Demolition as Spectator Sport (Remembering Sander Hall)

When I was at Ohio University, I was fortunate to take two classes from Jack Matthews, Distinguished Professor of English, novelist, poet, and world-renowned authority on book collecting.  Midway through spring quarter 1987, I submitted a short story which I called “The Dynamite Raffle,” describing the imminent destruction of a college campus eyesore, and the main characters’ attempts to sell raffle tickets.  (The winner would be the one to press the button.)

It would be premature to call myself a prophet, but when I left Athens and moved to Clifton, the University of Cincinnati’s student ghetto, I found that what I described–fictionally–was coming to pass.  Looming over the eastern part of the campus was a 29-story eyesore known as Sander Hall, constructed in the 1970s as a dormitory, and vacant since the early to mid-1980s.  It was chock full of asbestos, fire alarms went off at all hours (forcing residents, not all of them 100% awake and not all of them 100% sober, to scramble down all those poorly lit flights of steps to the main floor), and elevators were erratic at best.  Skyscraper dorms were the ultimate in naiveté.  University officials honestly expected 17- and 18-year-old kids, away from home for the first time, free of all parental restraints, and learning how their hormones worked, to be cooped up in these monstrosities in close quarters and actually live like civilized human beings.

So, for most of the ’80s, Sander Hall stood empty, like a big glass and cement tombstone.  Occasionally a strong wind would blow out a windowpane, but miraculously no one was ever hit by one of them.  It was almost a textbook example of how not to design a building.  Complicating the mad scramble down the stairs during a fire alarm was the fact that no one could survive in those stairwells during a real fire.  If you open a door to the stairwells during a fire, the stairwell becomes one giant chimney, and the likelihood of dying of smoke inhalation increases a thousandfold.

In 1990, the University of Cincinnati came to its senses and decided to demolish the building.  I thought this would be done piecemeal, by cordoning off a radius x number of feet from the building and then using a wrecking ball.  But that would not be the case.  They would implode the building with dynamite–the eyesore would be eliminated in one fell swoop.

June 23, 1991–19 years ago today–was the day Sander Hall was to be demolished.  A general party atmosphere prevailed around Clifton the night before, about half because of the excitement of seeing something that big being blown up, and also because this blot on U.C.’s campus would be gone.  (The last is somewhat ironic, because the University of Cincinnati’s campus in the ’80s and ’90s was far from attractive.  Except for the green lawn area facing Clifton Ave., the campus looked like an industrial park gone amok.)

I had a small party/wake to mark the occasion.  Two friends came down from Columbus, and a Cincinnati friend and I did a reconnaissance mission after the bars closed to see where the best vantage point to Sander Hall would be.  Our final decision was to stake out the plaza in front of the College Conservatory of Music.

The sun rose at 5:12 that morning, and my Cincinnati and Columbus friends were staked out at the location by 6.  We weren’t alone for long.  The area in front of CCM provided an almost unobstructed view of Sander Hall in profile, so we camped out with bags of Cheetos, big cups of fountain drinks, and other assorted nutrients.

There was a raffle to push the button to demolish the building, I learned on the news that night.  However, it was the chance to push a dummy button at the same time the demolition engineer pushed the real one.  (The reason: By Ohio law, whoever pushes the button is civilly and criminally liable for any damage that may result.)

I was beginning to get a little impatient, and you could feel the current of impatience go from one person to another like a static electric charge.  Finally, about 8:35, someone shouted, “Here it goes!”  I bolted upright from the cement urn where I had been sitting, and my friends all jumped to their feet as well.

I expected a big, long, drawn-out, spectacular BOOM! and seeing the building fall gracefully.  Nothing close to that happened in real life.  There were three somewhat loud pop! sounds, like a truck backfiring or a cherry bomb.  I looked up and Sander Hall buckled a little, actually seemed to sway, and then there was a whoosh! sound you could almost feel, and the building was just… gone.  A huge cloud of concrete dust seemed to fly up out of the ground, and it seemed to swallow Sander Hall completely.  (I was videotaping the coverage from WCPO-TV, Channel 9, at the same time.  Their reporter, Jay Shatz, was on the roof of another dorm.  When the building fell, someone shouted, “One more time!” and another voice said, “I didn’t get that.  Can we do it again?”  There were a few obligatory shots of the tape moving backwards so you could watch this giant cloud of rubble and dust suddenly fly together and become a skyscraper once again.  Television viewers are quite easily amused.)

