When Hall Auditorium opened in 1953, the Cleveland Plain Dealer called it "the most controversial building in Ohio." Later entries on the campus scene have muted that controversy, but opinions still clash over Hall- its size, appearance, and utility. Since these issues swirled around the building for 40 years before its actual construction, the auditorium merits the Plain Dealer's judgment if only for the sheer longevity of the quarrel. No building project anywhere better reflects the turmoil in the world of architectural politics since World War I.
The war had just broken out when Charles Martin Hall willed $600,000 for "a large auditorium" in memory of his mother, to be used by both college and town to encourage "all forms of education." Hall named Cass Gilbert as the desired architect and Cleveland lawyer Homer Johnson as the trustee of his will. President King promptly clamped a religious definition on the building, hoping it would become a common place of worship for all the Protestant churches in town, while also serving as a concert hall. He imagined an auditorium seating 4,000, wish a basement theater accommodating 800 more.
Gilbert's first sketch for the project dates from 1915. His proposed facade was a more elaborate version of his Finney Chapel across the square. The war and then postwar inflation delayed its construction, but in 1928 college trustees decided to build. Then came the Great Crash. Hall's gift (invested in slumping Alcoa stock) no longer supported King's vision or Gilbert's design. Homer Johnson, whose son Philip was just emerging as a proponent of the modern International Style, balked not only at Gilbert's plans, but at those of four succeeding architects, including the distinguished Eliel Saarinen. In later years Johnson cheerfully confessed the hope that his son would be the ultimate designer.
In 1946, incoming president William stevenson, a lawer by profession, moved to resolve the impasse. In collaboration with architect Eldredge Snyder, his Princeton classmate and friend, he settled with Homer Johnson on Philip Johnson's friend Wallace Harrison, chief designer of the United Nations complex in New York City. When Harrison's plans came in well over cost, the college filed a successful suit in 1951 to reinterpret Hall's will and make possible what Stevenson called "the best little jewel of an auditorium with the money available." In process, the original projected 4,000-seat capacity shrank to just over 500.
Harrison's final design was stunning. The curving flow of its limestotne walls and the tall, undulating white marble curtain facing the street offset the cubist massing of the stagehouse and give the building a more monumental look than its size sustains. Some thought it matched the campus ambiance with all the grace of a beached whale, and dubbed it Movy Dick. But its expressive theatrical beauty, enhanced by fine landscaping, has won many converts, who only wish it had more seats.
Blodgett, Geoffrey. Oberlin Architecture, College and Town: a Guide to Its Social History. Oberlin, Ohio: Oberlin College, 1985. Print.