Monday, March 24, 2014


I’m such a hypocrite.  When I went looking for a plain conscientious church congregation to join, I was pleased to find First Unitarian of Portland, OR -- a plain brick wall with the simple name in aluminum letters on it.  Then that turned out to be the back door.  But I’m used to back doors.  

The sanctuary was not objectionable: no stained glass, no images except a stylized tree of life on a tapestry, plain pews (no needlepoint pew cushions like my mother’s church), neutral paint, graceful chandeliers.  Fake candles, though.  A bit of stage convention.

First Unitarian Church of Portland, OR

First Unitarian Church of Portland, OR

This is where my membership was when I aspired to the ministry.  Instead of going to Harvard, which is where my minister Alan G. Deale had gone, or going to Starr-King in Berkeley where the Rev. Deale thought I OUGHT to go in order to loosen up a bit, I chose Meadville/Lombard Theological School, then affiliated with the University of Chicago Divinity School because I was being an intellectual snob.  And also an architectural snob.  I wanted a school that looked like Oxford.

The U of Chicago --The Harper Midway next to the "quads"

A gargoyle, quite civilized

Oddly, the Divinity School was endowed by the same Swift who endowed the School of Speech building where I took my undergrad work at Northwestern.  It was named for his daughter, Annie May Swift.

Annie May Swift Hall

This is the University of Chicago in the foreground, the Chicago loop in the background, Lake Michigan to the  distant right.  The tall building at the near right is Rockefeller Chapel, QUITE grand.

In Rockefeller Chapel, great men came to speak, a new "rose" window was installed during my time there, and Bernard Brown, who was in charge, strove mightily to make it responsive to the people through things like creating a huge mobile of one thousand origami cranes.  I received my MA in Religious Studies here.  My creative writing class attended en masse (there were four of us studying with Richard Stern that quarter).  They rose and cheered.  No one from Meadville/Lombard was present.

The smaller Div School chapel was called Bond Chapel, where regular services brought the school together, sometimes for memorials as the great faculty members passed over to their chosen afterlives.

First Unitarian Church of Chicago was kitty-corner from Meadville.

The nearer end of the Meadville building was entirely devoted to library stacks which were shorter than the windows so that there were more like seven floors than the seeming three.

The two buildings next to the school were also M/L, used for housing.  Mircea Eliade and his wife lived in the one nearest the school and Eliade himself had an office in the top of the school building.

Across the street on the third corner was "Fleck House" where I lived, during the 
first year upstairs in the back and then later upstairs in the front.

I have no photo of the fourth corner which was a huge old brick house that originally was the student dorms (all men in those days) and a big dining room.  When the school was founded, two "genius" ministers were hired, one to run it and one to be brilliant.  They got into a terrible fight, lawsuits ensued, and the building had to be sold to pay for the incident.  It did not augur well, but -- in a way -- portentously, since after that all faculty were so terrified of quarrels that they sank to safe mediocrity.  I didn't know that and didn't care, since I had my eye on the U of Chicago Div. School all along.  I did not think I could be enrolled there directly and I WAS a legitimate candidate for the UU ministry.  But I still feel a bit illicit.  Nevertheless, I earned the full MA in Religious Studies, including the French exam, which is MUCH stiffer than today's M/L curriculum.  They mailed me my M. Div. later.

When I had left Portland for Northwestern in 1961, one high school friend had signed me off, saying we could never be friends again because I would be so changed.  I wasn't changed as much as I was by the decade on the Blackfeet reservation or the years as an animal control officer, and -- in fact -- I wasn't that changed by seminary directly.  But little-by-little the cracks began to appear.  The point of the Div School was to be a successful academic and to live comfortably.  The moral and progressive side of the UU movement began to dwindle.  Pretty soon self-sacrifice and human meaning were lost.  It was all very ladylike, therapeutic and hierarchical.  So I left.

In the years since, the school has become a kind of distance-learning/mail-order sort of place in rented space in a "Loop" skyscraper of glass.  The connection with the U of Chicago Divinity School is gone, on unacknowledged grounds that it was "too hard."  There's no income in it if people fail.

Meadville/Lombard rents space here.

Concurrently, 25 Beacon Street, the UUA headquarters, has been sold.

25 Beacon Street

Now the denomination headquarters are in a redeveloped warehouse district at 24 Farnsworth.  

So many of the ties are broken -- esp. all the sense memories of the buildings and their grounds -- that I feel like a "post-UU."  But the U of Chicago Divinity School has changed very little, esp. at its foundation level, where the coffee shop still hisses fragrantly.  Didn't I SAY I approved of a flat plain brick wall?  

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