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A VISIT TO PRINCIPIA…

The term Alma Mater doesn’t usually mean much to me. While my time at DU was certainly a seminal experience for me, I never have felt the sense of “bounteous mother’” which the Latin suggests… but seems now much more descriptive of Stephen’s relationship with Principia College, where he began his education after leaving home & high school.

While he was accepted at Harvard, which would have been his father’s preference, he followed his matriarchal history instead, choosing to attend the same small Christian Science school from which his mother & aunt had graduated. That decision represents a still omnipresent dialog describing his familial core & defining the strongest influences I know in him… his intelligence comes from the very deep matrix of Helen, even as the form of such rock has been hewn by equally useful Ottonian tools.

The campus atop those limestone bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River at Elsah, Illinois, was designed by the eclectic California architect Bernard Maybeck in the 1930’s.

The 60-mile drive north of Saint Louis, into more of that history, has long been anticipated as an essential sharing for us. I’ve heard his stories about this campus from our beginnings & I was pleased when we were able to make this road trip inside our travels last month, which included the American Bell Association’s Convention in the Gateway city.

We’d discussed renting a car for the day, but were delighted when Mohan & Deepa, parents of the bride whose wedding around which we designed our travels to India in 2004… offered to facilitate & share the adventure, driving their car. They were visiting Anjana, Derek, Stephen’s second cousin, & their two-year-old daughter Kavya… now living in Saint Louis & with whom we’d spent several days of family time before the convention began.

I celebrate having kept in rather close contact with Deepa because we share linkage via our blogs. To be able to enjoy more time with these friends was additional bonus since we feel strongly that sense of the joining of tribes into a larger diaspora which that wedding in Bangalore created for us. I could not help reminiscing on the cultural similarities & vast differences between those worlds while being driven by an Indian man competent on US freeways!

Crossing the river over a lovely contemporary bridge into Alton we are aware of the high flood waters which drew closer than usual to the highway built against the bases of limestone bluffs along the Illinois side.

There is a bird or dragon named the Piasa, painted on one of the cliff faces above some caves as we got near. While apparently there were native paintings reported at one time further down river, this is obviously a modern version, more mythical in a European heraldic manner. The historic pictographs probably were related to the Cahokian Mounds culture, which is another excursion we wanted to make while in the area, but is now saved to our list for another time.

The little village of Elsah is a quaint, well cared-for antique. Many homes have been restored, even as some maintain a more weathered visage…

One of the first clues to the architecture we’d come to view was this bench in a walkway built in a style much later than the original Maybeck plan, which intended to mimic the look & feel of an English village using timber & native stone facing on poured concrete structures.

For Stephen this was looking into the past…

The effects are often sweetly arresting… still more campus than village, particularly since the buildings are scattered within a very generous space.

I especially appreciated the detail of sorting roof tiles in a graduated color scheme:



The contrast with later construction is jarring, even as I can see limitations inherent to the original concept… particularly as viewed through the commonality of a mid-twentieth century lens. Deepa is seen here in front of such shift. She posted early-on her own version of our excursion on her own blog here… which begins with her visit to the Bell Convention.

To repair to dorms such as these would indeed offer a fine & useful balance…



I found many details I liked: elaborate beams in the common room of one dormitory, copper downspouts, painted shutters, linen-fold paneling & that constantly unexpected mix of raw concrete with stone & wood… becoming quite “rustic”…

Even the chapel’s traditional look was formed of the ubiquitous poured concrete, as I saw in the ceiling:

Without doubt my favorite building was this small cottage… the architect’s study building, which he called “the mistake house”… where he experimented with the various techniques used to imbue the “English Village” style atop the quite untraditional poured concrete construction.  Stephen has a particular fondness for it as well, explaining he reserved it for a several week retreat space one year. I like this shot of him, which accentuates its miniature scale…

Stephen says there were tiles on both sides of the roof, but I found it interesting to see the underlying form of roof…

Here is Stephen [that is Mohan behind him] in front of his own dorm, so I can easily understand how he wanted to spend such time in the cottage. I love having now a much better appreciation for the setting of his stories from those college years…