By Jonathan Black — UIC Alumni Magazine
Carolyn Brzezinski got the idea for University Icons when she was browsing a bookstore in Andersonville, looking at photographs of schools with her husband John, a professional photographer. She had been laid off, and John had just left his job at Northwestern University.
She recalls turning to him and saying, “Your photographs are so much better!”
“I thought people associated with a particular university would love a keepsake [of their alma mater], so John took some pictures of UIC and Northwestern,” she said. “Then we traveled to the U of I at Champaign. That’s how it started. “
So far, they have visited about 450 schools. They’ve been to all the Ivy League, Big Ten and Big 12 schools, printing out campus maps and locating iconic buildings.
“Besides flagship universities, we’ve traveled to some smaller campuses that may not be so renowned, but are nevertheless amazing,” she said.
“What came to us as a total surprise is the beautiful architecture on college campuses across the country. It’s a national treasure.”
Cities often lose remarkable buildings or landmarks to urban renewal, Brzezinski said, but schools retain architecture in every style. Sometimes the icons are prominent buildings, but not always.
Sometimes, they come across an icon by chance.
“There are surprises everywhere,” she said. “We found a school in Missouri, Park University, that has its library in a cave. And they’re still mining the limestone.”
Georgia’s Berry College has the biggest college campus in the world at 27,000 acres in the middle of nowhere, Brzezinski said.
“There’s another school, Florida Southern College, where all the buildings were designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. You uncover these amazing places,” she said.
Sometimes, an icon that’s featured on the school’s letterhead, for example, is totally hidden by trees.
“That’s a real disappointment,” she said. “Schools spend millions and millions of dollars on buildings and then hide them behind trees. We love trees, but not in front of buildings.”
Sometimes, they run into problems.
“At one university in northern Florida, we arrived nice and early,” she said. “We’d done our research and knew exactly where the sun would be. We thought, ‘This is great.’ But as we rounded the corner after parking our car, we saw a blood-drive truck set up in front of the building. That was it for that day.”
They don’t contact colleges before arriving and market their images on social media.
“Sometimes, the first the school knows we’ve been there is after we’ve posted images on Twitter,” Brzezinski said. “It’s amazing how many people will retweet an image. That’s the kind of thing we live for. The universities like us, too, because we’re promoting the school and the architecture. Lots of people go to a school, but might never stand back and say, ‘Wow, what a magnificent building.’”