaited answer to prayer when the phone rang several months ago and a Roman Catholic Sister said that she wished to donate a house to Covenant College [at that time the College and the Seminary shared the campus]. The house that she was speaking of is a twenty-room mansion about a half mile from the college on a site where the Catholics are planning to erect a $14,000,000 hospital in the near future. The one string attached to the gift, however, was that the school must at its own expense move the house off the property. Because the T-shaped house is old and sprawling, there is little hope that all of it can be successfully moved. The present plan is to move the front section of it down Conway Road and place it on a new basement and foundation constructed on a site between the faculty homes and the main gate of the campus. The rear section will then be rebuilt, so that when it is completed, the structure will be as large as it now is and will perhaps be arranged a little more conveniently for the purposes of the college” (The Bagpipe, October, 1960) The home made the journey on November 17, 1960—to watching neighbors and stopped traffic—across four days and half a mile.

Thirty-nine years later, much has changed. A red hawk has taken to perching on the house’s chimney, and once-small trees are old and weatherworn. The front, double doors open up to an empty and threadbare space that feels more like a tomb than a home. Converted to office space, and coded with fire doors, much of the original elegance and (then) contemporary comfort of the home is hidden by trappings of modernity or lost completely—patched over with sheetrock and drop-tile ceilings. To the careful observer, the grandeur of the d├ęcor is visible, here and there—in the ornate molding that breaks the long stretches of wall into decorative and inviting shapes.

In what must have been the lounge or receiving room—the fireplace is set in a series of contrasting trim styles, hand-crafted in days before mechanized routers and electric saws. A dark marble slab adorns the face, and evenly spaced bricks support the base. Though blackened with years of fires, one can still feel the once-inviting space, arranged perhaps for the occasional guest of residing nuns, on days equally as cold as this. I imagine a Sister would welcome the visitor and bid them warm by the fire, while outside the French-style windows snow covered ground, trees, and life.

Today, there is no fire. Cold seeps in through single-paned glass and the cracks in right angles no longer right in the settling of years and service. The muted sunlight barely lights the farthest corners of the room. How quickly decay has set in—as plaster blisters from the walls in the presence of too much moisture and not enough conditioning.

Original film footage of the moving of the house—with men running in and out beneath the raised structure—reveals the complexity and semi-magnitude of the project. Of course, those were in the days before Interstate 270 stretched over Conway Road, a reality that would prevent a modern reenactment. And yet, it remains a noteworthy feat—that the cumulative lives of those who lived in this house at St. John’s Hospital would be far outnumbered by those who would make it a home at Covenant Seminary.

After the move, the building front was adorned with a raised portico, Doric columns, and the unassuming name of “Administration Building.” But what the name lacked in creativity and color, the building made up for in the myriad of disparate and varied functions it served for the Seminary’s faculty, staff, and students. Originally employed as administrative offices and library space, the building regularly held classrooms, faculty offices, counseling rooms, and—perhaps most remembered—living space for single male students. Paul Billy Arnold, a native of southern India and currently a pastor in that region, lived in the building during the 1990s while studying at the Seminary. He recalls eating apples from the apple tree to the east and pears from the pear tree to the southwest. (The apple tree has been gone for years, but the pear tree still produces good cooking pears biannually.)

Other Seminary alumni from the 1970s remember negotiating with staff—who worked upstairs of the dorm floor—over what foods could and could not be cooked and when. Kimchi was among the favorites of the Korean students, and un-favored among staff. The old kitchen—where these debatable dishes were certainly prepared—remained in use until the end: for the occasional party or staff break room.

Once in place, the entirety of the building was covered over in a brick veneer and painted white. The upper screened sunroom, visible in those original images, was closed in to make even more office space—with the aforementioned addition on the back, restoring the T-design. The lateness of this addition is noticeable in minute architectural and design elements. The trim and molding are near perfect matches, and the French windows similar in style, but the lower ceiling and narrower hallways are a clear mark of the pragmatic 1960s rather than the hospitable 1930s.

