Bits and Pieces
During my Hyde Park walkabout on Friday, I took a peek inside the newly restored Oriental Institute, one of Chicago’s more obscure, yet finest, museums. I saw that a “donation” was now “suggested.” It used to be free, but for $5 it’s still well worth it—for that price you can see a wealth of treasures from ancient Egypt and the Near East. Still, I decided that if I had to pay, I’d want to spend more than a few minutes there.
I walked across the street to the Chicago Theological Seminary, one of the university’s many gray eminences, and saw a sign that I’d never noticed before: Thorndike Hilton Memorial Chapel. I tried the door, and it opened.
The second edition of the AIA Guide to Chicago has this recommendation about the seminary, nestled in the heart of the University of Chicago campus, 5757 S. University: “Step inside to bask in the cloistered ambience, and visit the Hilton Memorial Chapel, a tiny gem built a few years before the rest of the complex.”
The seminary’s web site has this to say: “Our Thorndike Hilton Chapel is open twenty-four hours a day and available for students seeking a place to lead small gatherings or to spend time in individual prayer and meditation. The cloisters, a long corridor with one wall of glass doors that look out on the stone-terraced garth, is also a favorite place to reflect, especially during the afternoon hours when the hall is flooded with sunlight.”
I’d say that I was intrigued by these descriptions, but I read them just today. I’d been in the seminary before, but only in the basement, home of the Seminary Co-op Bookstore, which a friend introduced me to back in the mid-80s. Down there, passages stocked floor-to-ceiling with books snake off in every direction; a cave for book browsing. Long ago, I bought two of my favorites about Antiquity there: Daily Life in Ancient Rome and The Greeks and the Irrational.
The chapel’s a tiny gem indeed, no bigger than my living room, but a good deal more elegant, with stained glass windows, an altar and other dimly lit details. No one else was there, or in the hallway, or anywhere within sight, so it was all mine for just a few moments. I wandered down the hall, and then to the “cloisters” that the web site mentions, branching off from the hallway at 90 degrees. I’d imagined that cloisters were always open to the outside, but then again this is Chicago, where many days feature weather hostile to quiet reflection. You could see outside, but the doors were shut. Inside, the woods and the cushions on the seats and other details gave the place had a 1920s collegiate feel to it—fitting, since it was built in 1926. Though somewhat sunny, the dark woods absorbed a lot of the light. It was quiet.
Then I began to notice the walls. All along the cloisters were stones and tiles and pieces of other walls cemented into the wall, almost exactly the way items are fixed to the outside of the Tribute Tower.
I made notes, of course. Not a complete list, but a representative one: Plymouth Rock, an Authentic Piece; Scrooby; Bethel; Isle of Shoals; Wyclip Tile, Queens College, Oxford; Wartburg; Great Divide; Austerfield; Solomon’s Quarries; Agora, Corinth; China; Corner Stone, Hebron.
What’s the pattern? Not quite sure. There’s some emphasis on the Pilgrims, with Plymouth Rock and Scrooby and Austerfield, the latter two being Pilgrim hometowns. There were other structures from religious history, such as Wartburg and presumably Solomon’s Quarries, Hebron and Bethel. But “Great Divide” and “China”? Couldn’t that last one be more specific? But the stones were mute on that question. They’re stones, after all.