Memories on Fire

La Roche College is a tiny liberal arts school in the northern suburbs of Pittsburgh.  It was founded in the early 1960s as a Catholic school for girls, has a monastery on-campus, and has classes taught by nuns.  The student body is generally around 2,000, three-fourths of which are commuters.  There are no ivy league professors, no multi-million dollar science or technology labs, no national championship sports teams.  There are no sororities or fraternities, and it’s a dry campus.  It’s not very hard to drive five miles from the school and find people who have never heard of it.  Simply put, it’s not a real big deal.

But it’s where I spent four of the most exciting years of my life, met my current wife, and changed as a person.

La Roche doesn’t have any money.  They never have.  When I was a student, my professor and I founded the web radio station (The Electric Bean).  We couldn’t get any funding for it despite our pleas and proposals, and despite the fact the college had absolutely no hands-on offerings for students of the Communication, Media & Technology department, like myself.  We started the station with one computer, a six-track audio board, a microphone, a Shoutcast stream and a flimsy T3 connection in the basement of an almost-abandoned building called the Design Center, which by 2004 was little more than a terribly scary photo lab and dark room nobody used, some storage closets and a couple professors’ offices.

The Design Center

The building sat on La Roche’s “West Campus,” which was comprised of it, an old barn, and Providence Hall, an old school that was home to the college’s administrative offices, and performing arts and graphic design students.  The two buildings were across the street from all the other buildings of the campus – all the regular academics, cafeteria, dorms, gym, library, chapel, bookstore, etc.  Some students went their entire college careers without ever going to West Campus, because there really wasn’t any reason to do so.  For me, it was an every day thing.

Providence Hall

Though we eventually moved The Electric Bean to the East campus with everything else, built a nicer studio (still with about a $150 budget) and got a rip-roaring, high-tech cable modem from which to broadcast, I still spent plenty of time on West Campus.  While I needed to be in Providence Hall on occasion to meet with administrative people because I was a fancy, busy do-everything sort of student, I was there more for personal reasons than anything.

And I don’t just mean when I would sneak over there at night to print out DVD covers for my pirated movie collection with the awesome laser printer and use up all the toner when the graphic design people were gone.  Though that did happen… until my DVD collection took up several walls worth of space and we got rid of it so our apartment wouldn’t look like Blockbuster.

No, I spent my time in Providence Hall because of theater, and because of Laura, my now wife.  You know – the girl I’m nerding.

The only “performing arts center” La Roche could afford to have on campus was in the basement of Providence Hall, a completely wheelchair-inaccessible room with a 40-foot ceiling, no heat, and a crooked stage that was painted black with paint not intended for stages which chipped and scratched every time you moved a prop across the floor.  This was the room where the dance department did all of their lessons and rehearsals, and the room the theater department used for their one annual low-budget rendition of Jerry’s Girls or Gypsy or Jesus Christ Superstar.  The dancers didn’t even use it to perform because of how awful it was – they would build a portable stage in the cafeteria area and put out folding chairs, because that’s the best the school could do.  I never had a big part in the school musicals due to having no public singing confidence, but served as the PR rep on theater board and participated in limited capacities.  But that was only once a year.  The dancers were there all the time.

Six days a week in Providence Hall, morning til night, separated across the street and hidden from the rest of the “regular” students, the dancers would be in that huge, cold basement, standing on their toes, arching their feet, catching their breath on the disgusting broken couch that looked like it was pulled out of a crack den in The Salton Sea, perfecting their arabesques and fouettes and pas de bourrees until exhausted.

And I had a car.

My wife was notoriously slow when it came to packing up her junk and getting out of there at the end of the day.  It wasn’t uncommon for me to spend 30 minutes waiting for her to exit the building after class, even when I showed up late.  Sometimes I would sit in my dark green 1998 Pontiac Grand Prix and idle in the parking lot.  But most of the time I waited inside, and Providence Hall and I got pretty close.  I found the secret mini bathroom under the secluded staircase that was full of paint cans and smelled like burned hair.  I got snacks and bacterial stomach infections from the food vending machine that had terrible who-knows-when-they-were-put-in-there sandwiches, hard boiled eggs and salads.  I accidentally broke a stack of dinner plates that was waiting outside the Board of Trustees conference room.   But most importantly, despite its disgusting oldness, filthiness and emptiness, despite all the silly memories, the building felt safe.  It felt comfortable.  Being in there was secure, like being at home.  The creaks of the pipes and the inexplicable sounds late at night, long after administration had gone home and nobody else was in the structure’s five stories – they were just part of the building.

We spent most of our time there.

I took dance classes when the department didn’t have enough men enrolled for partnering class.  This was almost always the case, and was always always hilarious.

I became a Jewish bagel salesman and wore the only beard my face has ever seen in Fiddler on the Roof.

I learned I cannot take aspirin or I throw it up on the rug.

Even though a lot of the memories from Providence Hall were mixed, uncomfortable or unpleasant, they were a big part of our overall experience.  They are important.  They were with my wife, and we have them together.

I believe it was right around the time my wife and I finished up at La Roche that the school sold West Campus and its buildings.  They were out of money as usual, and the best solution was to abandon that land.  The administrative offices were moved across the street, the graphic designers and dancers were relocated, and the professors who had offices in the Design Center were given temporary trailers.  The road was fenced off and that was that.  We were never sure who bought it or what they intended to do with it.  There were rumors a church was moving in.  There were rumors it was going to be made into a strip mall.  But nothing happened.  It just sat there.  It’s still just sitting there.  Empty and alone.

One morning a few weeks ago, I drove by La Roche to pick my wife up from work.  We were about to head to our good friends’ wedding.  It was conducted by La Roche’s resident priest, the same man who married Laura and I.  I looked up at Providence Hall, now secluded for several years, and noticed there was no glass in the windows.  There was dirt and filth all over the old yellowish brick.  The road looked crumbly and the place didn’t look too different from a hilltop insane asylum or haunted mansion in some crappy late-night Netflix horror movie.  We asked the priest about it at the wedding, wondering why it was in such a state.  What he told us was hilarious and heartbreaking at the same time, and I’m still not quite sure how I feel about it.

The fire department recently used Providence Hall as a burn building for extinguisher training.  They light it up and use it as a tool to teach new firemen how to put out fires.

On one hand, it’s somewhat fitting that Providence is still being used for educational purposes.  It’s like the building was born and died for one sole reason – providing people knowledge and experience.  But at the same time I can’t help but think about all the memories built in its walls, both individually for myself, my wife, and the ones we shared together.  It was where our relationship started.  Now it’s a 19,000 sq. ft. concrete fire pit.

The building was in bad shape.  We always expected it would be demolished after it was sold, as renovating and restoring it would have likely cost as much as starting over.  But there’s a difference between demolishing and setting ablaze.  There’s a difference between never seeing something again because it vanished, and looking at something that has been destroyed but still exists.

But that’s the way it goes.  By definition, providence is the act of being provident, or making provision for the future.  Whether standing in tact or engulfed in flames, it’s living up to its name.  And I guess that’s good enough.

Thanks for the memories.


One thought on “Memories on Fire”

  1. Ah. Providence Hall. That place holds so many memories for so many of us…it’s almost a shame that incoming students will never know of its rickety ways. But you’re right, it’s fitting that it’s still being used for education though…

    bagels, fresh bagels.

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