Le Fer Hall in the summer

“If this floor could talk!”

Onyx Online | 06.12.2019

A time capsule found beneath the surface of the McMahon Ballroom paints a picture of life in 1923.

By Lindsey Richardt ’07

A faded brown paper with the builder's note
The handwritten note signed by the original installers of the ballroom floor.

If floors could talk, the 95-year-old McMahon Ballroom floor would have some intriguing stories. Located in Le Fer Hall, the grand Italian ornate style ballroom would tell tales of the finest events held at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College (SMWC), from prominent visitors and elegant balls to student activities and decades-old traditions. What was uncovered during a renovation of the ballroom floor was a different kind of story, a piece of history dating back to 1923.

The original maple floor had been maintained with care over the years, but after 95 years of dancing and dining, the ballroom floor had reached the end of its useful life. Ten years ago, when the floor was last sanded and sealed, John Crispin, father of Frieda Crispin ’04 and owner of Hardwood Renovations, informed the College that the wooden planks had become too thin to ever sand again. It was then that the College knew the floor would eventually need to be replaced.

“The flooring was more than 95 years old and no longer structurally sound. A tongue and groove board can only be sanded so many times before you damage the actual groove or tongue,” said Joshua Wood, director of facilities at SMWC. “John Crispin is the best I’ve ever worked with. He showed me areas of the floor that you could almost step through because it was sanded so thin.”

Replacing the floor finally became a priority when a pipe burst on the second floor of Le Fer Hall last winter, causing water to flood the ballroom.

“Unfortunately, the area directly under the leak suffered significant damage,” said Catherine Mickey Saunders ’98, associate vice president for advancement at SMWC. “The wooden planks were obviously warped. We could not put off replacing the flooring any longer.”

In the midst of removing the old floor, a number of items left by the original installation crew were discovered below the floor boards. The most unique discovery was a hand written letter signed by two of the members of the original crew and dated September 1923. Due to age and wear, the only recognizable name is that of Jacob Junker, who the College discovered to be a known carpenter at the time.

Next to the letter was a wax paper sandwich wrapper from Ideal Baking Company, a workman’s compensation form from Freitag-Weinhardt, an organization based in Terre Haute, Indiana that still exists today, and a clipping from the Terre Haute Star dated July 12, 1923.

Wood encased the letter with a frame he created from pieces of the original flooring.

A torn piece of wax sandwich paper
The sandwich paper which had contained the note, bearing the logo of the Ideal Baking Company.

“The items paint a picture of a day in the life of a member of the original installation crew,” said Wood. “Ideal Baking Company was a Terre Haute based company that no longer exists. I can imagine that in 1923 it was common for one of the workers to stop by their deli on their way to work to pick up a sandwich for the day.”

The installation of the new ballroom floor was completed in January. The floor consists of a mixture of red and white oak, and while darker than the original, those using the ballroom have commented on how the darker hue enhances the ambiance and beauty of the elegant space. The oak has also proven to buffer footsteps and noise better than the maple, improving the sound quality of the room.

“The new oak floor is just as durable as the original, if not more durable. We’re confident we’ll get another hundred years out of the new floor. It was a good investment as well as a needed investment,” Wood adds.

The new floor was made possible by the I Love Le Fer initiative, which is part of the $22 million comprehensive Aspire Higher Campaign. The Campaign kicked off in February 2018. The I Love Le Fer initiative is one of the Aspire Higher Campaign priorities focused on campus infrastructure improvements and enrollment. On February 23, 2018, the Le Fer Ballroom was named and dedicated in honor of Anita Tiberi McMahon ’61 and her late husband, William, the first to give $1 million to the Aspire Higher Campaign.

In addition to the ballroom floor, the I Love Le Fer initiative has already supported the creation of a prep kitchen and new set of bathrooms near the ballroom. The campaign has also supported the renovation of Sullivan Parlor and Sacred Heart Chapel, the creation of Studio ’64, a student studio for dance, yoga and meetings located on the ground floor, Le Fer tower window replacements, and refurbished the crosses at the top of Le Fer, Guerin Hall and the Conservatory of Music. The next set of gifts to the campaign will be used to enhance the quality of student life on campus through renovation of bathrooms, community spaces and dorm rooms.

“Le Fer Hall is more than a building. It has been, and continues to be, a center of living and learning at SMWC. Support of the I Love Le Fer initiative enables us to provide students with the necessary modern amenities they find at other institutions, while they enjoy the beauty of our unique, historic Le Fer Hall,” said Saunders.