Skeletons in the Campanile’s closet

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Anya Schultz/Photo Illustration/Senior Staff

One hundred years ago when architect John Galen Howard looked up at the almost-finished Sather Tower on a gloomy October day, a small shadow might’ve darkened his mind.

On most days, the Campanile stands tall and majestic, just as Howard intended it. But on that cloudy morning, something about the Campanile must have seemed different.

In the October light, the steel girders reaching into the steely sky might have appeared harsh — unfriendly, even. The heavy slabs of granite may have seemed unexpectedly sinister. That morning, the tower he’d designed must have been unmistakably eerie.

The Campanile, cloaked most of the year by the attention of a thousand campus tours, sheds its disguise in October. Against blue, it presides, but against grey, Sather Tower looms.

Early drawings of the tower show dozens of windows, as it was originally intended to house graduate students. When that plan was abandoned in favor of the nearly windowless design, the dark, lifeless building became a storage site for bones.

Sather Tower houses in four of its seven floors a collection of more than 30,000 fossils weighing more than 20 tons. Most are from the La Brea Tar Pits and include specimens from saber-toothed cats and a camel species, now extinct, that was native to California.

Wandering through the floors — as only the occasional researcher does — some rooms might look much the same as they did when the tower was completed. The wooden shelves sag under the weight of the carefully arranged bones, preserved for untold millennia, many uncatalogued and unstudied since they were first placed.

In 1915, the poet Edward Robeson Taylor revered the tower, proclaiming its “living glory,” writing that it “risest to the silences of heaven.”

In any month other than October, the Campanile is the one in Taylor’s vision, the one on the postcards and pamphlets that proudly symbolizes the university and all its noble ideals. But October unmasks the Campanile; it reveals the underside of a building plagued with an unshakeable aura of gloom and isolation.

Lit up against a summer sunset, the Campanile represents the majesty Howard saw in the Berkeley campus. In the black of winter, the tower is a beacon of the university’s grandeur. In the subdued tones of fall, though, the Campanile’s green spire pierces the sky unsettlingly, a stark outline on an otherwise neutral canvas.

When the first rain of the season descends and people scurry about campus seeking refuge, the Campanile stands as a grotesque, lifeless version of its usually familiar self. The massive granite walls are less reassuring, somehow, more imposing. The straight, unbroken lines are less dependable and more severe.

Though the carillon concerts fade into the humdrum of most days, when the air and leaves and world are crisp with autumnal melancholy, the minor tones jump out. They enter through the ears and settle somewhere near the base of the neck: not quite a shiver, but a slow presence that takes its time traveling down the spine.

In October, the bells that innocently mark each hour turn into a sinister reminder of time slipping past. And as the vibrations of the last toll linger in the chilly air, the campus is awash with a sense of inexplicable foreboding.

Caught between the heat of summer and the warmth of the holidays, October is the first truly cold month of the year, and no finite number of pumpkin spice lattes can shake the clammy loneliness that comes falling from the sky with the early morning droplets.

Sather Tower echoes that loneliness, amplifies it and announces it to all of campus on the hour. In October, the tower is a tuning fork for our own unsettled selves.

Gazing up at the Campanile on these October mornings, through the wispy Berkeley fog, one can glimpse — for the first and only time all year — behind the cheery facade of a building that has stood, resolute but lonely, for 100 years.