Scene on Campus

Not a cathedral. We swear.

But details like this ceiling in Sterling Memorial Library might make you wonder.

Bob Handelman

Bob Handelman

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Ninety years since it opened and seven years since it was renovated, the spectacular barrel-vaulted ceiling of Sterling Memorial Library’s Starr Reference Room still stuns. Part of the original design by James Gamble Rogers, Class of 1889, it was intended to “look very Gothic, very fifteenth-century Gothic,” says David Riccio, an expert in the restoration of historic decoration. He led the effort to restore the woodwork on the ceiling to its original “distressed” state, carefully ensuring that the old woodwork continued to look old in just the right way. Contrary to student lore and generations of campus tour guides, Rogers’s original design was for a massive library, not a Gothic cathedral. But he put references to cathedrals everywhere in Sterling, including the tracery of this ceiling. Riccio says that the trefoils and quatrefoils in the tracery—motifs typically found in churches and castles—were often used to represent the Trinity and the cross, respectively.  

As far as we know, there is no discernible pattern of repetition in the tracery. But no doubt many a distracted student has spent long hours trying to find one.

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