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Just a Schoolboy Fantasy
by Matthew Amster-Burton

April 10, 2000

Suzzallo Library

When I dropped out of college in 1995 and belted out a round of "No More Pencils, No More Books", I sang too soon. In January I became a full-time student at the University of Washington.

Even though it's a bureaucratic monstrosity, there's a lot to like about going to UW. There are classes available in every obscure subject you can think of, from Serbo-Croatian to Philosophy of The Matrix (really). But my favorite thing about the U is the campus, which is as close to ideal as any university grounds I've ever seen. There is only one main road through campus, and it is saturated with crosswalks throughout its meandering length. The university's basic architectural scheme is brick, but on any given wall the bricks are purposely varied in color. Buildings range from the ageless and gothic to modernist celebrations of the right angle, and just when you think you have one edifice's style pegged, you notice that it has sprouted an annex that alters the architectural statement like I.M. Pei's pyramid did the Louvre. Of course, there are also the outliers, odd structures that refuse to fit the scheme: Denny Hall's French chateau style and the 1960s concrete dreck of Sieg Hall (a name that surely brings a tear to the eye of campus white supremacists). These just make the campus more charming overall.

Unfortunately, interiors at the U are rarely given the attention paid to the design of exteriors. Back when I was working on South Campus, I watched over two years the construction of a new science and engineering building near Drumheller Fountain. Despite the usual overruns and delays, the building ended up like every other on campus: individual in character, true to the campus design fabric, and with tasteful nods to old and new. So when some friends of mine with similarly geeky inclinations visited from out of town, I took them to check out the new CS/EE building. We expected walls of blinking lights, laser-armed alarm systems, jumpsuited students sporting wearable PCs. There was nothing inside! The walls were bare white. The place echoed. The only sound was the buzz of the fluorescent lights. (The future is now, man! If you can't afford lasers, can't we at least get some halogen?) We didn't see a single cyborg. It was like walking into Le Cirque and being served an empty plate.

Nevertheless, my single favorite place on campus is indoors. It is Suzzallo 301: the Reading Room. Suzzallo is the main library whose imposing facade crouches on the east end of Red Square, and Suzzallo 301 directly behind that facade on the third floor.

Forget your old study hall. This one is to ordinary study rooms what foie gras is to KFC. It is half a football field in length, dimly lit, with stained glass windows on both the long walls. There are lighted desks for studying, comfy chairs for sleeping, and carrels for coupling (okay, I can't confirm that this occurs, but it should). I'm wary about books-as-decor, but I'd throw a fit if the volumes lining 301's walls were anything but crusty and unread. When it opened in 1926, an architectural trade magazine called the Reading Room "the most beautiful on the continent and...among the most beautiful in the world." And photographer Stewart Hopkins describes it as "where God stays when he comes to Seattle." There are some photos on the UW web site, but none of them does the place justice. The best photo of the place, taken by Hopkins, can be seen on page 94 of The Fountain and the Mountain, a coffee table book about the UW campus that is apparently out of print but still readily available at the University Bookstore. (I am unable to reproduce the photo here, but by all means go find a copy of the book--it's a peach.)

The only problem with Suzzallo 301 is that it never should have been a reading room at all. It should have been the kind of dining hall that any self-respecting English boarding school would have. My former college, Pomona, had one, Frary Hall. The food wasn't as good as at other, closer dining halls, but I often trudged up there anyway to eat my inedibles under the gaze of Prometheus, as painted on the wall by Spanish muralist Jose Clemente Orozco. (The depiction of Prometheus had a notable lack: his penis. Predictably, rumor had it that Orozco's original portrayal was well-endowed but the artist was forced by prudish college administrators to steal Prometheus's fire, as it were.)

One day I popped into 301 between classes, sank into one of the chairs, and began to dream. Servants in white jackets, teetering under platters of appetizers, began to clatter in from an unseen door at the north end of the room. They offered me sautéed broccoli rabe; bruschetta al pomodoro; delicate potstickers overstuffed with pork and bok choy. These are whisked just as quickly away and replaced with coq au vin, bucatini all'amatriciana, and, finally, a roast suckling pig, apple and all. For dessert, a trip to the frozen yogurt machine. It is a dining hall, after all.

A similar fantasy meal opens the school year at Hogwarts, Harry Potter's alma mater:

"Harry's mouth fell open. The dishes in front of him were now piled with food. He had never seen so many things he liked to eat on one table: roast beef, roast chicken, pork chops and lamb chops, sausages, bacon and steak, boiled potatoes, roast potatoes, chips, Yorkshire pudding, peas, carrots, gravy, ketchup, and, for some strange reason, peppermint humbugs."

Harry, I daresay, would not bat an eye if this banquet were relocated from the Hogwarts Great Hall to Suzzallo 301.

I would invite you all to meet me in Suzzallo for a surreptitious nibble, but, alas, the Reading Room was boarded up today and will remain closed for the next 20 months. They say the library is undergoing a much-needed seismic and fire code retrofit, but you and I know the truth: in the dark of night, trucks will unload Viking ranges, miles of table linen, and sterling flatware, all destined for the Suzzallo Dining Hall, opening 2001. [HOME]

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