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  • Reverend James Squire

If These Walls Could Talk

I was struck by something that President Biden said before he left Uvalde, Texas after visiting the town and meeting with politicians and families who had lost children in the recent mass shooting there. He said, “We are going to raze this school building!” I didn’t know at the time that there is a federal grant process in place to rebuild entire schools or areas where the shootings had occurred so that the children don’t have to return to those places where nightmare memories will be part of their lives for a long period of time. Buildings are where memories are stored both the good and the bad.

After the December 14, 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School where 20 children ages 6 and 7 and 6 adults were killed, the entire school was razed and rebuilt. The students were taught at Chalk Hill Middle School which was no longer in use as a Middle School and returned four years later to a rebuilt Sandy Hook Elementary School.

After the February 14, 2018 mass shooting at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School where 17 people were killed including 14 students and 3 staff members, students returned two weeks later after the massacre. However, Building Number 12 where most of the massacre occurred was closed off. Later a new building was erected to replace Building Number 12 and its temporary replacement.

It was a sad commentary on our national gun laws that we have a federal process in place to raze and rebuild locations where these mass shootings of schools have occurred.

All of this reminded me that buildings are where memories are stored, both the good and the bad.

I should have realized this based on a different experience that I had with the emotional impact of a building. As most know we moved the entire campus of EA from City Line Avenue west to Newtown Square. The move was not without controversy at the alumni, parent, faculty, student, administration, and Board of Trustees level. We could not do any building on campus because of the neighbor and township complaints and limitations. I was part of the group that wanted the move for it would enable us to move from 30 acres to 120 where we could build what we needed to improve the school. I could write a book about all the behind-the-scenes drama that occurred. The chief fund raiser for the project who led the fundraising efforts, Meg Hollinger, did write a booklet about what it was like to raise 250 million dollars to accomplish the project.

The upside of the move was how often does someone get a chance to build an entirely new school with state-of the art technology. From my personal perspective, how often would I get to work with two of the greatest architects in the world, Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi who was a member of the class of ’44. I got a first-hand experience at what genius looks like! The 44’ chapel became a PH.D thesis for architects around the world and was one of The New York Times structures that was listed as one of the eight buildings in the United States that were “too cool for school.”

All of the above was the upside of the move. The downside was that some of us worked two jobs for six years to work with architects and the community to move the project forward and build the new campus. Excellence of education had to be maintained. There is also the axiom that “God so loved the world that he didn’t send a committee.” Many people had many opinions.

Christ Chapel on the City Line Avenue Campus was a modern building that was the first of its kind in the city and its environs. It was also the heart and soul of the school. Worship and anything else that was important beyond that such as important lectures and award ceremonies occurred there. It was a place where the happiest moments for people occurred as well as those moments that are so sad that it would bring you to your knees.

On 9/11 when the twin towers fell, a good many of our parents worked on Wall Street and knew people in the Towers. One alumnus, Jeffrey Coale, died in the attack. We turned the chapel into a “triage” spiritual and psychological place for students, faculty, and others to come and sit in groups or as individuals to support one another and pray for those who had died. I had all the chaplains present as well as all of our psychologists to be available for the entire community. The saddest moments such as deaths of young alumni and the happiest moments such as graduation itself occurred in that same space.

Buildings have memories of the good and the bad. If walls could talk, what would they say? People didn’t want to leave Christ Chapel on the City Line Avenue campus. If those walls could talk, what would they say? Evidently a lot!

One of the “can do” members of the Board of Trustees who was the largest developer of business and apartment sites on the East Coast, thought the same way I did. That on balance, our history with the township clearly indicated that they would approve very little building on the City Avenue Campus. I will never forget the meeting that I had with this board member who walked out into the chapel which he loved and looked at me and said, “Jim, four huge beams! We can move it!”

Fortunately, it didn’t come to that. We took the central hanging cross, stained -glass windows, kneelers, and other important parts of the chapel to the new campus to take the feel of the old mixed with the new. But I listened to so many stories of what the moments in Christ Chapel meant to so many sometimes through tear filled eyes of others. I felt the same way, but I thought that it was time to risk a move to do something daring and beneficial. 99% of the people transferred to the new campus. Still alumni comment to me that as wonderful as the new chapel and campus are, they still identify their home with Christ Chapel. School buildings provoke powerful memories.

Why is that? Because I believe the walls do talk particularly in a unique way in schools when students are being shaped and transformed in mind, body, and spirit.

President Biden’s comment about razing the elementary school in Uvalde makes perfect sense to me. He spoke at Christ Chapel as well with words that filled our students with insightful wisdom and memories.

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