Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Deluges past

The Mount under construction in 1930 or 1931. Much of the work on the building
coincided with an El Niño condition and lots of rain.
AS WE ADMIRE THE RAIN cascading onto the Chalon Campus, we find ourselves wondering about the El Niños (Los Niños?) of the olden days, and we recall reading about some problems in the early 1930s when the new college campus was under construction.

Although the groundbreaking was held during Commencement on June 16, 1929 (a day that began with a downpour), work on the foundation of the new campus' first and only building didn't get going until late in the year and early in 1930. According to the El-Niño.com website, 1930-1931 was an El Niño year. That meant trouble.

Here's how Sister Germaine McNeil describes what happened next in her 1986 book, History of Mount St. Mary's College, Los Angeles, 1925-1975:
When the excavation for the piers of the foundation got underway, it was discovered that they would have to be much deeper than first estimated to reach solid bedrock. Then, when rains seeped into the exposed Monterey Shale of the soil, several landslides occurred. (p. 9)
Further investigation revealed that the cost of construction had more than doubled, but the superintending architect, I. E. Loveless, refused to halt construction. The provincial leadership of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet had no alternative but to fire him, and the brought in the original campus architect, Mark Daniels, to finish the job.

Daniels could not have been surprised. He had earlier warned in an essay in The Tidings of potential problems with the steep hillside and "soils." His revision of the plans entailed shifting the main load-bearing part of the structure several feet to the east, i.e., further up and into the hill. Since part of the building was already in place, Daniels had to incorporate some existing walls. The result of this alteration is clearly manifest in the long corridor between the cafeteria and bookstore entrance on the ground floor of Brady Hall.The width of the hallway is the precise distance Daniels had to move the foundation.

Construction continued as planned, and faculty and students were able to move into the finished campus in mid-April, 1931. But El Niño was still making its presence felt.The college's first concert was scheduled for a Sunday a couple of weeks after the move. The venerable journal of Sister Dolorosa Mannix, CSJ, picks up the story in McNeil's book:
Invitations for the recital were sent out and all was in readiness. On the preceding night rain fell in torrents, washing watery streams of clay across the normally good shale road. The road was not paved. We had no money for paving... Later, Mrs. E. L. Doheny's generosity helped pave the road. (15)
The dedicated concertgoers made their way up the treacherously slick road anyway -- only one accident is recorded -- and the performance went on.

But that wasn't quite all the 1930-31 El Niño had up its (his?) sleeve.

Once, more, Sister Dolorosa:
About a month after the opening of the college, several of us noticed in the night a faint sound as of grains of sand blown against the window by a windstorm. ... No one seemed to have paid much attention until, rising at 5 the next morning and drawing back our curtains, we found the tiles white with snow and the ground a wonderful white sheet. It was 3 inches deep and lasted for several days. (14)
Never a dull moment during an El Niño, even if it just seems like more rain than usual. Will Mount students at Chalon or Doheny be treated to snow this coming May? We can cross our fingers and hope. And we're pretty sure that students in the 2015-16 El Niño won't be too different from their foremothers in 1930-1931:
Great excitement reigned. Some of the girls had never seen snow at close range, so classes were deferred for an hour after [shuttle] arrival, while students climbed the hill ... to view the charming winter scene in May. Others played snowball and made a 4-foot snowman which, placed in a sheltered corner, remained with us for several days. True to life, some students, ignoring the winter sports, huddled around the radiator. (Ibid.)
Happy New Year, and here's to a safe, warm and memorable (but not too memorable) El Niño of '15-'16!

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