A Guide For a Walk Through the Library: Mythological Meaning and Ancient Architecture in Rush Rhees Library




a guide for a walk through the library


Rebecca Resinski

Department of Religion and Classics




When I, a classicist by training, first visited the River Campus, I was immediately struck by the number of classical echoes reverberating in the library building.  My aim here is to share with you how aspects of the library resonate for me; my hope is that this will make the library a more meaningful place for you to visit.


Before we look at the library in particular, some background on the campus in general might be helpful.  The River Campus was dedicated in October, 1930.  Before this, the university was located near downtown Rochester, where the Memorial Art Gallery still is.  The women's college stayed at that location, and the River Campus was originally an all-male campus.


The library and other buildings on the quadrangle were designed and built as a piece, with the library as the capstone of the design--and with the library tower as the crowning touch.  Almost fifty plans for the campus were considered, with different layouts and architectural styles.  A unified set-up (with a coherent quad) prevailed, as did a Greek Revival architectural style with red brick walls and classically inspired elements.  Because Greek Revival buildings adapt both Greek and Roman architecture, the style is also known as Free Classical.  Consider that we could have had Gothic buildings with arches and spired towers recalling European cathedrals, like Princeton's Rockefeller College, the University of Chicago, and (closer to home) the Colgate-Rochester Divinity School have.  The choice for Greek Revival architecture instead is significant.  Since the Greek Revival style flourished in a distinctive way in the United States, the architecture of the quad identifies the University of Rochester as an American university.  Even more specifically, Greek Revival architecture situates the university in upstate New York, because this style was especially prevalent in the region in the 1800s.  The popularity of Greek Revival buildings provides an architectural parallel for the popularity of classical names for towns--such as Ovid, Syracuse, Ithaca, and Romulus--in the upstate area.


The designers of the library belonged to the local firm of Gordon and Kaelber; the consulting architect was Charles Adam Platt.  The University Librarian Donald Gilchrist was also instrumental in developing the internal design and decoration of the library, with the help of Princeton's James Gerould.


The Facade of Rush Rhees Library


When we see the library across the quad, we are struck by the tower, which both is and isn't a classical architectural feature.  Temples such as the Athenian Parthenon--which provided the original inspiration for the Greek Revival style--did not have towers.  However, there were relatively small, free-standing tower monuments in antiquity, and Greek Revival architects imaginatively "lifted" such monuments and placed them atop the temple-like buildings they designed.


Although the library tower acts as a landmark for the River Campus viewed from a distance, when we stand in front of the library and look up, just before mounting the steps, the tower disappears.  What we see at this point looks very much like a Greco-Roman temple, with a triangular pediment supported by columns.


The sculptural figures on top of the pediment--griffins (winged lions), owls, and a group of stylized leaf forms--are known as akroteria, a Greek word literally meaning "things high up" or "things jutting out."  Although akroteria would have decorated ancient temples, we don't often find them on temples in Greece or Italy today because they have fallen off and are now housed in museums.  In antiquity, they would have been put on temples for apotropaic purposes--that is, in order to turn malevolent spirits away from the sacred site.


The owls in particular have further significance.  These birds' ability to see in the dark was metaphorically extended in antiquity, so they came to represent wisdom, the ability to see difficult or obscure things.  Owls are associated with Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom, and Athens, the city that claimed Athena as a patron goddess, had owls on its coinage.  Owl sculptures can be found throughout the library, and there are owls, too, over the entrance to Morey Hall (directly to the left as you face the library).


The pediment is the triangular segment of the library facade, and in antiquity it often would have been decorated with sculptures of gods and goddesses.  Our pediment contains the seal of the university with our Latin motto, meliora, "better things."  The seal is also inscribed with art, science, music, and medicine, the disciplines of the university.  Personifications of these disciplines surround the seal.  Music is the male figure in the right-hand corner of the pediment:  he is made to look like Apollo, the Greek god of music, and he is holding a lyre.  The other figures are female and very generic, but Art is probably on the left-hand side, holding the garland, and Science and Medicine stand more austerely behind with torches, symbols of light-shedding knowledge.  Finally, notice the lions in the corners of the pediment:  they are tame.  Antiquity gives us the myth of Orpheus, a masterful musician who tamed lions and other wild beasts with his music.  The lions here, I think, echo this story, but in this context the lions are tamed not solely by music, but by human knowledge collectively speaking, as represented by the university's disciplines.


