“Propylaeum”

It was unfortunate that I was not able to make it to the 2018 Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington D.C.  My daughter’s former classmate was making his fourth consecutive appearance in the week-long national event.  It was a tight window: we had to fly and we had to go on Tuesday.  Tropical Storm Alberto foiled our plans.

What would have made our attendance at Bee Week so special was to have been there for the final contest of his spelling career.  We had been there from the very beginning when Liam and my daughter were the top 5th grade spellers for their elementary school and the last two standing for the county-wide competition.  They went back and forth until she slipped up and he made the most of the opportunity.

It’s not hard to get caught up in the world of championship spelling.  I watched a few minutes on TV – yes, it’s televised on ESPN – and witnessed a Texas teen spell “propylaeum.”  Like most bee words, I’d never heard of it.

So what does this have to do with architecture?

When the competitor asked for the definition, I realized I should have heard of a “propylaeum” and I was surprised I had not come across it until now.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary definition of propylaeum given to Speller #279 was:

a vestibule or entrance of architectural importance before a building or enclosure

~ Merriam-Webster dictionary

However, in line with the Greek origin of the word, the architectural application is more specific:

The Greek word propylaeon (propylaeum is the Latin version) is the union of the prefix pro-, “before, in front of” plus the plural of pyle “gate,” meaning literally “that which is before the gates,” but the word has come to mean simply “gate building.”

~ Wikipedia, “Propylaea”

The Propylaea in Athens, Greece marks the entrance to the Acropolis.

Propylaea of the Acropolis – Athens, Greece (437-432 BC)

Two “modern” versions of Athens’ Propylaea can be found in Germany: the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin and the Ruhmeshalle in Munich.

Brandenburg Gate – Berlin, Germany (1788-1791); Carl Gotthard Langhans, architect
Ruhmeshalle – Munich, Germany (1862); Leo von Klenze, architect

The early 19th century English architect, Thomas Harrison, added a propylaeum to the medieval Chester Castle in Cheshire, England.  It was one of several neoclassical buildings he designed for the castle, which was being used as a prison at the time.

Chester Castle Propylaea – Cheshire, England (1813-1815); Thomas Harrison, architect

As I looked at all of these examples of propylaea, I was reminded of the entrance to the Memphis Zoo, with its (appropriately) Egyptian style: a current day propylaeum with actual gates – and hieroglyphics.

Entrance to the Memphis Zoo – Memphis, Tennessee (1990)

As disappointing as it was for me to miss experiencing the National Spelling Bee in person this year, I know it was much more disappointing for our young friend not to have made the final round of his farewell tour.  It has been a delight to spectate on his successes, and as a bonus, I’ve learned a new word in the process.  He has worked very hard these four years, but is looking forward to bigger and better things to come.

As should we all.