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Top secret

The intriguing climb to Jesse Hall’s dome reveals parts of MU’s past
Friday, November 5, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 11:32 p.m. CDT, Friday, July 18, 2008

Entering Jesse Hall’s dome feels like stepping into your Aunt Myrtle’s basement. It’s dark, musty and dirty and feels like it’s stuck in time, like no one has entered since 1952.

But instead of watching every footfall down her rickety stairs, you’re going up the iron rungs of a ladder, through the ceiling in MU’s main administration building and a locked and alarm-triggered trap door.

A single light bulb reveals a dingy round room. This is the bottom level of the dome. The brick walls appear to be covered in graffiti, but closer inspection reveals a secret. Instead of vulgar epigraphs, the members of one of Tap Day’s honorary societies have scrawled their names across the aged brick.

Two doors on opposite sides of the circle open to junk piled 5 feet high in rooms of indeterminable size and shape. Leftovers from past projects that reinforced the domes’ ladders litter the floor. Light pouring through a hole in the ceiling illuminates dust floating in the stagnant air.

Everything in the dome is filthy and old, yet somehow sacred and steeped in history. Dust and bat guano cover every surface — but it is so exciting to enter such a forbidden place on campus that the dirt and the stale smell don’t matter. Everything seems original to the 1893 building, even the worn wooden ladders that lead into the next four levels of Jesse’s uppermost reaches.

The dome has always been a part of Jesse Hall. It was included in the first design by Morris Frederick Bell, an architect who designed many of the buildings on Francis Quadrangle. Occasional plans to alter the dome were never carried out. The dome underwent structural renovation in 1981, and exterior restorations were made in 1996.

After climbing through another ceiling, the next room looks more familiar. Frosted windows circle the worn wooden floor, which has yawning gaps between the planks and creaks as you walk. A large opaque sphere perched atop a pole in the middle of the room lights the dome from the inside every night. This is the inner glow you see at a distance.

Stairs lead to a balcony level encircling the windows, rotunda-style. Initials carved into a wooden support beam on the balcony record the year of one student’s visit: ’03. That’s 1903, not 2003; the entrance to the dome was less secure then.

It is a little disappointing to circle the balcony but not be able to open one of the frosted windows for a glimpse of campus and the city beyond. The only opportunity to look out and take a breath of fresh air is still two levels up.

Climb another grime-covered ladder through another thin wooden ceiling into the dark again. More signatures cover the metal beams crisscrossing the room. The crossbeams were installed as part of the 1981 renovation to improve the dome’s structural integrity.

At this point, you wonder how much higher you can climb.

The answer: one more level. At last, the top of the dome arches overhead to an opening smaller than a manhole cover. Daylight from the oculus isn’t sufficient to illuminate the room, leaving in shadow the feet of the dome’s very last, very tall ladder.

Near the base of the ladder, names carefully printed in wide strokes of white paint cover the dark wooden walls — evidence that some Tap Day honorees have climbed through all five levels of the dome. The names of some notable Columbians are written here, including former MU Chancellor Richard Wallace and Mayor Darwin Hindman.

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Jesse Hall (KYLE AHRENS/Missourian)

Cathy Scroggs, MU’s vice chancellor for student affairs, painted her name in the dome shortly before Tap Day in 1995.

“Mine’s on the wood,” Scroggs said. “I remember when they renovated the dome (in 1996), I thought, ‘Don’t be messing with my name.’”

One small shuttered window near the floor opens to the north, offering a spectacular view across Francis Quadrangle to downtown Columbia. At this height, only the tops of MU’s columns are visible. On your knees and squeezing your shoulders through the window, a peek over a tiny balcony outside reveals a bit more of the columns. Here, views to the west and east are framed by white spheres, bigger than basketballs, that adorn the balcony.

For the brave, the tallest ladder remains. Carefully, rung by wooden rung you climb, wiping dust off as you go, sucking in the musty air, until you hear wind whipping across the oculus over your head. The idea of a bat or a sparrow fluttering past enters your mind — there was a dead bird on the floor several levels below, and this is probably where it entered.

At the top of the ladder, the oculus is not what it seemed from below. It is 3 to 4 feet deep, shoulder-width across and lined with rusted bolts. Open air beckons above, and the legs and roof of the small white cupola topping the dome are visible. But peering over the top of this tube means letting go of the ladder and wiggling on without handholds. Perched atop a ladder high above the floor, this is not an option. Not today.

One student made this journey from the outside of Jesse Hall more than 80 years ago. But he climbed even higher, to an ornament now missing from the dome.

“There was a ball with wings on it. It was a big gold ball with wings on the sides,” said Drew Kupsky, an engineering records coordinator with the MU space planning office. “It broke off in 1918, right after World War I ended. A student climbed up and tied an American flag on one of the wings. The wind caught it, and it broke off.”

Back down the ladder, carefully. And the next. And the next.

With each level, a sense of safety returns, but there is the realization that this journey probably will be made only once.


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