Preserving History: The Original Cornerstone of St. John’s University Is Secured
On a recent sunny afternoon, an indescribable van containing four historic pieces of stone from the original St. John’s University home in Brooklyn, NY, arrived on the Queens, NY campus. While the distance traveled from 75 Lewis Avenue in the Bedford Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn to make delivery to campus is less than 10 miles, the symbolic journey made by the University since these concrete slabs were first laid. times in an earth foundation 151 years ago is untold.
The stones, inscribed with the words “Eriged 1869”, “College of St. John the Baptist” and “Lewis Avenue” are artefacts from a cornerstone laying ceremony of July 25, 1869 for what was to come. become St. John’s University. The official dedication led by Reverend John Loughlin, the first Roman Catholic bishop of Brooklyn, was page two news in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.
Brian Browne, executive director of university relations and assistant vice president of government relations, spearheaded efforts to reclaim the cornerstones of the university. “I recently learned that St. John the Baptist Parish – the original home of St. John’s University – had entered into a long-term rental agreement on a portion of their large property for new housing for the purpose of renting ‘Help fund the renovation of their historic church and provide the parish community with much-needed financial resources,’ said Browne.
“When I contacted the pastor, Reverend Astor Rodriguez, CM, he told me the demolition was already underway, and he immediately put me in touch with the developer who personally preserved, removed and organized the delivery of cornerstones to St. John’s.
The architectural term cornerstone is traditionally the foundation stone laid for a structure, with all other stones laid in reference to it. A cornerstone marks the geographical location by orienting a building in a specific direction. In ancient times, no stone was more important to builders than the cornerstone, as the integrity of the entire structure depended on the cornerstone containing exactly the right lines.
If the cornerstone wasn’t right, the whole building would be irrelevant. For this reason, the ancient builders inspected many stones, rejecting each one until they found the stone they wanted. The rejected stones could be used in other parts of the building, but they would never become the cornerstone or the cornerstone – the first and last stones put in place.
“During my conversations with the developer, there was sort of a recurring scriptural theme throughout the experience, because in this case the stone that the builders protected – rather than rejected – was the cornerstone!” remarked Mr. Browne, drawing a parallel with the well-known allegory of the Bible found in both the Old and New Testaments. A central tenet of Catholicism is that Jesus is the stone that the builders rejected and that Jesus founded the church on Saint Peter, “the rock” on which the Catholic Church was built.
The construction project currently underway at the original St. John’s site is to convert the three wings of the former parish center of St. John the Baptist (i.e. Hart Street, Lewis Avenue and Willoughby Avenue) in housing. The Willoughby Street wing was recently demolished and will be rebuilt. Development of 205 new rental units is planned for the site which will be primarily at market rate with affordable housing included as part of the community revitalization project.
The buildings of St. John the Baptist Church were designed in the Roman Revival architectural style by Patrick Keely, the preeminent architect of the Catholic Church in the late 1800s. Mr. Keely, an immigrant by origin Irish living in Brooklyn, and later in Providence, RI, had no formal training in architecture; he learned the building trade from his father. Throughout his life, Mr. Keely designed nearly 600 churches, most of them Catholic, and his work on churches and related buildings stretches across the United States.
In modern architecture and building design, a cornerstone is still often placed near the base of a structure where two walls meet, giving information about the significance of the building. As historical preservation and awareness has become more prevalent and valued, cornerstones are often placed ornamental on exterior or interior walls. Some cornerstones serve as time capsules and are hollowed out and filled with popular objects or something important to the occupants of the building at the time of construction.
Brian Baumer, Associate Vice President, Campus Facilities and Services, is now tasked with finding a permanent and significant campus for historic cornerstones. “This is an important and exciting piece of St. John’s history to take home just as our 150th anniversary celebration draws to a close. We are exploring how best to make these stones a living and sustainable part of the campus environment. “