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The most golden of Griffins

No one but an early-rising priest ever saw the 16-foot rocket protruding from the second floor balcony of Old Main on the Canisius College campus in 1961, and Michael Ryan, Class of ’64, who helped put it there, still thinks that’s a shame.

He and his fellow partners in pranking had better luck with a later effort, he said, when they spent the early morning hours building a five-foot-high brick wall blocking the entrance from Old Main to the campus library.

Fond memories of such mild mayhem marked the 100th anniversary celebration of Canisius College’s Old Main building Monday. About two dozen people gathered near that same hallway as Ryan – now a partner with the Cosgrove Law Offices – told that story and the tale of hijacking the rocket prop from an event at the University of Buffalo when he was a sophomore and providing it to members of the Canisius ROTC program. The future community leaders worked in the dark of night to attach the rocket to the building, making it look like a “direct hit.” Unfortunately, Father Joe Clark, who was taking an early morning walk, had maintenance crews dismantle the missile before the general campus population was awake.

Generally speaking, though, Old Main has had a fairly smooth century of constant use with little damage. It served generations of students before undergoing its first major overhaul in 2002, when its energy efficiency and technological capabilities were brought up to date, and it continues to house classrooms.

Robert Greene, Class of ’66 and now a partner with the Phillips Lytle law firm, came by Monday to share his own story of an earlier effort at Old Main renovation – and, as with Ryan’s stories, it was more like a scene from “Animal House” than out of an issue of Architectural Digest.

It was spring 1966 and close to graduation, Greene said, when he and some other campus leaders decided to spruce up the dome atop the school’s landmark building, after the administration refused to have it repainted because of the expense.

“It was called the gold dome, but it was kind of a gray/green,” Greene said. “The gold was long gone.”

Armed with rope ladders and cans of aerosol paint, the young men sprayed away for the entire night, doing a pretty good job on the bottom of the dome, less so higher up where they couldn’t reach and, in the process, coating themselves “with a golden patina,” he said. Though their descent was observed by the Rev. James McGinley, all were allowed to graduate, he noted.

The building’s greatest indignity, some would say, came in 1971, when its Main Street facade and signature dome were blocked from public view by the construction of the Churchill Academic Tower, a circular highrise housing faculty offices and sitting directly in front of Old Main’s front door.

College President John J. Hurley said after the anniversary ceremony Monday that “Why was the tower built there?” is among the most-asked questions on campus.

The answer could be as simple as “because that’s where they had room.” A century ago, Old Main housed the entire college – classroom, libraries and apartments for the Jesuits who taught there. Hurley noted that when the building opened on Jan. 6, 1913, it had 73 students. Today, the campus covers 72 acres with about 30 buildings spread along the north section of Main Street in Buffalo.

A few photos of the construction of Old Main can be seen in the hallway that connects it to the Bouwhuis Library.