The adolescent students known as minims were the first to notice flames curling from the roof on April 23, 1879, and they raised the alarm by yelling, “The college is on fire.”
The Main Building was nearly the whole college then: it contained the dining halls and kitchen, study halls and classrooms, dormitories and offices. The students, priests, and lay teachers lived there. The sixth-floor chapel was topped by a tin-clad dome painted white, supporting a 2,000-pound statue of the Blessed Virgin.
Students and teachers raced through the building, throwing furniture, books, and belongings out the windows, only to have the broken piles catch fire when the cornices collapsed on them. The fire reportedly ate away the dome supports until the statue crashed down on the building’s interior, spreading the fire and ending all hope of saving the building.
In three hours, the college was gone. Miraculously, no one was killed or badly hurt. Rev. William Corby, C.S.C., then serving his second stint as president, sent the students home but promised that Notre Dame would be rebuilt and open on time the next year.
Three days later, Rev. Edward Sorin, C.S.C., who had come to the frozen forests of Indiana as a young man with $310 and a zealot’s dream of founding a great Catholic university, returned from a trip to find his life’s work destroyed.
Viewing the still-smoldering rubble, law professor Timothy Howard wrote, the 65-year-old founder “stiffened” rather than bent. He would later be seen pushing a wheelbarrow full of bricks. He called the community into the church to deliver what Howard called “the most sublime words I ever listened to.”
“There was absolute faith, confidence, resolution in his very look and pose. ‘If it were ALL gone, I should not give up!’ were his words in closing. The effect was electric. It was the crowning moment of his life. A sad company had gone into the church that day. They were all simple Christian heroes as they came out. There was never more a shadow of doubt as to the future of Notre Dame.”
The rebuilding parallels the ambitious origin of the University, when Father Sorin was given just two years to carve a college out of the wilderness. An architect was chosen by May 15 and the cornerstone blessed four days later.
Three hundred laborers worked nonstop for three and a half months, laying 4.3 million of the trademark yellow bricks the religious brothers formed from the marl of St. Mary’s Lake. Notre Dame opened for students in early September, though the famous Golden Dome would have to wait for another Sorin miracle.
If the Basilica of the Sacred Heart represents the soul of Notre Dame, then surely the Main Building and its ubiquitous symbol of the Golden Dome is the beating heart of the campus, pumping vigor and purpose to the interlaced arteries of an academic and residential community.
This is its story.
Main Buildings 1-2
The founder of the Congregation of Holy Cross, Blessed Basil Moreau, sent Father Sorin from France to America to found a new college. In the early 1840s, Father Sorin found himself in the western frontier of Vincennes, Indiana.
The bishop there did not want Father Sorin competing with his own local plans, so he gave the ambitious 28-year-old 250 acres—and the two-year timeline—in northern Indiana where Father Stephen Badin, the first priest ordained in America, was a missionary to the Potawatomi natives. Arriving with seven religious brothers by wagon in February, Father Sorin thought the two lakes covered in snow were a single lake. He therefore named the college Notre Dame du Lac, Our Lady of the Lake.
He wrote Father Moreau in France an optimistic view of his arrival: “Once more, we felt that Providence had been good to us, and we blessed God from the depths of our soul. This college cannot fail to succeed.”
The early years were a struggle. One novice wrote that when they were hungry, Brother Vincent “would take a loaf, place it on the trunk of a fallen tree, and with an axe give it three or four heavy blows before he succeeded in cutting a piece.”
Father Sorin had arranged for a Vincennes architect to erect an administration building even before he had any students or food to feed them. But the founders first built a small, two-story building by St. Mary’s Lake for all activities. Now known as Old College and used by religious students studying to be priests, it is the only original landmark on campus.
The architect that summer began a four-story college that opened in 1844. Rather than build around the lake, the new building was higher up the hill and facing away, at the end of what would become a grand entrance road.
Rev. Arthur Hope, C.S.C., in his history, Notre Dame—One Hundred Years, wrote that Father Sorin had fulfilled the bishop’s condition by launching the college.
