Bursting the Bartlett balloon

By Claire McNear

There is a balloon inside Bartlett. Many have noticed it, though few have discussed it, out of fear, perhaps, that those charged with the maintenance of such things will once again assault the University with demands for more money. But the time has come to take action against this elephant in the room—or this balloon, as it were.

The Bartlett Dining Commons is an indefatigably grand building, to be sure. Gymnasium though it may once have been, time has converted it into a series of dauntingly beautiful rooms built in the U of C’s traditional Gothic style and infused with English Arts and Crafts. Gargoyles peer down from the towering outer face, carved mahogany banisters wind up the stone staircase, ancient-looking plaques recall fraternity victories in large brassy letters, and an ornate Early English–style mural pays homage to the once-tantamount goal of “the Glory of Manly Sports” amid pictures of lipsticked men in tights.

The dining hall itself, the crown jewel of all the stately Bartlett building, is no different from the rest. Beneath its high-vaulted ceiling, the hundreds of students assigned to Bartlett sit every day, chatting with their preordained house friends, surrounded by arches and carvings that, though clearly inspired by athletics, are nevertheless impressive and elegant.

I had not eaten in Bartlett more than a dozen times before curiosity inspired me to look upward. And then I saw it, drooping and pendulous.

High above the tables, far up in the metallic rafters that support Bartlett’s great ceiling and its long rows of skylights, a balloon is trapped around a metal beam. It did not assume this post recently; it is not temporary—the balloon has, so far as anyone can surmise, been there for the entirety of Bartlett’s existence. It is heart-shaped and long since deflated, its distant red ribbon wrapped firmly around the beam and showing no signs of relinquishing its hold. There it hangs, far, far above the center of the dining hall, lingering like an ominous red foil bird, forever perched and ready to dive down upon whatever student it deems unworthy of a spot in the hall.

But it does not dive down. The heart balloon has found a home in the eternal heavens of the ceiling, gloating from its inaccessible nest for all the world to see, for it is not invisible: Glinting and garish, it rotates back and forth, polluting the grandeur of the century-old building with the tinny memory of some past transient celebration.

Is this where our tuition dollars are going? Is this how we want to represent our school to visiting students and their buoyantly reminiscent parents? Are we the school that allows unsightly trash to forever mar the beauty of our endowment-glossed buildings?

With Valentine’s Day fast approaching, the need to exterminate this aberration is more and more dire. I have heard numerous students scry meanings from the wilted waving of the heart balloon: Perhaps it represents the lofty goals of the U of C’s student body—shining, prominent, tantalizing, utterly unreachable, and, ultimately, wilted. Or perhaps it represents the heart and soul of the quintessential Chicago pupil: crushed, deflated, bleached by the years, weary enough to die, but unable to do so for some single fiber that keeps him suspended in long, cold, and lonely suffering.

The heart balloon is depressing; it is ugly, it has bad juju, and it needs to go. Work orders, I’m told, are the ideal method for dealing with this sort of issue. But if that should fail, perhaps some Society for Creative Anachronism member or wayward Australian could lend the help of an arrow or a boomerang. After all, this is indeed the U of C.