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Sunday, January 31, 2010

Memories of the dome gnomes and phrigs

This happened when pranks were done for their diversion and entertainment value.  I was there for this one, as reported on my alma mater's Facebook site.  The subject of the piece is on how the dome at Augustana College's Old Main was turned into a teapot during a night in November 1955.

This collage shows how much paraphenalia and skill was needed by workmen to maintain the dome, the teapot, and the young man who carried out this mission, Road Fryxell, scaling the outside of the building.  The college's account of the phrig is fairly accurate, as it seems to have been researched from the student newspaper.  However, I was there, and remember the details of  how this came about a bit differently.

Old Main sits on a bluff above the street and high above the Mississippi River some blocks to the north.  A long stairway leads up from the street.  It was not exactly a handicapped accessible site.  Well, that's not true.   One young woman who was wheel chair bound was brought by taxi to the foot of the stairs each day for her 8 o'clock class.  Any young men who passed by on their way to class would carry her up the stairs in the wheel chair.   It usually took four of them.  They not only carried her up the outside stairs to the building's entrance, but once inside they carried her to the 2nd or 3rd floor where her class was.  After class, another bunch of young men would carry her down to wherewever she needed to go for her next class.
Understanding how this building was situated and built is necessary to fully appreciate the story I am about to tell. 

It begins with an elaborate phrig, titled Crazy Connie's Used Car Lot.  Crazy Connie was Dr. Conrad Bergendoff, president of Augustana College.  It happened in the early 1950s when there were still World War II veterans going to school on the G.I. Bill.  Many of them brought small cars to campus--VWs, MGs, Austin Healy's,  economical little sports cars. 

One morning when students came to school, they found a group of these little cars parked around the entrance of Old Main and some were inside on the ground floor under the dome with a big sign proclaiming Crazy Connie's Used Car Lot.  The best part of the phrig was leaving people wondering how in the heck those cars got up that long flight of stairs and inside the building.  Well, many of those young men who hauled wheel chairs and other things up those steps when needed got together and carried VWs and MGs up there.  It was a massive undertaking.

The administration was not so concerned about the cars outside the entrance as it was the ones inside.  It was concerned because the building was being breached.  Crazy Connie's used car lot was just one occasion.  The school was proud of a carillon that was installed in the dome.  It's keyboard was on the chapel pipe organ which was on the seecond and third floor of Old Main.   Every Sunday afternoon at about 4 o'clock,  a music professor would give a carillon concert that would echo out over the river valley in lower Rock Island.  One night some enterprising phriggers broke into Old Main,  ascended to the carrillon in the dome,  unhooked one of  the electrical wires to a carillon chime, and replace it with a fog horn, so that every time that note was struck, it sent an oooh-aaaah blast out in the midst of the music.
I understand that the professor threatened to resign if something was not done to prevent such shenanigans with the organ.

The physical plant went to work and found ways to secure the doors and windows to make it near-impossible to break into Old Main and phrig it.  This challenge was answered after a heavy snow fall when
a bunch of people shoveled snow up against the entrance doors making it impossible to gain entrance until it was all shoveled away again.  (Which was done with volunteers, many of whom probably did the original shoveling.)  Classes were canceled that morning.

The challenge to breach Old Main was responsible for Teapot Dome.  Students could no longer find a way to phrig the bulding from the inside, so they devised a way to do it from the outside.  The culprit was Roald Fryxell, son of the geology professor, Fritioff Fryxell, an expert mountain climber who as part of his doctoral dissertation climbed and named the peaks in Grand Teton National Park.  Roald borrowed his dad's mountain climbing gear and went up the sandstone outside of Old Main, as shown in the picture.  The picture shows the technique, but not the actual place he made the ascent that night.  However, the sandstone blocks of Old Main still bear the pinion holes that were made for the ascent.  Once Roald made it to the top of the dome,  the teapot spout and handle had to be hauled up and put in place, which involved feats of engineering and ingenuity. 

(Sadly, Roald whose specialty was paleontology was well on his way to becoming as prominent a geologist as his father when he was killed in an automobile accident.)

Augustana College also claims to be where panty raids orginated.,  They were also devised and carried out by G.I.s who had learned a thing or two about mounting military-like operations.

Nothing encaptures the concept of higher education like scaling the dome of a a towering sandstone building.  People admired the initiative and ingenuity, even if grudgingly.  The closest thing to it of late was the young people from Greenpeace last summer who asended Mount Rushmore and dropped a huge banner over the presidential faces.  Education doesn't get much higher than than. 

1 comment:

Sarah said...

We're so glad that you enjoyed the teapot dome story, and to have an account from an eyewitness! You mention students packing snow against the doors of Old Main; you can read the Observer's account of that event through Augustana's 150th website this week: Look for the "This Week In the Observer" link.

Sarah Horowitz
Augustana College Special Collections

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States