Exploring the Lawrenceville Underground

Although the basement of Woods Memorial Hall may be considered frightening and austere by students, it is more inviting and important to our school than we think. In the early days of our school history, it held many purposes, many of which would seem unusual to students today; it has been used by a rifle club for meetings, a progressive student-led rock band, a dark room to process images for a photography club, and a community service program.

Although the basement of Woods Memorial Hall may be considered frightening and austere by students, it is more inviting and important to our school than we think. In the early days of our school history, it held many purposes, many of which would seem unusual to students today; it has been used by a rifle club for meetings, a progressive student-led rock band, a dark room to process images for a photography club, and a community service program.

Among the most prominent clubs convening in the basement that still operate, however, was The Periwig Club. Then referred to as the “dramatic club,” Periwig initially held performances in the old gymnasium, and students used the basement to do the show’s technical work. Generating loud noises from the array of power tools, students constructed stage sets, and the basement became centered around the needs of Periwig to help the shows’ developments.

As Lawrenceville undertook new projects to provide more facilities for its students and expand the campus, the basement was gradually abandoned. No longer in use, it became a site for vandalism. Students graffitied the walls, permanently inscribing names, messages, quotations, and artwork. Many did not draw on them discreetly, leaving behind their names, such as Al Wakelin ’61, David Preefer ’61, Jon Classe ’64, and Chet Wanvig ’62, among others. Alex Ratner ’07 remarked that he and a group of his friends were intrigued by the mysterious allure of the basement, and they decided to explore it one Saturday night. Even though they stayed together, Ratner and his friends were taken aback by the overwhelming feeling of solitude in the basement. He questioned how there could be so much information about the School but so little about the basement—“the [literal] foundation on which we live our daily lives” on this campus.

Although Laurie Silverberg ’96 was from an earlier graduating class at Lawrenceville than Ratner, she shared similar questions about the basement. Along with two other students, Silverberg conducted an independent study and wrote a research report on the basement and its graffitied walls under the mentorship of former Master of History and Religion Whitney Azoy. Silverberg was determined to decipher the meaning of the scribblings, and, as she observed them, remarked that “there is something spiritual there.” As she compiled her observations, she came to the conclusion that the graffiti provides a reflection of Lawrenceville’s “unconscious” and that the desire to write on the walls was related to earlier practices. In terms of the graffiti’s historical connection, Silverberg wrote that the experience of writing on the walls may reflect initiation ceremonies marking one’s transition from childhood to adulthood, and Lawrenceville students essentially underwent the same transformation as they left home and learned to live independently.

While most Lawrenceville students will not explore the basement to the extent that Silverberg did, Art Master Brian Daniell H’06 ’89 takes his students in his Foundation of Art classes to the basement, providing them with the opportunity to look and think about the graffitied walls. Sam Cowell ’20 went with Daniell on one of his field trips last year with the objective of studying the artwork and then responding to the question “If you had the chance to spray paint something, what would you have done?”. Cowell recalled that the experience of visiting the basement was unnerving, as all sounds were amplified, and she had to use her camera flashlight in order to see. She, nevertheless, found it transformative, as she felt connected to previous generations of Lawrentians. Cowell said, “It reminded me of how many layers of history there are at Lawrenceville. Even if someone went here so many years ago, their mark on Lawrenceville will never be erased.” Cowell also feels that it is important for other students to go to the basement, as it would be easy for Lawrenceville to drift away from its history and legacy of former students if it does not make a conscious effort to sustain a connection to them.

Even though looking at the basement’s graffitied walls is not a conventional way to look at the School’s history, it is perhaps one of the most effective ways. A historical perspective on the basement not only provides insight on the activities that were once valued at the School, but it also allows students to see what Lawrenceville life used to be like more in a more holistic manner.