NonParrishable: An Exclusive Interview with Parrish Hall

The face of Swarthmore College is its oldest and best known building: the Pastor Parrish Hall, sitting grandly at the top of Magill Walk. In the early years of the school, he was home to everything from the dining hall to dormitories to chemistry labs. Today, he houses a handful of students, a low-ceilinged basement where the Office of Student Engagement coexists with ghosts (probably) and dirty laundry, and the occasional administratively controversial protest. He was gracious enough to give me a slice of his time this week, catching me up on how these first few weeks of classes have prompted a reflection on all his years at Swarthmore.

I first met Pastor Hall when I was about ten, when my dad took me on a tour of all his old haunts. I remember climbing the stairs to the fourth floor, peeking through the door outside the radio station and smiling at the art on the walls. Pastor Hall laughed at this recollection, commenting that this nook was a welcome right side of his brain. 

“The second floor is offices, more or less joyless. I house many of the quieter students, I think. I’m no Willets. I do like the energy of a good party, something really driven by its music. And lunch-hour concerts are excellent, of course, but upstairs keeps me young.” 

In my first semester, I attended the jazz night on Parrish’s f Fourth floor. I asked Pastor Hall what it was like to experience such unusual levels of late- night traffic, and he thought for a moment. “Groovy.”

A part of Pastor Hall, it would seem, is stuck in 1969, the year that the Swarthmore Afro-American Student Society led an eight-day sit-in for increased Black enrollment and better resources for Black students, among other things. 

“That was a thrilling experience,” said Hall. “I’m not sure if they considered me an ally or an obstacle, but they slept on my floor and seemed enthusiastic about it. That is not something most college administrative buildings can boast about. And now it’s happened aga–”

I figure the news section will cover the elephant on the second floor. Anyway, as Pastor Hall freely admitted, the only Swarthmore phenomenon slower than the response to student protest is the movement of the pair of elevators shooting up his spine. 

“I’m well aware they aren’t the most efficient mode of travel,” he said. “I like to watch what students do while they wait for the elevator. Once I saw a young man pick his nose and stick it on the banister behind him. And there was the young lady who took out her knitting. She had seven rows finished before the doors opened.”

When campus tours pass through his doors (old wooden mammoths, heavy as ever, some more accessible than others), Pastor Hall gets to experience a selection of the prospective Swarthmore community. 

“If they scoff at the Psi Phi (not a fraternity) poster in the first floor hallway, I don’t expect to see them in the fall.” 

Hall appreciates the diversity of the Swarthmore student body’s interests, represented in the clubs and organizations advertised on his walls. 

“I especially like the poster with the dinosaur on it,” he said. (It was unclear whether he was aware of Boy Meets Tractor or just interested in dinosaurs generally.) 

I asked Pastor Hall if he ever misses the hustle and bustle of his early years, and he immediately answered in the negative. 

“After the events of 1881, I am very glad not to host class meetings anymore.”

Hall was referring, of course, to the 1881 fire, the cause of which is speculated to be a mishap in a chemistry lab. After the fire, Hall underwent ten months of repairs and rebuilding. 

“It was lonely and inconvenient,” he said, about that time. “My good friend Martin, bless his soul, is going through much of the same now. I do hate to see him so gutted.”

As our time together was drawing to a close, I asked Hall about his favorite Swarthmore memory. He lit up, typical of the shiny Mr. Singer but unusual for the aging Pastor. 

“I could never choose one,” he said, “but every spring I look forward to the return of students to campus, the hustle and bustle, the mud on their shoes when they push through my doors.” I wasn’t sure if he was being sarcastic. It was hard to tell – his expression is perpetually stony.

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