Saturday, January 17, 2015

Farewell, Old Friend

As Philadelphians, we've all enjoyed watching University City transform into Center City's towering sister. Ugly midcentury disasters have made way for their modern equivalent, architecture that will likely be just as abhorred by future generations. Some may even remember a time when West Philadelphia's universities proposed building a wall to separate students from once-dangerous neighborhoods now adorned by preserved mansions, renovated condos, and Victorian twins. 

Architecturally, it's been great. And University City and its West Philadelphia neighbors have managed to evolve without accommodating the suburban ills that tend to play out in isolated college towns. The University of Pennsylvania, Drexel, even Temple don't just cater to their students, they embrace the city of Philadelphia by indulging our rigid adherence to urbanism and sustained walkability. 

Universities are no stranger to change. They exert enormous political influence and have the cash to build what they want, where they want. Historic preservationists have abandoned all but the most historically significant of colleges. And even in those instances - William and Mary, Harvard, Penn - those charged with protecting urban heritage largely assign the task to the universities themselves. 

We've see buildings fall in University City - the good, the bad, and the meh. But there's more to a building's legacy than bricks and mortar, be it Colonial or academia's wild fascination with Brutalism. These places also hold a significance for a vast portion of the public who experienced the most poignant piece of personal history within these buildings. 

Just today, an old college friend of mine posted a link on my Facebook page. The link? An offer to buy a piece of my college dorm, recently demolished to make way for a new Student Union. Now, I know this is a blog about Philadelphia, but it's also about architecture and history. Plus, it's my blog, so I'm going to stray from my adoptive city for a moment or two.

Everyone has their college stories, or stories from a pivotal point in their life when they start their next act. I might think mine are unique, but no matter how hard I try, I know they're not. But sometimes good stories are those most relatable. And that's exactly what I experienced living on the third floor of South Cunningham for the bulk of my college career.

The building was dated. The architecture has been replicated across Longwood College's (now University's) campus. There was nothing significant about the Cunninghams other than our own personal experiences, and that's why it was so sad to see it go.

This is the building where I (sorry, Mom) lost my virginity. This is where I spent countless nights crying with friends in the laundry room, coming to terms with my sexual orientation. It's where I spent even more nights crying in that same laundry room with friends - still some of my best to this day - struggling with the same.

It's where we somehow managed to cram forty students and a DJ booth into a dorm room for an epic Christmas party, one graced with performances by my then-drag persona, Empress Savannah of the Fourteenth Shue. 

It's where we would strut down to the hall perfecting our "Model Walk" to the Sugar Cubes. It's where we watched the O.J. verdict. It's where we sang Seasons of Love at the top of our lungs. It's where we watched Kimberly Shaw blow up Melrose Place. It's where we realized that Murder She Wrote's Cabot Cove had a murder rate higher than Honduras.

It was more than a dorm or a was a friend. 

Anyone who's been to college knows what it's like to sit outside their dorm until 3am deconstructing the nature of existence, solve all of the world's problems, and declare that we'll own this world by the time we're thirty. This is where we did that.

But most of all, this was the place where we laughed, cried, smoked, drank, and looked to the new millennium, clad in flannel, with relentless optimism. It's where we fostered friendships that have endured marriage and pregnancy, distance and divorce, and substance abuse and recovery. 

The Cunninghams created the people we are today. And while I think it's fantastic that the campus of my alma mater finally resembles, well, a campus, I am sad to see the Cunninghams go. But their legacy will live on through the people its inhabitants have become, the stories we tell, the stories I continue to tell throughout my thirties and will continue to tell well into my forties and beyond. 

Farewell, old friend. 

With that said, enjoy a little 90s awesomeness...

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