We stood there aghast as the cloud of concrete dust began to roll southward.  The crowd began to scatter, some of them with their noses and mouths buried in their shirts, as the dust rolled to Vine St., and I could see that it hit Calhoun St. and didn’t even begin to dissipate until it reached W. McMillan (my street).  (There was an invitation-only all-night party in progress on the roof of Dollar Bill’s Saloon on Short Vine, and I wonder if the debris managed to ruin the party atmosphere there.)

When I returned to my small railroad flat above the Christian Science Reading Room on W. McMillan, I realized that I should have closed my windows before we left to watch the building come down.  There was a thin layer of yellow concrete dust in my kitchen and bathroom, and I took out a broom and a dustpan and went to work sweeping.

Once it seemed like the dust had cleared, we made our way back toward Calhoun St., a little dazed, since the adrenalin rush was waning as quickly as it had come.  There was a thin layer of yellow concrete dust over everything–we saw people writing their names with their fingers on car hoods and roofs.  We heard rumors that something had gone wrong, and that part of the Shoemaker Center (where the U.C. Bearcats played basketball) had been damaged in the blast, but this was not the case.  (TANGENT ALERT: The Shoemaker Center was named for Myrl Shoemaker, a Democrat who died in office as Lieutenant Governor of Ohio in 1985, during the administration of Dick Celeste.  The place is now called the Fifth Third Arena, because the powers that be at Fifth Third Bank can write checks with more 0s on the end of them more easily than can a deceased politician.)

The layer of concrete dust reminded me of my two weeks in Maine in 1982, during the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly (TANGENT–G.A.’s opening celebration commences in a little over an hour in Minneapolis) and Common Ground II, the convocation to build a new national UU youth group.  Whenever a wind blew, you saw solid yellow clouds of pollen blowing out of trees and hanging in the air.  Pavements and cars were crusted with it.  The fact that I was not in constant agony–running nose, watery eyes, itchy palate–made me realize that I had indeed outgrown my allergies.

Sander Hall topped the list of subjects when I sent out tape-recorded or written letters for the following week.  (I labeled one cassette “I’ve Fallen and I Can’t Get Up!”, since the LifeCall ads featuring an elderly woman lying prone on her bathroom floor were popular at the time.)  Therefore, I was quite happy when the University issued a post card immortalizing the event.  (I was such a stickler for accuracy that whenever I sent someone a post card of the U.C. campus, I’d draw a bar sinister–the red circle with the slash like you see on NO SMOKING signs–around Sander Hall.)  Here is one that I sent my dad:

It took them awhile, but the University finally posted a streaming video on its Website, and here it is.  The photographic record is, of course, more accurate than what my eyes and memory recorded, so it was a little disquieting to watch these film clips and think about how it contradicts what I remembered seeing that morning, even allowing for my lack of sleep and the generous amounts of beer I consumed the evening before.  Also, seeing the videos, especially in slow motion, made me understand the concept of imploding the building.  Several civil engineering majors I knew had explained to me that we didn’t need to worry about flying debris.  They were not blowing the building up, they were blowing it in.  We had witnessed over a thousand separate dynamite charges, and the building had come down incrementally–quickly, but not all at once.

I remember seeing a classified ad in The Cincinnati Enquirer the following day advertising that so many cubic feet of concrete rubble was available for sale.  I didn’t buy any, but I regret not going to the debris pile and taking a chunk of the building as a souvenir, much the way people did with the remains of the Berlin Wall.

Several years passed before I realized just how significant June 23, 1991 was to be in my life.  That morning, almost 700 miles away in Yonkers, N.Y., Steph’s first husband left her (on their first wedding anniversary!).  Indirectly, my life changed irrevocably that day.