Directly below the pediment, we find a row of alternating triglyphs and metopes.  The triglyphs are the vertically ridged sections; the metopes are the blank sections.  They commonly decorated all sides of a Greek temple, and the metopes would have had pictures on them.  One of our most famous collections of metopes is the set belonging to the temple of Zeus, king of the gods, at Olympia.  They depict the labors of Heracles (we, like the Romans, call him Hercules), a culture hero who brought order to the Greek cosmos by destroying monsters and dispelling chaos.  Our metopes on the sides of the library have names of great thinkers--not physical culture heroes like Heracles, but the culture heroes of intellectual life as identified in the 1920s.

Above and below the course of triglyphs and metopes you can see rows of little cylinders (called guttae) hanging down from rectangular bases (called regulae).  Guttae is a Latin word meaning "drops"--as if these features on ancient temples represent, in a highly regularized way, suspended drops of dew or rain.  Some archaeologists suggest that guttae and regulae are remnants of an earlier time, when temples were built of wood, and pegs and boards were used to fasten parts together; then, when temples came to be built of stone, these structural elements were transformed into ornaments.


Before turning our attention indoors, I'd like to focus on the library's columns.  They are Doric columns, the simplest ancient column style.  Notice that they are not simply straight:  rather, they narrow at the top and bulge at the bottom.  In some ancient temples, the bulge is especially pronounced.  Here it is very subtle, but it is a good effect.  It is thought that the ancients made their columns narrow and bulge so that they looked organic, as if they were responding naturally to the weight of the load they were holding up.  This adds dynamism to the building facade, and I think it is worth keeping this idea of an organic, responsive building in mind--because a library should be a lively and dynamic place.


The Friedlander Lobby


Looking to the right as we come into the lobby, we find eight reliefs showing the technologies historically used for recording and transmitting words. 


The door on the right-hand side of the lobby used to lead into the Required Reading Room.  Over the door is the head of Athena, Greek goddess of wisdom.  She is also a warrior goddess, hence the helmet.  Notice that her helmet is crowned with owls and an eagle, the bird of victory (which is also the bird of her father, Zeus).


On the left-hand side of the lobby, there are another eight medallions; these give us the Muses, the divine patrons of the arts (and also daughters of Zeus).  The placement of the Muses at the front of the library is wonderful:  poets in antiquity would invoke the Muses at the beginnings of their poems for inspiration, and here we get their inspiration as we pass through the entrance, the "beginning" as it were, of the library.


From left to right, the Muses are:

• Polyhymnia, Muse of sacred song:  notice that one hand points to the heavens, while the other points to her mouth.

• Thalia, Muse of comedy:  she is holding two comic masks, worn by actors in antiquity.

• Melpomene, Muse of tragedy:  she holds a tragic mask.

• Erato, Muse of erotic poetry:  she plays a lyre, which often accompanied poetic performances in antiquity.

• Terpsichore, Muse of dancing:  she has cymbals and a scarf, accessories for her dance.

• Euterpe, Muse of lyric poetry:  she plays a kind of double flute, another musical accompaniment for poetry.

• Clio, Muse of history:  she holds a scroll, and behind her foot rests a scrollbox.

• Urania, Muse of astronomy:  notice that a globe is placed beside her and that, like Polyhymnia, she points to the heavens.


But there were nine Muses in antiquity!  Who's been left out?  Calliope, the Muse of epic poetry.  From an ancient perspective, this is an unfortunate omission:  epic poetry, like that composed by Homer, is the first genre of poetry that we have, and it was considered in antiquity to be the fountainhead of everything else.  From an early twentieth century perspective, however, epic poetry didn't seem to be as vital as the other Muses' arts, and so perhaps it was considered more "disposable" when eight spaces rather than nine needed to be filled.


Mnemosyne, Memory, the mother of the Muses presides over the door to the Welles-Brown Room on the left-hand side of the lobby.


The Welles-Brown Room


The Welles-Brown Room is decorated with Ionic columns, considered the "feminine" columns of antiquity.  Ionic columns were often used in conjunction with Doric columns to balance out their "masculine" heaviness.  Here the Ionic columns definitely produce a lighter effect than Doric ones would have.  Above the columns and running around the entire ceiling are dentils, a decorative element in ancient buildings and especially common with Ionic columns.


