Campus Architecture and the Commemoration to Enslaved Peoples of Southern Maryland

We experience the architecture of our campus every day, but we rarely consciously evaluate its cultural and historical connotations, and, ultimately, its impact on us as students, faculty, staff and community members. 

Professor of Art History Joe Lucchesi complicates students’ understanding of the spaces around them in his Intro to Art History courses, and now in an interview with The Point News, turning the academic eye of critical analysis and historical contextualization not only to buildings we might see in textbooks and tourist photos but also to the buildings we inhabit and look at every day. Lucchesi and others also elaborated on the implications of St. Mary’s architecture for the Commemorative to Enslaved Peoples of Southern Maryland who once lived in the territory that the College and Historic St. Mary’s now occupy. 

According to Lucchesi, the architecture on the College’s campus has three distinct phases. The first phase is represented in some of the oldest buildings on campus, Calvert Hall, Kent Hall and St. Mary’s Hall. These buildings were built in a neoclassical style, which Professor Lucchesi describes as “making it look like Greek and Roman temples.” This style of architecture was particularly common in the late 18th century when Thomas Jefferson proposed University of Virginia as an institute for public education.

The idea behind this neoclassical architecture at the time was that an educational institution should reflect the intellectual heart of Western culture– namely, ancient Greece and Rome. Professor Lucchesi said neoclassicism “used that intellectual symbolism of classical temples … and turned it into educational architecture.” This type of architecture conveys an impression of educational prestige.

The second phase of campus architecture emerged in the mid 20th century as a shift to modern architecture. Instead of focusing on historical references of architecture, this phase focused on “modern education that was supposed to be about creating modern people,” explained Professor Lucchesi. The ideas at the time were about “looking towards the future and building the next future generation of leaders and thinkers.”

The buildings built at this time had a modern aesthetic with geometric spaces. At this time Montgomery Hall (popularly known as Monty), Somerset Hall (now the renovated Michael P. O’Brien Athletics and Recreation Center), the old library and the old Campus Center where all built. Somerset Hall has since been renovated and the old library and old Campus Center buildings have both been redone in a different style, so Monty is the only truly modern building from this phase that remains on campus. 

Professor Lucchesi said that Monty is “the shining example” of this modern, progressive style because it is the building for the arts. He states that Monty “was deliberately made to stand out from the visual look of all the other buildings on campus as a signal that what it housed inside of it was all the creative people,” although he adds that he doesn’t “think it aged very well but [he] understands the intention of it.”

The 1990s marked the beginning of the third phase of campus architecture, with the construction of Schaefer Hall. This style is marked by “design elements that reference local tidewater architecture” explained Professor Lucchesi. It is based on colonial architecture from St. Mary’s City and the general region SMCM occupies. The effect of this architectural style is to make the College “seem like it’s been grounded in this place.” This style is more of a historical reference as with the neoclassical style of the earlier buildings, but this time the historical reference was focused on the local area.

As Professor Lucchesi explained, “you’re [St. Mary’s is] kind of an old institution now so you want to establish your lineage and longevity in the area.” In order to do this, the architecture is made to look like it has always been there and fits in with its location. In more recent years, Professor Lucchesi pointed out that the idea of emulating local architecture “might be more complicated than we think” as it evokes the colonial history of the area.

Assistant Professor of Art History, Emily Casey, taught a course last semester titled “Race and Culture in the American Museum,” which was part of a pilot of the new LEAD (Learning Through Experiential and Applied Discovery) curriculum. Professor Casey explained that the course “looked at American museums as institutions of culture” because “they tell us what history we’re supposed to know and remember, but that can often be really biased based on who runs the museum.”

Zinna Moore, ‘21, took Professor Casey’s course, Race and Culture in the American Museum, which she says focused on “studying the power dynamics that are in place in museums as institutions.” Moore added that the tagline of the course was “museums are not neutral institutions” as they discussed how “a lot of the paintings and sculptures that were considered fine art were by European and American artists.” This “left little room for a lot of oppressed and marginalized groups like people of color and women and LGBTQ people.”

In February, three artists were hosted by SMCM to share their proposals for the Commemorative to Enslaved Peoples of Southern Maryland to be built near the Jamie L. Roberts Stadium. These presentations were open to the public and community members were encouraged to give feedback on the designs. 

The selected design is from the design firm RE:site, founded by Shane Allbritton and Norman Lee. Their commemorative design was titled “From Absence to Presence, Commemorating Contributions of Enslaved People.” The commemorative will feature blackout poetry from poet Quenton Baker. Blackout poetry involves looking at bodies of texts and creating poems from words within the text, while blacking out all other words. 

The commemorative itself is a building meant to represent slave quarters with walls covered in the blackout poetry by Baker. Casey explained Baker’s work by saying Baker “often takes texts that are related to slavery, like the writings of white slave owners and then uses this blackout poetry to make a text that is about black experience and black identity.” Baker will be using texts that are part of historical documents from the country to create the poetry displayed on the memorial. Casey describes this as “taking the language of white oppression and turning it into a form of black liberation,” by focusing on texts specifically from this area. 

The commemorative is mirrored, which “creates this visual of darkness with the words being revealed or illuminated,” said Casey. At night, the commemorative will be illuminated from the inside, projecting the poetry onto the land surrounding the memorial.

Another aspect of Casey’s “American Museum” course focused on what the commemorative will be to the campus community. “How are we going to make this place for us as a community in keeping a conversation alive about the legacies of slavery here? And what is it going to be like having this sports stadium which is a place of celebration and competition and fun alongside something that is a sober, reflective memorial to a very painful and violent part of our past?” are among the questions Casey posed about the future of the commemorative as a place where the campus visits. Casey also adds that she doesn’t “think those are answered questions, we’re going to have to live with it to find out.”

In the future, Moore says “the College has to do a good job of making it a statement on our campus” because if people don’t already know about the commemorative, “they aren’t going to pay attention.” 

Casey implores people to think about the architecture on campus and recognize it is “commemorating a certain history, it’s commemorating a colonial history of white settlers,” when considering the colonial styles from the neoclassical buildings and local colonial buildings. “What kind of history are we already commemorating, where we think we are or not on this campus?” 

Kent Randell serves as the College Archivist of Information Science at SMCM and served on the first committee for the commemorative. Randell says the process of planning and building the commemorative showed “the importance of being thoughtful and deliberate in talking with students, faculty and the community,” and Randell credits this effort to President Tuajuanda Jordan, Ph.D. 

Casey says she plans on taking her students there when the commemorative is built and also continuing to teach about the commemorative and what it represents. Randell says that all the effort that went into creating this commemorative “makes you feel proud to work at a place that takes this seriously.”

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