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After 60 Years, Guggenheim Film Unearthed At Washington University

(via Flickr/Teemu008)

Nearly 60 years ago this week, Washington University launched a 3-year, $20 million capital campaign – at the time, the second-largest by an American university.         

The fundraising effort included a short film called "The Second Century." Its director was Charles Guggenheim, who would later gain fame as a documentarian.

As university archivist Sonya Rooney explains it, "The Second Century" re-emerged on the school's radar screen when vice chancellor for public affairs Steve Givens sought information about the history of the university for its current fundraising efforts.

"And so I went to our stacks and looked through the films, and there was one  entitled 'The Second Century,'" Rooney says. "It was six reels of 16mm film."

Rooney and her colleagues knew that back in the 1950s, there had been a "Second Century" convocation to launch a major fundraiser. 

Credit (Rachel Lippmann/St. Louis Public Radio)
A program from the convocation for "The Second Century," a three-day celebration of the centennial of the founding of Washington University.

"So we had our film and media archive staff review the film, and saw some amazing images of campus," she says. "Then Steve [Givens] came over and they projected it for us, and we found this amazing film with a really good history of the university."

The film follows an unknown male looking around campus, starting in Brookings Hall, all the while asking, what makes a great university and a great student. It's "really a capture of the university at the time in the early 1950s," Rooney says.


Do we have any idea how or why Charles Guggenheim became attached to the project?

Rooney: We don't have much documentation around the film itself. It was great to see his name on there, and he did such a good job.There's other mysteries too. I'm interested in the male student who's the star. We've looked through the yearbook to try to ID him, but haven't been successful.  And we can't even be sure he was a student. He may have been an actor.

We also don't know the exact years they were filming. We have some idea, because we know when T.S. Eliot was on campus, but we don't know if it was done in just a few months, or over a longer period.

Did it strike you as an authentic film, or was it more a movie that Guggenheim was trying to make?

Steve Givens: I'm sure he had a charge to make a movie for a very specific purpose, for this fundraising campaign. The film is definitely a movie of its time - it has this kind of 50s "gee-whiz" mentality about it. Beyond that, it's just a great snapshot of what the university was like, and as he's [the student] walking thorough campus, so many of those scenes just could have been shot yesterday, because our buildings haven't changed.

How successful was "The Second Century" campaign?

Givens: I don't know the numbers but I know we have a new library in the middle of campus, and we have a new student center, and those are the two things they were raising money for in the 50s. 

Credit (WUSTL Photo Services)
The three-year "Second Century" fundraising effort led to the construction of the John M. Olin library.

How big of a role did the film play in that success?

Givens: I don't think we know how it was used, whether it was played just one time at a dinner as we do now, and then it just kind of got stuck on a shelf, or did they take it around the country and show it elsewhere. I don't think it had a broad use, it was obviously for the university, but I haven't found any more details on that.

Any plans to do an updated version?

Givens: I don't think we would dare touch Charles Guggenheim's film, other than to save it and digitize it.

Follow Rachel Lippmann on Twitter: @rlippmann

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.