Even if one ignores the prohibitive presence of I-270, the idea of such an attempt today—that is, moving an old building—seems preposterously inconceivable. In fact, the last four years have seen the felling of all the similarly-designed and commonly-aged houses on Conway Road—destroyed to make room for the stone-faced (castle-like) mansions popular today, and desired for their promise of privacy, over and against 1950’s neighborliness. There is no indication that anybody thought to save these homes and move them somewhere else.

What does it say about us as a nation that, what 50 years ago we would save at great expense and effort, today we do not think twice about destroying? What does it say about us that the once-hallowed halls of holy women—who gave themselves over to lives of prayer and sacred care—are deemed of so little value? It’s not just cement and stone and wood that will fall in the final demise of this building—it is the history of life and play that transpired with this structure as the stage.

Walking through the upper rooms of the abandoned building, one becomes keenly aware of much that could be salvaged—like the newish and excellently cared for doors left hanging on solid brass Hagar-made hinges. In the end, the cost of paying someone to salvage these, or the banister, or the fireplace below, has been deemed too great. And in an age where labor is expensive, all else can be replaced.

The Sisters of Mercy held to the beliefs in God, in eternal salvation, and in resurrection from the dead. Does that apply to the old structures that served so well? Will there be room in the great “new heavens and new earth” for redeemed buildings: deemed obsolete, outdated, and disposable?

For now, the building stands silent, cold, and closed up. The air hangs dank—a musty smell half dust, half dirt, with a sprinkling of years gone by. The emptiness rings hollow to my footsteps within. But I have come for a reason more than commemoration. I have been permitted the removal (“salvage” sounds so harsh) of finished corner shelves that adorn several offices. My hammer swinging, plaster takes flight—more dust than crumbs. And in the cloudy aftermath, I confirm the expert craftsmanship of these redeemed pieces—detailed, hand-chiseled lines as straight as a razor, with engraved parts that only God, and the occasional mouse, would ever see.

Beneath these shelves, an even older carpet is discovered—and beneath that, the spiny crisscross of floorboards: a little pine, a little oak, a nail or two, and a century of decay that bespeaks the years gone by. Perhaps somewhere among the fragments, one might find the lost charms of a chaste nun given to a life of purity and prayer. Only dust is the absolute now: universal in its covering. Some say that dust is half human—the cast off remains of a life lived. If so, then this structure stands not just as a record of history, but as a final resting place for those who gave their lives to work that history did not bother to note or remember. And from this place, perhaps the dust will reconstitute, and the dead will rise again.

In a sense—this removal of sacred shelves is a sacrilege. It is wrong! Not that I’m not permitted, but that, in a sense, no one should be. For in the piecemealing of these scraps, the last great remains of beauty are removed. Like Cinderella—stripped of her gown by contentious stepsisters—the fate of this home is rendered final, and the gaping holes left in the wake of my salvage effort mirror the destruction to come in a week.

December 28, 2009: Heavy equipment has taken up residence in the parking lot of 12330 Conway Road. The red hawk circles about listlessly, apparently unimpressed with the goings on below. Outside in the extreme cold, two men stand and talk about the pending demise of the building. One of them—David Brown, the Seminary’s director of facilities and operations—invites me into their small circle.

“Do you have everything you want out of there?” he asks, motioning to the white building. I stop to think. The shelves, yes. But what of the residual echoes of history that stain the walls of old buildings such as this one, and tell the story of a hundred lifetimes? Nobody can remove those. The ghosts that roam the hallways of these final hours are not the haunting sort, but are more a deep nostalgia—nuns about their daily prayers and Korean students about their kimchi.

David turns back to listen to the man in a hardhat, who is mumbling something about permits. “We’ll push it that way,” he says, motioning as if to destroy the building by sheer will. Above, the hawk calls out a haunting sound. A chill runs through me. And for an instant, I shield my eyes from the tragedy—as if someone has said, “Look away,”—protecting these last fragile images of the past with integrity.

After 49 years, 1 month, and 12 days of service, the iconic administration building at Covenant Seminary was destroyed and removed. Grass now covers the spot.


Vaughn Hathaway said...


Is the shadowed image you?


Wayne Sparkman said...

To give proper credit, Dr. R. Laird Harris was the one who shot the film of the move of the building.