The English-Philosophy Building at the University of Iowa is, you will note upon entry, old. It is not old in the way a faraway Romanian village is old (solitary, self-sustaining); nor old in the way the Electoral College is old (baffling, malevolent); least of all in the way Meryl Streep is old (eternal, unfading). The EPB is the old of the ungraceful elderly. It is a building whose children do not call it on its birthday. It watches too much television, and it is haunted by strange pains, no doubt signaling an imminent and overdue death.
Such is its reputation, and not only locally: Last year, a poll — unscientific, mind — conducted by Business Insider deemed the EPB the ugliest building in the state of Iowa, alongside 49 other buildings considered the ugliest in their respective home states. Many of the selections made are odd to me. For instance, I write these lines from the “ugliest” building in Indiana, Notre Dame’s Hesburgh Library, which strikes me as perfectly respectable by any standard, but especially by those of the Rust Belt, littered as it is with the desiccated skeletons of abandoned factories.
Likewise, the EPB is ugly, but not that ugly. Its squat, prison-like façade, commonly (and to my knowledge baselessly) thought to be “riot-proof,” is typical of professional architecture of the late ’60s and ’70s. And there are worse buildings on campus, let alone in the state. Have you not been blinded by the utopian sheen of the Advanced Technology Laboratory just north of the Iowa Memorial Union, in the sun of an afternoon? Have you not trod the halls of Mayflower, or of North, now hidden away from prospective students in the long shadow of Catlett?
The real reason the EPB is so widely loathed is not its middling aesthetics. It’s because every undergraduate, sooner or later, is sent there for a section of rhetoric or for “Interpretation of Literature.” Most students resent being in these required classes, and they come to resent the building by association. For the vast majority of students, their relationship with the EPB ends the moment they hand in their half-baked final paper on Shakespeare or J.M. Coetzee. For these students’ remaining time at Iowa, their memory of the building gradually disappears, evaporating into a vague unpleasantness or a nullity.
But for a chosen few, a predestined freshman elect, the EPB will become home. These few, who possess more big-hearted quixotic idealism than sound financial sense, are novitiates in the life of the mind. Here is the stalwart English major, stooped over and stupefied by the dazzling theatrics of a Bishop, a Faulkner, a Baldwin. There is the philosophy major, staring in immaculate absorption out of that most appropriately existential of objects, the window that never opens. And here, last, the linguist, cloistered away on the fifth floor that most are unaware exists. Bodily he is hunched under the harsh glare of the fluorescents, speckled with the silhouettes of dead insects — yet mentally he summers in the shade of his sentence trees. These people are not phantoms, abstractions. They are quite real to me.
The EPB is where I met my best friend. On the first day of freshman year, in a section of rhetoric, I spotted a young woman who lived on the same floor as me from across a dungeonid basement classroom. She, Chicagoan (and not the suburbs), was suspicious of my precious white-boy precocity, while I, shy and insecure, suppressed my adolescent anxieties for long enough to strike up a conversation. More conversations followed, and as Amanda realized, despite my preppy affectations, that I, too, was unhappy and desperately poor, a friendship for which I will always be grateful was born.
The EPB is where I fell in love. My sophomore and junior years, I helped run a student org called the English Society (still around, and worth checking out!), whose officers met on Tuesday evenings in the third floor hallway, by then empty. Tom, the third floor’s senior janitor and one of the kindest souls I have ever met, would invariably swing by our little circle and offer us whatever sweets he had brought to give away that day, usually something chocolate. But I did not fall in love with Tom, except perhaps platonically. As the meetings ground on and my attention dwindled, I grew to find the handsome “event planning officer” sitting across from me immensely more interesting than the events themselves. And he was a poet! With what fashion sense! As of writing, we’ve been together 19 months, and we will be fleeing the country for England in October.
Though an ocean away, we and the EPB will not be far apart. A concept ubiquitous in Christian theology from Augustine onward is the “church invisible.” On the one hand, there is the church visible, that constellation of concrete phenomena — sacraments, rituals, Bibles, buildings — that collectively form the external Church. Then, however, there is the church invisible: the set of all souls, across all time and space, who are destined for salvation.
So, too, I claim, is there an EPB invisible. Wherever you find a budding novelist straining for the right word; wherever one reads Dostoevsky, to be assured of the holiness of one’s poverty; wherever one frantically refreshes one’s bank account, convinced that Dostoevsky was an idiot; and, sad to say, wherever an adjunct is sucked dry of time and energy by a vampiric university bureaucracy — in all these places and more, there you will find the EPB also.
Whitman wrote, “What is it then between us? What is the count of the scores or hundreds of years between us? […] Distance avails not, and place avails not.” God keep this shitty building that I love, and the curious people in it, in their needful gratuity.
Nicholas Dolan is a recent graduate of the University of Iowa, based in Iowa City and South Bend, Indiana. He is currently an instructor at the Robinson Community Learning Center at the University of Notre Dame. Follow him on Twitter @nickfromiowa. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 268.