Over the fireplace, there is a Latin phrase:  in secundis voluptas, in adversis perfugium,  "in favorable times a pleasure, in adverse times a refuge."  This is an adaptation of Cicero's praise of literature.  Cicero was a Roman orator, philosopher, and politician who lived in the last century BCE; he voiced his admiration for literature in a courtroom speech defending the poet Archias in 62 BCE.  Almost twenty years later, Cicero became caught up in the power struggle sparked by the assassination of Julius Caesar.  Cicero was too influential a man to be allowed to live, and as part of a political deal between Octavian (soon to be the emperor Augustus) and his rival, Marc Antony, Cicero was killed.  During the last years of his life, when Cicero knew that he was in danger, he urgently devoted himself to reading and writing:  he knew how much literature could be both an enjoyment and a much needed escape!


On the staircase to the second floor


The stairways are adorned with printers' seals chosen by Gilchrist and dating from the early days of printing, when each publishing house had its own distinctive emblem.  I am particularly interested in the seal belonging to the family of Aldus Manutius.  It features an anchor and a dolphin, and you can find it midway up the second flight of stairs.  Aldus and his family were active in Venice throughout the 1500s, and their Aldine press is important for printing a considerable number of classical texts.  Not only did the press print Greek and Roman works, but it also printed them in some affordable editions, which allowed even middle-class households to own a classical library.  We are not sure of the meaning of the Aldine seal, but it has been suggested that it is a visual depiction of a favorite saying of the emperor Augustus, festina lente, "make haste slowly."  The dolphin is haste, the anchor is slowness--all things should be done with a kind of patient urgency.


On the landing


Two statues face each other at the top of the stairs.  Let us first consider the statue of Industry, flanked by a wheel, gears, and tools.  Industry is not a classical goddess per se, but an abstraction here presented in ancient style. There is a story that Industry was originally designed to hold a camera in her hand, in honor of George Eastman.  Supposedly, Eastman himself did not support that idea, so Industry instead holds a simple lamp of the kind a scholar would use to study at night.  It is a nice touch to have Industry in this library, because the old university library also had a statue of Industry.  Today, that older statue is located outside, between Rush Rhees Library and Meliora Hall.


Standing opposite to Industry is a statue of Athena based on a very particular ancient prototype:  the statue of Athena housed in the Parthenon on the Athenian acropolis during the fifth century BCE.  The original, designed by Phidias, was chryselephantine--that is, made of gold and ivory--and stood 38 feet high.  Although the statue did not survive beyond antiquity, we have descriptions of it, as well as smaller statue copies.  It was built at the height of Athenian political and cultural preeminence, during the age of the Athenian empire, Greek drama, and Socratic philosophy.  With the Parthenon statue the Athenians were presenting their patron goddess not only to themselves but also to their neighbors and rivals--hence it's not surprising that the powerful Athenians chose to show Athena as a warrior in full regalia.


Look first at her helmet:  it has akroteria of its own (winged horses and a sphinx), to ward opponents away.  Around Athena's shoulders is a kind of cape, called the aegis, and in the center of it there is a Gorgon head.  The Gorgon head was said to turn people into stone, and it is commonly integrated into Athena's war apparel to frighten enemies.  Athena's shield displays another Gorgon head, and peeking over the shield is a snake.  Notice that the snake is being sheltered and protected by Athena.  This snake (which would not have had negative connotations for the ancients) represents the Athenian people themselves.  Myths portray the Athenians as autochthonous, having sprung up from the ground, and this was a source of Athenian pride:  they were proud that they weren't immigrants, that they were part of the land on which they lived.  Early kings of Athens were often depicted in art as half-human, half-snake--and the snake remained one way that the Athenians symbolized their closeness to the land.  Athena holds in her hand Nike, or Victory.  From the side, you can clearly see that Victory is winged, so that she can fly to whichever side of a conflict she chooses to favor.  Athena now has her in hand, claiming Victory for the Athenians.  There are two smaller statues of Athena poised above the main entrance to Lattimore Hall from the quad.  They, too, are modelled on the Parthenon Athena, but instead of holding Victory they hold orbs alone, symbolizing the world.


Before we leave our statue of Athena behind, it is worth mentioning one respect in which it does not follow its ancient model.  Although our Athena's shield displays a Gorgon head, the shield of the Parthenon Athena showed Greek men battling Amazons, formidable female opponents often referred to in ancient mythological sources.  Because the Amazons assumed roles traditionally accorded to men, and because they were able to live apart from men, these female warriors symbolized for the Greeks the danger of disorder in human life.  The decoration of Athena's shield thus relied on ancient ideas about proper gender roles in order to show the Greeks fighting the threat of social chaos.  (I think we can be relieved that our Athena departs from the original in this regard.)