“We have seen the almost ridiculous daring of the man, building his four-storied brick college when the student body was almost less numerous than the professors,” Father Hope wrote. “Into that building went his whole heart, for within its walls he hoped to mold a new generation of Christian gentlemen.”
The ground floor had the refectory (dining hall), kitchen, and washrooms; the second floor held classrooms, study halls, and the president’s office; the third floor held private rooms for the religious and dormitories for students and lay faculty; the fourth floor held a museum, armory, and more dorms; and hired workmen slept in the garret. Nine years later, a large gift allowed Father Sorin to add the two large wings in the original plan, expanding the student body to 250, as well as add a museum, theater, and science lab.
With candle lighting and no running water, there were many fires in the early years, but Father Sorin refused even a lightning rod, preferring to trust in the Blessed Virgin.
The structure that burned in 1879 was actually the second Main Building. As the student body grew during the Civil War, a new building was planned. But to save money, the roof of the standing building was removed in 1865 and two more stories and a new mansard roof added. Brickmaking was one of the first industries of the religious, and the kilns were by then firing 800,000 a year. Tuition at the time was $100.
“When this school, Our Lady’s school, grows a bit more, I shall raise her aloft so that, without asking, all men shall know why we have succeeded here. ” –Rev. Edward Sorin, C.S.C.
Rev. Patrick Dillon, C.S.C., the school’s second president, oversaw the project, though Father Sorin as provincial was still in control. The next year, a small white dome was added and the white-painted statue placed on top. An exterior balcony ran around the dome’s base, and Father Hope wrote that students sometimes managed to get through the locked door:
“We know Tim O’Sullivan made it one 17th of March, about day-break, and before anyone could stop him, trumpeted ‘St. Patrick’s Day in the Morning!’ Father Sorin was very much chagrined.”
There are no pictures of the fire, but South Bend photographer James Bonney made five stereoscope images of the aftermath. The University’s loss was estimated at $250,000, and the second Main Building was insured for only $45,000.
Crisis brought out the best in Father Sorin. A staunch supporter of American free enterprise, he announced an architectural competition to design the new Main Building. By May 15, he chose Chicago architect Willoughby Edbrooke.
It was an auspicious choice, for the 30-year-old would become renowned for his public buildings, including federal and county court buildings, the Georgia State Capitol, Tabor Grand Opera House in Colorado, and the Old Post Office in Washington, DC. Willoughby is credited with only four college buildings in his career—besides the Main, he also designed Washington Hall (theater), the Science Building (LaFortune), and Sorin Hall.
A massive fundraising effort was matched by the scramble to begin building. The Michigan Central Railroad cut its freight price in half to gather needed lumber and materials. The outside walls began rising by the end of May. It would be 224 feet in length (wings added later), 155 feet in depth, and 170 feet high (dome added later).
More than 300 workmen were not restrained by modern 40-hour-week labor rules. The student newspaper, Scholastic, complained that the third floor would have been completed if the workmen had not been given a day off to celebrate July 4. There were 556 floor-to-ceiling windows for light. Fire protection was added, including a slate roof, lightning rods, and a fire department.
Edbrooke called the style “modern Gothic,” but later University architect Francis Kervick called it “an eclectic and somewhat naïve combination of pointed windows, medieval moldings and classical columns.” Others have dubbed the riot of turrets, gables, angles, and oversized dome ““modern Sorin.”
The new building opened on time, though 150 workmen stayed on until November to finish plastering and painting. It had for the first time gas lighting, indoor plumbing, and a ventilation system considered unequalled at the time.
Father Sorin resolved to have a more impressive statue and dome, modeled on St. Peter’s in Rome. On his visits there, he’d admired the Immaculate Conception statue in the Piazza di Spagna. He asked Chicago sculptor Giovanni Meli to make the 17-foot, 4,400-pound replica, which was financed by the sisters, students, and alumnae of Saint Mary’s College. It was completed in 1880 and waited on the porch of the Main Building until the dome was completed three years later.
