From the Ground Up

Vintage photo of nuns on USD campus


The year 1949 was drawing to a close when the State of California ratified the charter of San Diego University — officially creating the San Diego College for Men, College for Women and School of Law. San Diego mayor Harley Knox had already turned the first shovel of dirt on the mesa where the most recent tenant had been U.S. Navy anti aircraft artillery.

Seventy years and many, many shovels of dirt later, the University of San Diego is still under construction and renovation. The Renaissance Plan — a 10-year effort of renewal and new construction launched in 2016 — calls for upgrades to existing facilities and new construction, including a Learning Commons behind Copley Library and a facility for the School of Business.

It’s the latest phase of development that has transformed a chaparral-covered mesa into what is widely considered one of the most beautiful campuses in the nation.

USD’s co-founders, Bishop Charles Buddy and Mother Rosalie Hill, were a formidable pair. The outgoing, personable prelate was the public face of the effort to build the Catholic colleges in the newly created Diocese of San Diego — its smiling, glad-handing adrenaline. The reserved reverend mother became its project manager.

It was Bishop Buddy who in 1947 took the stage at Balboa Park’s Organ Pavilion for a rally for the University Foundation Fund that also featured Pat O’Brien, a Hollywood star famous for his roles as a priest.

“Look out there at all those young people,” the first bishop of the San Diego diocese enthused to the overflow crowd of some 3,000, gesturing to a group of parochial school children. “Do you think they are worth a good university?”

Long before that “good university” began to take shape, Mother Hill had determined that the school’s architecture would echo the Spanish Renaissance style of the Universidad de Henares in Alcalá, Spain, home of the city’s namesake, San Diego. While the distinctive structural design is synonymous with USD today, it was not a universally popular choice at the time.

In a USD History Project interview, the late Sister Sally Furay recalled the bishop himself wondered about the “imitative style.” But Mother Hill was adamant.

“Mother Hill would say Spanish Renaissance in one or another of its forms had been in style in Southern California for 200 years, and will be for the next 200. She said, ‘If I build modern in 1950, it will be out of date by 1975.’”

The reverend mother attended to the smallest details. As workers were installing carved mahogany doors at the main entrance to the College for Women, Mother Hill interceded with instructions on how to better hang them. “Lady,” a worker sighed, “you must expect these doors to last a hundred years.” Mother Hill’s quiet reply: “My good man, I expect them to last 300 years.”

Not everyone was impressed by her vision. In a 1959 San Diego Magazine piece titled “University of San Diego: An Architectural Failure,” longtime San Diego art and architecture critic James Britton compared the young campus to a cemetery. One can only wonder what Britton might have thought in 2017, when The Princeton Review named USD the most beautiful campus in the nation.

Sister Virgina Rodee ’57 thinks Bishop Buddy and Mother Hill would be pleasantly surprised if they could see USD at age 70.

“I think they’d be amazed at the technology and some of the other modern advances, but I think they’d feel right at home today,” Rodee says. “And that’s not just because the architecture has remained consistent. The campus has the same welcoming, loving, family feel now as it did then. I can’t imagine that being different, even in another 70 years.” — Timothy McKernan

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