Johns Hopkins Magazine -- November 2000
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Much more than you might think. When we started digging beneath the surface around the university, we unearthed a pile of fascinating toils, tools, and tales.
O N    C A M P U S E S

What's Up, Underground?
Photos by Mike Ciesielski
Reporing by Melissa Hendricks and Sue De Pasquale

A light at the end...

Snaking for miles beneath both the Homewood and East Baltimore campuses, the university's tunnels are wide and high enough

for someone of average height to walk comfortably upright. They also provide a conduit for the pipes and wiring that convey steam, water, sewage, electricity, and natural gas. Would the prose be too purple to say these tunnels are the veins and arteries for the university's vital organs?

Over the years the tunnels have served purposes other than conveying utilities. "We would buzz right through there," recalls School of Nursing alumna Betty Brizendine ('45), of the countless "dark and lonely nights" she and her classmates left work at Hopkins Hospital and took the underground passage home to their dorms at Hampton House. There, "Miss Frances," the receptionist, could peek down through a hole to the basement. "If she saw a blue or white uniform," says Brizendine, "she would let us in."

At Homewood, longtime materials science engineer Bob Pond used the tunnels to store lab supplies. "After World War II, there was an awful lot of war-surplus material available. We picked up some nice material--and junk too," he recalls.

At Homewood, mile-long tunnels service mainly older buildings since newer ones (like Shriver and Olin halls) rely on utilities that are directly buried. over a year, the Homewood campus consumes 76 million kilowatt hours of electricity, 237 million pounds of steam (generated in the power plant at left), and nearly 13 million tons of chilled water.

The tunnels beneath Homewood's Latrobe Hall for many years were home to piles of South American ore that Hopkins geologist Joseph Singewald collected and stashed there in the 1920s. The ore contained large amounts of sulfur. "In the humid and hot environment of the steam pipes, the rocks did all kinds of weird weathering things," says George Fisher, professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences. "It was a hellish environment. They off-gassed, colored the walls, produced an acidic atmosphere, and ruined the wooden cases and labels."

Withstanding the test of time

When engineers at Hopkins's Applied Physics Laboratory build and bury a time capsule, they don't fool around.

In some tunnels beneath Homewood, walking is tough, as pipes converge.

To mark the Lab's 50th anniversary in 1992, they first constructed a 15" x 15" x 20" box out of stainless steel. Into it they placed various memorabilia including photos of the VT fuze, the World War II instrument that launched the lab; aerial photos of APL over the years; 1992 Credit Union mortgage rates; and a menu from the APL cafeteria. All the items were sealed in spaceflight bags, which were purged with nitrogen to prevent oxidation. The capsule was placed in a clay pipe, which was sealed at both ends and lowered into a concrete vault adjacent to Building 1. Workers filled the vault with grout and placed a 2,400-pound granite pedestal on top, on which they positioned an engraved brass plaque that explains how to disinter this high-tech time capsule: "...Strike the center of the vault with a heavy hammer..."

The library down under

As campus legend goes, the MSE Library's subterranean design came in response to a decree in the will of founding President Daniel Coit Gilman: no building on the Homewood campus should rise higher than the eponymous Gilman Hall.

That's pure bunk, asserts archivist Jim Stimpert. Aesthetic appeal was the deciding factor. Back in the early 1960s, Hopkins planners wanted a spacious new building that would blend harmoniously with the campus's Georgian architecture-- particularly with the nearby architectural gem, Homewood House. So, architects designed a six-floor building, with four and a half of those floors underground. The approach was something of a departure. "Like an iceberg, the new Johns Hopkins Library conceals most of its mass below surface," penned one newspaper writer. There were other benefits to building beneath ground: heating and cooling costs would be reduced, and there was the potential for future expansion beneath the Upper Quad.

Digging out the necessary "big pit" raised problems. Architects had called for concrete ceilings and floors, but the excavation's close proximity to underground steam and electric lines made pouring concrete impossible. Even conventional steel wouldn't work; steel beams would have increased the depth of each floor, resulting in a building five feet taller than the design called for. Unthinkable. And digging deeper yet wasn't an option either, because of the water table. The solution? New high-strength "V-steels," pioneered months earlier at Baltimore's Bethlehem Steel, which allowed for slimmer beams and $100,000 in savings.

The new library was dedicated on November 7, 1964, inspiring one journalist to ask, 'What will they come down with next?"

A buried bridge

"...An improvident waste of money!" That's how Charles Carroll of Carrollton, an original signer of the Declaration of Independence, indignantly described a stone bridge his son, Charles, commissioned in 1801. It connected the looping driveway that led up to Homewood House.

Today the much-maligned bridge probably is somewhere beneath the Wyman Park Dell, says Homewood House curator Catherine Rogers Arthur, who has examined the records.

In the cool, stone wine cellar of the Homewood House, Charles Carroll of Homewood (1775-1825) is believed to have kept imported French wines and champagne on beds of straw in the archways, says curator Catherine Rogers Arthur. Beset by alcoholism, the young property owner occasionally imbibed two quarts of brandy before breakfast, letters show. When the house became the Country School for Boys in 1897, the cellar was converted into a furnace room. Today, the restored wine cellar offers a picturesque setting for university receptions and exhibitions.

There are other remains of the original 130-acre property that are also yet to be located, says Arthur. Remnants from Homewood's spring house probably sit somewhere beneath Mudd Hall, she says; the whereabouts of the dairy remains a mystery.