The planned wings were added to the building in 1884, expanding it to its current size. In his Notre Dame history, Rev. Thomas Blantz, C.S.C., writes, “Gilding the dome produced a major crisis.” After the costly construction, the college leadership council wanted to paint the dome yellow or gold.
Father Sorin insisted it be gilded with actual gold, regardless of the expense. The council refused, so Father Sorin as the congregation's superior general made himself the council’s chairman and promptly moved to a room at Saint Mary’s College. Without its chairman, the council couldn’t meet or conduct Holy Cross or college business.
The council eventually relented, and while they may not have appreciated his methods, the founder’s vision and marketing intuition proved prophetic again. First gilded in 1886, the Golden Dome would become the universal symbol of Notre Dame, instantly recognized worldwide.
In a history of University architecture, professor Kervick said, “Who but Notre Dame would have dared to lay out a mile-long grand boulevard culminating with a dome of gold?”
To decorate the building, Father Sorin called on resident artist Luigi Gregori. Father Sorin had recruited the Royal Academy of Bologna professor and curator of Vatican art in 1873 to paint 14 Stations of the Cross for the new church. He stayed on to decorate its interior and was at Notre Dame when the Great Fire destroyed the second Main Building.
Gregori painted the now-controversial murals about the life of Christopher Columbus in an attempt to show the institution as both American and Catholic. Six of the 22 classrooms also had large murals, long painted over. The classical figures Gregori painted on the inside of the dome represent religion, philosophy, history, science, fame, music, and poetry—the muses that manifest the college’s aspirations but also the Main Building’s many uses over time.
About 140 years later, the Main Building has changed very little other than a major restoration in the late 1990s. This is the 12th time the dome has been gilded: 1886, 1893, 1904, 1912, 1924, 1933, 1948, 1961, 1971, 1988, 2005, and 2023.
After the existing 3,500 square feet of gold is cleaned, workers will apply a primer glue and apply 1,250 strips of gold sheets that come from Italy looking like an ancient scroll. The sheets are about 0.3 microns thick and contain in total about 15 pounds of 23¾-karat gold, so delicate that they can only be applied by hand in wind-free conditions.
One modern convenience likely decreased the potential for fire—incandescent lights. When in 1887 a Bowdoin student wrote that his would be the first college illuminated with electricity, the Electrical Review responded that Notre Dame had been employing arc lights since 1881 and Thomas Edison’s new invention since 1885.
After World War I, the fifth floor closed due to structural weakness. Demolition was proposed in 1947 because of fire code violations. Since the 1950s, the Main Building has been used mainly for administration offices and some classrooms. Proposals to rebuild it in 1962 would have demolished all but the dome. By the 1980s, the whole structure was in dire need of repair.
A major renovation finally occurred in two phases: exterior in 1995–96 and interior in 1997–98. The outside was cleaned and the roof replaced, while window hoods, the base around Mary’s statue, and exterior wood were repainted in the original tan, medium, and dark brown. External fire escapes, which students sometimes used to visit the office of President Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, C.S.C., during his late-night hours, were removed.
On the inside, the $58 million project returned the public areas and artwork of the Main Building to their Victorian elegance, modernized office areas, made structural reinforcements that re-opened the fifth floor, and added two elevators. Father Blantz, the historian, wrote, “The student paper pointed out that the renovation took 25 months while Father Sorin built it in four.”
At the building’s Centennial Celebration in 1979, historian Thomas Schlereth gave a convocation address in Washington Hall about the history and symbolism of the Main Building.
“Sorin’s dream, Corby’s determination, Edbrooke’s design have combined to become the linchpin of our campus landscape,” Schlereth said. “A patina of a hundred years and thousands of lives mellows and haunts its corridors, rotunda, classrooms, as well at its dome. This building has been a fact and fantasy, myth and metaphor, sign and symbol.”
Indeed, who among us hasn’t strained their neck while driving the turnpike or landing in a plane to catch that first glimpse of the lighted dome, knowing that it means we’re home?