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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Debunking: Brandeis Urban Legends

Published: November 20, 2009
Section: Features

The Myth of the Castle: The Castle, currently used as sophomore housing, is often thought of by students to have secret passageways (as highlighted above). In fact, these passageways are old utility chases for piping and wire.<br /><i>PHOTO BY Max Shay/The Hoot</i>

The Myth of the Castle: The Castle, currently used as sophomore housing, is often thought of by students to have secret passageways (as highlighted above). In fact, these passageways are old utility chases for piping and wire.
PHOTO BY Max Shay/The Hoot

Urban legends abound on the Brandeis campus. From Usdan Student Center to the Usen Castle, we have all heard some seemingly far-fetched story and passed it on to a friend. Each story leaves your mind until one day, you get stuck behind a tour group and all of a sudden you hear one of them again: “There’s a NASA lab under the Rabb steps.”

As a part of the training for a Brandeis tour guide, trainees are given a fact sheet that includes a list of Brandeis myths. Nate Rosenblum ’10, the senior tour guide coordinator, has memorized that sheet, and yet does not know where most of the myths originated.

Rosenblum said tour guides use the myths because it helps guests connect to the university.

“They feel like there’s something special here…that this is not just another building,” he said.

It turns out there is something special at Brandeis. The lab under the Rabb steps is very real. It’s called the Ashton Graybiel Spacial Orientation Lab, and its mythical status is a source of amusement for one of its directors, Prof. James Lackner.

“I find it great fun,” he said. “I’ve heard all sorts of variations on [the legend].”

Opened in 1982, the lab was actually funded in part by NASA until 2006, when NASA cut much of its programming to free up more money to build space shuttles, Lackner explained.

The lab, which has facilities to study human reactions to foreign environments, is home to the only functioning large-scale artificial gravity facility in the world, capable of replicating and even increasing the force of gravity while in the room. The lab is completely funded by outside sources, with an annual budget of $2.3 million. Students volunteer as subjects in a number of experiments each year, and some join the lab personnel in Houston, Texas, to take part in parabolic flight experiments, in which a modified plane goes up and down in a way that passengers experience moments of weightlessness.

“I couldn’t figure out how [the lab’s presence] developed as a myth because so many students have participated in experiments over the years,” Lackner said.

Ironically, student familiarity with any given space seems to generate more myths than to put them to rest. The Usen Castle, home to 120 sophomores, is at the center of several Brandeis urban legends. Most myths come courtesy of the Castle’s original inhabitant, the Middlesex University of Medicine and Surgery, originally constructed for use by the school in 1928 by the school’s president, John Hall Smith.

Even Lackner had heard a few myths about the Castle.

“I think they had a dissection area and a morgue,” he said.

Brandeis resident Assistant Archivist Maggie McNeely partially confirmed this particular legend, saying there was at the very least a room marked “refrigeration room” in what is now Schwartz Hall on an early map of the building.

“The Castle was built to house all the labs and whatever the medical students would need. It is not the same as building a dorm,” she said.

To make the Castle work as a dorm, Brandeis had to do some serious renovations that involved closing off access to various rooms, putting up walls and remodeling significant portions of the interior.

Director of Facilities Peter Baker wrote in an e-mail message to The Hoot that the Castle is cause for much speculation among students.

“I have been getting questions about ‘hidden passageways’ in the Castle for many years,” he wrote.

“I think what people are calling ‘passageways’ are in reality old utility chases intended for piping and wire. These are not spaces that are normally accessed (unless for a pipe leak, etc.), or in most cases large enough to accommodate a person,” Baker explained in the e-mail.

Baker also had some insight on Usdan Student Center. Contrary to popular belief, the building was not built with multiple entrances to prevent another student insurrection such as the one which occurred at Ford Hall. The number of entrances and exits is simply a response to fire codes, Baker said.

McNeely added that plans for the building took shape as early as 1965, with construction beginning in 1968, before the Ford Hall takeover.

However, Usdan is not without its own distinctions. “Usdan is actually built on the site of an old City of Waltham reservoir, and a plane did crash there a number of years before the building’s construction in 1970,” Baker said.

McNeely said the reservoir held 6 million gallons of water, but was eventually drained and filled when it fell out of use in order to make way for the building.

As for the plane, it crashed into the wall of the then-reservoir while being piloted by a graduate student in the Anthropology department.

McNeely said the pilot was showing off for his undergraduate female passengers by buzzing the campus when the wing of the plane clipped a tree, causing the plane to go down, killing two people inside.

“I hear Admissions tours with students talking about [legends] all the time. It’s hard to get rid of those things; it seems like they will never die off,” the achivist McNeely said. “The problem is they don’t come check with us!”