The Sphinx & What Might Have Been

In this elevation from 1923, Sphinx is shown with a proposed addition.By Michael G. Marcusa

As you stroll down the north side of East Wheelock Street, the monolithic Sphinx Hall does not emerge from the wall of trees until the last possible second. It is nestled so seamlessly into the forest that you do not realize it is there until you are literally standing in the shadow of its imposing facade. For some, it is nothing more than an irrelevant vestige of a less “enlightened” era in Dartmouth’s history. For others, it is maddeningly mysterious, taunting passers by with its grandiosity, yet refusing to reveal its secrets. For still others, it is simply awe-inspiring: a reminder of the unique, almost sacred role that tradition plays in our College culture. As for me, standing in front of that massive Egyptian tomb just makes me feel very, very small.

I was first introduced to the Sphinx as a prospective student, while I explored the campus during Dimensions weekend. At the time, I found the building and its story fascinating, but little more than a curiosity. Like every Dartmouth student, I wanted to know what was inside, but given the ridiculously low odds of getting tapped, I was not going to dwell on it. Everything changed last Summer however. As a parting kernel of wisdom,a friend from the 2010 Class confided in me that deep within the hallowed archives of the Rauner Special Collections library, there was a secret: the architectural floor plans of the enigmatic Sphinx. I was taken aback by my friend’s revelation. Nobody was supposed to know what was inside the Egyptian Tomb on East Wheelock; yet, there I was, being told that the information was public and free. With the keys to unlocking the mystery in my grasp, I returned to campus determined. I would be the one to crack the case. I would expose the Sphinx to the world.

I admit that I was entranced with fantasies of grandeur as I swung open the door to Webster Hall on a warm Friday earlier this fall. Although I am a senior, I am embarrassed to admit that I had never actually been inside the building before. The reading room was brightly lit, and one could only describe the atmosphere among the other students as dignified. A tower of books stood in the center of the spacious hall, sealed in glass to protect it from damage and as I looked upon it, I felt the excitement begin to take hold. I was looking at the haystack where I would find my needle.

With bravado, I strode to the reference desk at the front of the room where I was greeted by a kind attendant. She explained to me that in Rauner, the books are so rare that students are not allowed to enter the stacks; but told me that she could bring me any reference I asked for. I had done my research, and I knew exactly what I needed to ask, but I paused. At my long-anticipated moment of triumph, I hesitated. Something about what I was about to do felt wrong – almost like I was committing a cardinal sin against my College. Finally however, with as much confidence as I could muster, I asked the question.

“Could you please bring me item 1398: Architectural drawings for a proposed addition to Sphinx Hall, Hanover, N.H., April 1923.”

The librarian did not bat an eye. There was no gasp, no grimace. Her nonchalance as she processed my request and sent her colleague to the stacks to retrieve the plans astonished me. I had just asked for the floor plans to the Sphinx! It was the Dartmouth equivalent of asking someone at the Library of Congress for the President’s nuclear launch codes. Yet, it almost seemed like in her eyes, my audacious request was routine. For the next several minutes, I sat at a table in the reading room and waited for my prize. Images were spinning in my mind. Was there a pool? What kind of mystical, cultish shrines would I find? Would there be a crypt? I had so many questions, and I just knew that the answers were in my grasp.

The attendant emerged from the stacks carrying a plain-looking folder. For the long-coveted secrets that I expected that folder to contain, I was surprised by its simplicity. The librarian handed the folder to me and I carried it to my table, but I didn’t open it. I must have sat there for an entire minute, just staring, and wondering. Finally, I lifted the front cover. The secret of the Sphinx was now mine.

Inside the folder were three large blueprints, one for the basement of Sphinx, the other two for its first and second floors. The basement was fairly simple. The boiler room took up the bulk of the floor space; but there were three more unique rooms. I saw a long corridor known as “The Store,” which I surmised was simply fancy terminology for storage space, a billiards room with two pool tables, and a small chamber which, according to the blueprints was the “card room.” Images of Sphinx members crowded around a table playing Poker came to mind. The first floor of the building seemed in many ways less interesting. There was a large hall designated as a “living room,” but beyond that, the first level seemed to consist of small, square rooms, named as either “guest rooms,” or “bed rooms.” The second level largely followed this pattern of small bedrooms, although there seemed to be a kitchen and a terrace. In all honesty, what startled me most about the blueprints was not what I found, but what I didn’t find. There were no swimming pools, or elaborate fountains, or ancient crypts. The blueprints did not reflect any of my mad speculation. In fact, they seemed to show nothing more than a glorified fraternity house.

When I had finished perusing the plans however, I noticed that something was amiss. I had known the sphinx to be a square building, with a small rear extension. The blueprints however, showed an elaborate complex with many different rooms, arranged at every level, in a sort of sideways L-shape. I was astonished. At first, I envisioned that the plans revealed that the Sphinx is actually an elaborate underground complex built into the side of the hill, with the Egyptian tomb acting as merely the figurative tip of the ice-berg. But then I inspected the packet more closely and I found a fourth document. Beneath the three blueprints was a laminated artistic rendering of Sphinx Hall – only it wasn’t the Sphinx I was familiar with. The picture showed a larger building, with the facade that every Dartmouth student is familiar with as a mere antechamber, to a large, ornate Egyptian-looking temple. I thought back to the full title of item 1398 and then I realized what I was looking at. This was a drawing for a proposed addition to Sphinx Hall – a proposed addition that I now saw had clearly never been built. I looked again at the blueprints and realized that the part of the plans corresponding with the actual Sphinx building that I knew was blank – nothing more than a nondescript rectangle.

At first, I felt dejected. In my mind, I had built the quest for the Sphinx’s secrets up so much, that I could only interpret my inability to the find the plans for the actual building as a failure. I had been thwarted in what was supposed to be my moment of glory. But then I thought about what I was actually looking at. These plans were commissioned by Sphinx Society in 1923 – they reflected the organization’s vision about what its physical plant should contain. While the details may not be consistent with the actual structure that exists today, it seems clear that the 1923 plans clearly lay out a set of principles that must have informed decisions about subsequent renovations. In fact, I later learned that the smaller rear extension that does exist was built in 1926 by the same firm that authored the 1923 plans. In all likelihood then, the rear extension is simply a scaled-down version of the plans that are available in Rauner. I firmly believe therefore that the 1923 plans are an important piece of Sphinx organizational history and offer important clues as to what very well could – and could not – be inside the building.

As I walked home from the library that day, on some level I was pleased with myself. Although I had not made the earth-shattering discovery that I had hoped for, I had learned enough to venture an informed guess as to what was inside the enigmatic building on East Wheelock Street. I was pretty sure there was no swimming pool and I had become convinced that the building’s function was far more utilitarian than I believed. But I still could never know for sure. Despite my efforts, I was unable to completely strip the Sphinx of its veil of secrecy. 

But then I got to thinking. Perhaps it is this veil of secrecy that makes Sphinx truly meaningful for students outside the small cadre of members. Perhaps Sphinx’s allure, and its mystery, are intrinsically valuable to our student body. I will be the first to admit that there is something about having a mysterious, forbidden building on this campus that is just plain cool. The speculation and the wild theories are the things that truly make this building stand out in our minds. Perhaps, with my failure to crack the case fully, I have preserved something infinitely more valuable. Standing in front of that massive behemoth on East Wheelock street still makes me feel small. And that’s the fun part.