Was one of my university’s founders an atheist?

Thomas Ondrey, Plain Dealer

photo by Thomas Ondrey, The Plain Dealer

My local newspaper the Plain Dealer had an article recently on legends and myths in the universities in the Cleveland area. One item caught my attention because it concerned the Amasa Stone Chapel that is in the center of my university campus. Built in 1911, it has carved angels on three sides and a gargoyle on the wall facing west. The news report said, “According to legend, trustees of Western Reserve University had the gargoyle placed there to face the campus of the Case School of Applied Science in their belief that Leonard Case Jr., who founded the school, was an atheist.” (You can see the gargoyle on the left and the angel on the right.)

When I read this, I was intrigued. Was one of the founders of my university an atheist? Could it be that I had worked for over two decades in an institution founded by a kindred soul? That would be pretty neat, if true. But if so, why would that be highlighted in this weird way? To understand this, one has to delve a little bit into my university’s somewhat complicated history.

Case Western Reserve University got its strange name from the fact that in 1967 it was created out of the merger of two separate institutions, the Case Institute of Technology and Western Reserve University. The admissions office says that when they go around the country recruiting, they sometimes hear from high school students and guidance counselors that they had heard of us but assumed from the name that we were one of the military academies.

The original Case School of Applied Science was named after is founder Leonard Case Jr, a philanthropist who wanted to create a polytechnic that would train people in science and engineering and he donated the money that led to its founding in 1880 just after its death. Located initially in downtown Cleveland in the family home, it moved to its current location on the east side of Cleveland in the area now known as University Circle 1885. It changed its name to Case Institute of Technology in 1947.

The other half of the union Western Reserve University was founded in 1826 as Western Reserve College in the small town of Hudson, 30 miles southeast of Cleveland, and got its name from the fact Western Reserve was what this region of the country was called when it belonged to Connecticut before Ohio became a state in 1803. It moved to its present location in 1882 with funding from a rich industrialist Amasa Stone.

In some ways, the union of the two academic institutions was a perfect match that should have gone very smoothly because the two institutions complemented each other, with Case being focused on science and engineering while WRU had liberal arts and the professional schools. The two campuses also adjoined one another so the union immediately created one contiguous campus and they had jointly purchased land and collaborated in other ways before.

But it turned out that the marriage was an unhappy one for reasons that are not entirely clear to me, with the faculty and alumni not getting along at all and it is only now, as all those who were there from the time when they were two separate institutions are slowly dying off, that the sense of being one university is taking hold. But down the ages there have been certain legends that grew around the animosity. One concerns the Amasa Stone Chapel that was built in 1911 by WRU and now sits at the center of the university and is the location of the infamous gargoyle and the allegations of atheism against Leonard Case.

To get to the bottom of this, I consulted a colleague of mine who serves as the unofficial university historian and he set the record straight. This what he wrote:

Leonard Case was not an atheist. He was a Presbyterian, a member of the congregation of the First Presbyterian Church (now “The Old Stone Church” on Public Square). The prevailing mythology at WRU was that he was an atheist, however, both because his gift founded a non-traditional (i.e., technological) school and because he was often in battles with Amasa Stone, the surly benefactor of WRU and father of Flora Stone Mather.

So Case was mistakenly thought to be an atheist because he created a secular university that was focused on science and technology and not based on religion and did not have a church affiliation as was the common practice in those days.

So if he was not an atheist, then what’s the deal with the gargoyle? The newspaper article went on to say that the gargoyle had a more benign explanation, and reflected a common architectural practice of those times. “Architect Henry Vaughan based his design on English medieval churches, where it was common to place a gargoyle on the dark (west) side of the building.” But it is also possible that the ‘surly’ Stone’s heirs instructed the architect to put the gargoyle as a permanent symbol of their father’s dislike of Case.

It is interesting how these legends arise and how the label of atheist is so often used as a form of denigration.