When I was six, my father was offered a professorship at the University of Florida, and we moved from Storrs, Connecticut, to balmy and laconic Gainesville, Florida.  While north Florida lacked the intense educational focus of New England — where the plethora of historic Ivy League universities surrounding gave the entire region an intellectual quality unlike anywhere else in the nation, any university town provides countless offerings that can help parents in providing cultural experiences to children. For me, the first glimpse I had of what would eventually become a fixed mental ideal took place when I was seven.

My parents, always trying to bring culture into my brother’s and my young lives, brought us to UF’s University Auditorium for a performance. This was the first visit of many for me to that old-world-looking edifice.  The performance we went to see might have been The Messiah, or a visiting operatic production, or the annual reading of Dickens’ Christmas Carol by Dean Lester Hale – for these and many other performances were things we regularly saw at University Auditorium.  But it was less the production, and more the gothic arches of that towering space, the worn red velvet cushions on the seats, the scuffed and dinged mahogany newels and pilasters, that filled me with wonder.  I felt like I had come home to something that I hadn’t known existed before – but something that was created for me – or I for it.  What was it?  It was the echo of history, and the grandeur of the immense height and cavernous space, the ghosts of past lives represented by every trailing velvet thread and center-worn step, the dim light and the vast stage – everything about that historic building spoke to me, as if to say, “Here is inspiration. Here is something that worth living for.”  

Of course, when you’re seven the elevations of early 1900s faux-gothicism seem magnificent, indeed – and I still pause and smile when I see University Auditorium on the University of Florida campus.  No one could have told me at that time that far grander gothic cathedrals from the first iteration of that architectural style were an ocean away, and that this neo-rendition of something done more authentically centuries before might be a bit contrived. In all honesty, that didn’t matter. What mattered in terms of making an impression on my young spirit was that University Auditorium was older and more magical than any other buildings I had been in, and I loved it.   It had withstood something – a lot of things – and for that reason it was a very reassuring presence in a town of 1960s cinder-block ranch homes.  (In fact, Memorial Auditorium, as it was called at that time, had been sensitively designed in the early 1920s by William Augustus Edwards, who clearly was evoking Westminster Hall and the Central Lobby of London’s Houses of Parliament, as well as Princeton’s Proctor Hall, designed in 1913 by Ralph Adams Cram. The interior includes feature an important 14th-century-style hammerbeam ceiling — a unique application in a cruciform structure. Each hammerbeam culminates with one of the four land-grant quadriviums: the Scholar, the Musician, the Engineer, and the Athlete. Above the east and west balconies, two large windows showcase six more scholars, these presented in early 20th-century Art Deco style, who have gazed with sanguine detachment on the many performances and events held there through the decades.)

So when my children came along, I wanted them to know the exhilaration and wonder of being confronted with the towering grandeur that some buildings lend. As a result, we have a lot of great stories about how that worked out that I’ll share in a subsequent post. My love for historic architecture began with that first trip to University Auditorium in 1962. It continued with an assortment of serendipitous moments: a visit to the National Cathedral in Washington D.C. while on a sixth-grade school trip; a horseback ride through the Garden of the Gods in Colorado at the age of 13; a lucky assignment to live in a 1939 dormitory my first year of college rather than in a  soulless, concrete, steel and glass highrise.  From all these snapshots indelibly engraved on my mind, I learned about the deepening impact that our structural environment can have on us, and I found myself gravitating toward structures – manmade or natural – that seemed to have stories embedded in their substance.

In the meantime, what are the buildings in your child’s life — or in your life — that have contributed to a sense of awe, of wonder, of romance?