The Great Hall


I love the Great Hall because walking into it feels like walking into a Greek vase painting.  Vases in antiquity were made of red-orange clay and decorated with black paint, and here the black designs on wood have a very similar effect.  The painted vines around the doorway mimic Greek designs, and the clock repeats the same vine motif around its face.


In this room we also find two rondels with illustrations modelled on Greek vase paintings.  The one closest to the doorway leading to the Administration hallway shows Apollo (Greek god of music, light, medicine, and poetry) with his tortoise-shell lyre, a youth with flutes, and a dignified woman playing the harp.  On the other side of the room, we have a similar scene:  a presiding divinity, a youth, and a woman.  The divinity this time is Athena (notice her helmet, her aegis with the Gorgon head, and the owl in her hand).  The woman is conferring on the youth a laurel wreath, a symbol of achievement in poetic, athletic, or military events.  It makes sense to have pictures of Apollo and Athena in the library, since intellectual endeavors fall under their spheres of influence.  But who are the youths and the women in these pictures, and why are they here?  I think we should interpret the youths as students (and remember that the River Campus was originally an all-male campus), and the women as personifications of the alma mater, "respected mother," the university itself.


The Messinger Periodical Reading Room


Look at the beautiful ceiling of the Messinger Periodical Reading Room.  Ancient roofs and ceilings have had a difficult history over the past two millenia, but this room can give us a glimpse of what an ancient coffered ceiling could have looked like.  The degree to which coffers were painted and decorated in ancient structures depended on the ambitions--and the finances--of the builders.


A Greek key pattern and Doric pilasters adorn the walls.  Notice how static these "columns" are because they're straight and mostly flat--not nearly as dynamic as the Doric columns which we saw outside the library.  Names of important thinkers are inscribed throughout the room; names of ancient thinkers are to our immediate left as we enter. 


On the wall to the left, we find a quote from Seneca flanked by medallions of Plato and Kant.  The inscription says:  "Philosophy will encourage us to obey god cheerfully and fortune defiantly."  I like having a quote from Seneca in the library--and as a way of a concluding, let me explain why.  Seneca was a Roman thinker who lived during the first century CE, and he belonged to the Stoic school of philosophy.  Stoics promoted the idea that the entire universe made logos manifest.  What is logos?  It is the Greek word for "word," anything that's said, but also for rationality, the reasoning faculty, or rational principle.  Logos is everywhere in the Stoic universe.  Indeed, the cosmos is Word or Reason writ large, and thus the Stoic universe inherently makes sense.  I like to think of the library as a miniature of the Stoic universe--because it is one collection of all sorts of logos.




• for the history of the University of Rochester, River Campus, and Rush Rhees Library:


Catherine D. Hayes, "The History of the University of Rochester Libraries--120 Years," The University of Rochester Library Bulletin 25 (1970):  59-122.

Jean R. France, "A Suitable and Worthy Architecture," Rochester Review (1980):  8-9.

Arthur J. May.  A History of the University of Rochester 1850-1962.  Edited and abridged by Lawrence Eliot Klein.  Rochester:  University of Rochester Press, 1977.


• for information on Greek and Greek Revival architecture:


Roger G. Kennedy.  Greek Revival America.  New York:  Stewart, Tabori, & Chang, 1989.

A.W. Lawrence and R. A. Tomlinson.  Greek Architecture.  New Haven:  Yale University Press, 1996.

Robert K. Sutton.  Americans Interpret the Parthenon.  Niwot:  University of Colorado Press, 1992.

Dora Wiebenson, Sources of Greek Revival Architecture.  London:  A. Zwemmer, Ltd., 1969.




Amy Barnum, Judi Briden, Chris Campolo, Tom Cassada, Ron Dow, Margaret Engel, Emil Homerin, Melissa Mead, Joseph O'Toole, and Shirley Ricker


And finally


Interested in mythology?  If you want more information on the mythological figures mentioned here, Greek and Egyptian Mythologies and Roman and European Mythologies (both compiled by Yves Bonnefoy) are helpful resources.  If you want to read an ancient author's own creative presentation of myth, try Ovid's Metamorphoses.



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