Avians out for a stroll

The sight was an amusing one, as several veteran researchers at the School of Public Health remember it: several penguins waddling down the halls as they were escorted around the building on one of their frequent walks. The tuxedoed birds, as well as a couple of seals, made their home in the school's basement, where they were maintained by William Sladen, now a professor emeritus of molecular microbiology and immunology and director of environmental studies at the Airlie Center in Warrenton, Virginia.

In the 1960s and '70s, Sladen published several scientific papers based on his field and laboratory studies of seals and penguins, including a report on DDT residues in Adelie penguins and a crabeater seal from Antarctica.

Going way, way back

Though Johns Hopkins proudly celebrates its 125th anniversary this year, that span of time is but a whisper in the geological record of the earth beneath the university's foundations. This record is exposed in the rocky outcrops along the banks of Stoney Run, the modest creek that skirts Homewood's western boundary. "This was an ocean basin one-half billion years ago," says Earth and Planetary Sciences professor George Fisher, while clambering over the rocks and under a strangling thicket along the creek.

Plate tectonics eventually pushed the African and North American continents together, which erased the ocean and gave rise to the Appalachian Mountains, as well as an enormous amount of volcanic activity. After 100 million years or so, the continents split and drifted apart; this cycle of collision and separation has repeated itself every 200 million years or so and continues to this day, explains Fisher.

Descend to the depths of the Peabody Conservatory and you'll find the high-ceilinged studio of chief piano technician Mary Schwendeman. She has a staggering workload: to maintain the conservatory's 200-plus pianos, which take a daily pounding in practice rooms, studios, and concert halls. Like a doctor making house calls, Schwendeman and her team of graduate assistants do many of their less involved tuning and repair jobs on site. The piano studio--loaded with long shelves of hammers, strings, and other supplies--is usually reserved for more time-consuming refurbishments.

The rocks along Stoney Run show a sampling of this history. There are mica-flecked stones on the water's edge; the mica was once mud on the floor of the ancient ocean. Exposed to extreme heat and pressure from volcanic activity, the mud metamorphosed into the mica we see today. And there are person-sized boulders of granite and basalt, also possibly the product of volcanoes. After erupting, some molten rock eventually cooled and hardened into chunks of basalt, while other more viscous molten rock bubbled to the surface and hardened into granite--the boulders hikers scramble over and around today.

A vibration-free zone

When it comes to doing research with superconductivity, location is everything for Hopkins physicist Daniel Reich. His work unfolds inside a cylindrical refrigerator that sits in a room of steel, deep in the basement of Homewood's Bloomberg Center for Physics and Astronomy.

"The whole floor of this lab is not tied into the rest of this building," says Reich. "It's like an iceberg on a fill."

The subterranean isolation is necessary because superconductivity requires, in the parlance of physicists, "a low noise environment." Samples like patterned aluminum must be chilled to extremely low temperatures--about -273 degrees Celsius. That's where the fridge, known as a "dilution" refrigerator, comes in. The room's steel walls are necessary to screen out interference from radiowaves or other electromagnetic signals, which would heat the sample.

But even the natural, infinitesimal swaying of a building can induce atomic vibrations that could compromise an experiment. Thus, the refrigerator must sit on a special vibration isolation unit, deep in the basement and apart from the rest of the physics building.

When the weather is bad, the tunnels beneath Hopkins Hospital can offer a pleasant alternative for getting around.

History underfoot

In 1792, Baltimore Town commissioners grumbled that "the poorer class of people, and people of color" were burying their dead under city streets and alleys. In response, Quaker merchant Joseph Townsend helped raise funds to purchase land for a Potter's Field on the northern side of what was then called Hampstead Hill and is now the northeast corner of the intersection of Broadway and Orleans streets, on the Johns Hopkins medical campus. For the next three decades, the city used the field to bury residents who could not afford to pay for a burial.

About the time Potter's Field was being established, St. Paul's Episcopalian Parish purchased a parcel of land adjacent to the field, and for the next 50 years used it as a cemetery for members of its Christ Church congregation.

Weighing in at 60 tons, the Department of Radiology's $2 million cyclotron (left) may be the largest instrument at the School of Medicine--one reason it is on a concrete slab in the basement of Hopkins Hospital. The minivan-sized cyclotron produces radioactive isotopes; these are used to label compounds that are injected into patients undergoing PET (Positron Emission Tomography), an imaging technology that shows the living heart, brain, and other organs.
   Inside the cyclotron, ions are produced in a vacuum tank, where powerful electric and magnetic fields propel them into a rapidly accelerating spiral path at about the speed of light, explains PET center director Robert Dannals. The ion stream bombards the atoms of a stable chemical isotope, giving birth to a radioactive isotope that is transferred through stainless steel tubing to a nearby "hotbox," where chemists use it to label a biologically active compound. Clinicians then step in and inject tracers into patients or research volunteers, who are placed in the nearby PET scanner. PET picks up radiation produced by the decay of the isotope; the labeled compound fluorine-18 deoxyglucose, for example, will light up where a tumor is present, since cancer cells tend to consume a lot of this sugar.

Time passed. Things changed and the city rapidly developed around and eventually over the two cemeteries, as living memory of their existence was erased. The site was transformed into a residential neighborhood and eventually a parking lot.

Then, in the mid-1990s, as Hopkins made plans to build a Comprehensive Cancer Care Center on the site of the parking lot, archaeologists discovered signs of human remains under the asphalt. An extensive excavation uncovered hundreds of graves. Little is known about the deceased, according to a draft report on the excavation. They were buried in wooden coffins. Some had English half pennies placed over their eyes. Historical records reveal that some had died during the yellow fever epidemic of 1800.

The remains were disinterred and reburied at Oak Lawn Cemetery, in Baltimore, where a multi-denominational "Service of Recommittal" was held.