Preserving History: Original Cornerstone of St. John’s University Secured

June 16, 2021

On a recent sunny afternoon, a nondescript cargo van containing four historic pieces of stone from the original Brooklyn, NY, home of St. John’s University arrived at the Queens, NY, campus. While the distance traveled from 75 Lewis Avenue in the Bedford Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn to make the delivery to campus is less than 10 miles, the symbolic journey made by the University since these concrete slabs were first set into a foundation of earth 151 years ago is incalculable.

The stones, inscribed with the words: “Erected 1869,” “College of St. John the Baptist,” and “Lewis Avenue,” are artifacts from a July 25, 1869, cornerstone-laying ceremony for what would become St. John’s University. The formal dedication led by the Most Reverend John Loughlin, the first Roman Catholic Bishop of Brooklyn, was page two news in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.

Brian Browne, Executive Director for University Relations and Assistant Vice President for Government Relations, spearheaded the effort to reclaim the cornerstones for the University. “I recently learned St. John the Baptist Parish—the original home of St. John’s University—has entered into a long-term lease agreement on a portion of their expansive property for new housing to help to finance the renovation of their historic church and provide the parish community with much-needed financial resources,” recounted Mr. Browne.

“When I reached out to the pastor, Rev. Astor Rodriguez, C.M., he told me that demolition was already underway, and he immediately connected me with the developer who personally preserved, removed, and arranged for the delivery of the cornerstones back to St. John’s.”

The architectural term cornerstone is traditionally the first stone laid for a structure, with all other stones laid in reference to it. A cornerstone marks the geographical location by orienting a building in a specific direction. In ancient times, no stone was more important for builders than the cornerstone because the integrity of the whole structure depended on the cornerstone containing exactly the right lines.

If the cornerstone was not right, the entire building would be out of line. For that reason, ancient builders inspected many stones, rejecting each one until they found the stone they wanted. Rejected stones might be used in other parts of the building, but they would never become the cornerstone or the capstone—the first and last stones put in place.

“During my conversations with the developer, there was a recurring sort of scriptural theme to the entire experience, because in this case, the stone that the builders protected—rather than rejected—was the cornerstone!” remarked Mr. Browne, drawing a parallel to the well-known Bible allegory found in both the Old and the New Testaments. A central tenet of Catholicism is that Jesus is the stone that the builders rejected and that Jesus founded the church on Saint Peter, “the rock” that the Catholic Church was built on.

The construction project now underway at the original site of St. John’s involves converting the three wings of the former St. John the Baptist parish center (i.e., Hart Street, Lewis Avenue, and Willoughby Avenue) into housing. The Willoughby Street wing was recently demolished and will be rebuilt. The development of 205 new rental units is planned for the site that will be mostly market rate with affordable housing included as part of the community revitalization project.

The buildings of St. John the Baptist Church were designed in the Romanesque Revival architectural style by Patrick Keely, the pre-eminent architect for the Catholic Church in the late 1800s. Mr. Keely, an Irish-born immigrant living in Brooklyn, and later in Providence, RI, had no formal architectural training; he was taught the building trade by his father. Throughout his lifetime, Mr. Keely designed nearly 600 churches—mostly Catholic —and the legacy of his work on churches and related buildings spans the United States.

In modern architecture and building design, a cornerstone is still often placed near the base of a structure where two walls meet, giving information about the building’s significance. As historic preservation and awareness have become more prevalent and appreciated, cornerstones are often placed ornamentally on exterior or interior walls. Some cornerstones serve as time capsules and are hollowed out and filled with popular objects, or something significant to the occupants of the building at the time of construction.

Brian Baumer, Associate Vice President, Campus Facilities and Services, is now charged with finding a permanent and prominent campus home for the historic cornerstones. “This is a significant and exciting piece of St. John’s history to bring home just as our 150th anniversary celebration concludes. We are exploring how best to make these stones a living and lasting part of the campus environment.”