Give Now  »

Wonder In The Details: A Stroll Down The Limestone Trail

Brian Keith has worked on the Bloomington campus for more than thirty years, but it took him a while to really notice it.

"I'm ashamed to admit that for my first twelve years on campus, I really didn't pay any attention to the buildings other than appreciating that it was a beautiful campus," recalls Keith, Senior Scientist at the Indiana Geological Survey. "And then a colleague and I started working in the local limestone quarries and doing some research, and all of a sudden I got my eyes opened."

An Eye For Detail

Combining his geologically informed appreciation of the locally-sourced building materials with architectural research, Keith shares his passion and knowledge with members of the community and visitors to campus in the walking tours he offers each June for Limestone Month. But the tour doesn't just hit the high points. Keith has a knack for pointing out details that you, too, may have passed every day for a dozen years and not have seen.

You'll find geodes on campus, for starters-and not just in the Jordan River or locked inside a glass case. Walking along Third Street, Keith points out geodes and crinoid fossils embedded in the rugged stone walls enclosing campus. They're mementos from a time when Indiana was covered by the ocean.

From Fossils To Fluoride

Fast-forward from geologic prehistory to a more recent era, which also registers in the limestone: A shield carved above a first floor window in the Chemistry Building (1931) bears the formula SnF2. The inscription is a tacit nod to the invention-in that very building-of stannous fluoride toothpaste.

Many of the other carvings the geologist points out along the way are equally understated. Some are more mysterious. Above the entrance to the Myers Hall (1937), which was originally built as the School of Medicine, there are several prominent carvings that represent pharmacology, physiology, and anatomy.

But let your eyes wander from the building's entrance, and the iconography gets a bit more esoteric. Between the streamlined Art Deco windows appears a sequence of three elongated faces with closed eyes. The faces' professional appurtenances-surgical mask and nurse's cap-manage only to enhance their somber cast, not their bedside manner.

Gothic: Not Just For Architecture

At times, the mood seems tinged by all this Gothic architecture-ranging from the High Victorian to the Collegiate and Deco varieties. Passing Lindley Hall, built in 1903 to house the biology department, Keith points out the oversized limestone ledges that project from some of its windows. "People speculate about those," he notes. "They may have been for plants, because they didn't have greenhouses for botany studies. Other people say they put bodies out there."

Whatever its windowsills were intended for, Lindley Hall will never again fade into the background for anyone on the tour. Once Brian reveals the secrets each building is keeping in plain sight, the familiar becomes fascinating.

Once you start looking, you realize that the stone carvers' whimsy is in evidence all over campus.

Having Fun With A Chisel

On the left side of the arched entrance to the castle-like Memorial Hall (1925), a carving of a sleeping student-nose in a book, a candle burning at his side, an owl on his shoulder-is paired with a carving on the right side of the arch of a professor, sporting a mortarboard and ringing a bell. "You've got a little drama here," Keith chuckles.

That spirit of playfulness in design extends to the some of the newest construction on campus. On the backside of Simon Hall, the multidisciplinary science building built in 2007, carvings subtly framing a set of windows represent the categories of organisms studied in this building-a mushroom, a fruit fly, an ear of corn, a paramecium. A DNA sequence provides the background pattern.

Designed by IU MFA Amy Brier, founder of the Indiana Limestone Symposium, the carvings are subtly camouflaged within the modern Collegiate Gothic architecture of Simon Hall. They remain incognito until pointed out.

Getting Your Eyes On

Looking at the carving of the mushroom, I'm reminded of forays into the forest, hunting for morels. How endless the leaf litter can seem until someone points out the first gray or golden fungus, poking its head through, is so obvious all of a sudden. And how, after someone finds that first one, you 'get your eyes on,' as they say, do the mushrooms start to pop out everywhere.

Keith's guidance through campus seems to work in the same way. Carvings that used to be wallflowers become animated; innocent ledges launch dramatic scenarios. Ultimately, I realize, the mushroom suggests Alice and her adventures:Â how taking a different perspective can transform an extremely familiar setting into a wonderland.

Support For Indiana Public Media Comes From