Oberlin College Architecture:

A Short History

by Geoffrey Blodgett


Give or take fifteen years, Oberlin can be defined as a twentieth-century college campus surrounded by a nineteenth-century Ohio village. Hardly any physical trace remains of the campus buildings that existed during Oberlin's first half century. The built environment of the college as it looked as late as 1885 has almost wholly disappeared. The fortunate exception is First Church the grand old orange brick meetinghouse which rose from 1842 to 1844, based on plans from Boston architect Richard Bond as modified by the majority rule of the congregation. Donald Love, College Secretary from 1926 to 1962, once remarked that the fact that Oberlin College did not own First Church is no doubt the main reason for its survival.

The transformation of the rest of the campus has been a relentless if often planless process. One summer after the Civil War, a travelling artist from Chicago named C.W. Ruger stopped in Oberlin and executed a bird's-eye view of the town as it appeared in 1867. If we had a set of such views, one for every five years since Oberlin's founding, and if we could flash them in time-lapse photographic sequence, what we would see is a vast deal of commotion in the middle, and relatively placid, low-visibility change all around. The raising up and ripping down of college buildings in the middle of a comparatively static midwestern village has been the main theme in the environmental history of Oberlin.

Oberlin's settlers were a plain and thrifty lot. The college was the only reason for their presence here, and despite decades of earnest effort by local merchant boomers, Oberlin never acquired a commercial base autonomous from the college. Therefore the town itself produced a rather modest architectural deposit. Oberlin contrasts vividly in this regard to nearby towns like Wellington, Milan, Hudson and Norwalk, each of which celebrated commercial success through the medium of architecture.

In early Oberlin, architecture was not much on people's minds. The founders' primary cultural virtues -- that tough streak of Christian moral frugality, that constant concern for missionary causes whose boundaries lay far beyond the limits of the village -- combined with economic necessity to discourage local aesthetic flourishes. While Oberlinians shared in the stylistic changes of passing decades, they did so in a muted, sober way. The nineteenth-century Oberlin vernacular, like that of the New England Puritan villages from which it descended, was very plain.

The college regarded its earliest buildings with little sentiment or historical veneration. Even the most substantial of them, such as Tappan Hall near the center of the square, were looked upon as expedient and expendable solutions to the problems of early privation. When affluence hit the college in the 1880s, and fresh expansion got under way, new buildings replaced the old with few tears shed for the past. Oberlin regarded its physical past, distinct from its moral past, as something to be discarded and transcended.

Oberlin was not alone among American colleges in lacking firm plans for campus growth. Those which did evolve according to a preconceived design include Union College in Schenectady, New York, whose Federal plans were provided by the Frenchman Joseph Jacques Ramée, Thomas Jefferson's Neo-Classical University of Virginia, and the Gothic Revival campus of Ohio's Kenyon College, launched a few years before Oberlin. These are exceptions, not the rule.

Still, the peculiar circumstances of Oberlin's early growth -- the narrow economizing of the first thirty years, followed by sudden affluence in the Gilded Age -- meant that when the time and money for expansion came, there was no cumulative local architectural tradition to build on. No perceived line of local continuity existed to distinguish Oberlin from any other place in MidAmerica, or to guide its physical growth.

Therefore, as the contracts went out in the 1880s, contemporary, cosmopolitan architectural enthusiasms flourished unhindered. Current national taste rather than any local vocabulary defined the appearance of the new buildings. Each as it went up was a separate, celebrated event, often architecturally irrelevant to what had gone before or what would come next.

One can cite other local habits which help explain the peculiar appearance of the campus: the Oberlin genius for strong-willed individualism; a certain otherworldly impracticality that flashes among us every now and then; a longstanding insistence on grass-roots decision making which has sometimes resulted in architectural choices being shaped by local committees rather than architectural experts; and finally a certain brooding, anti-elitist mistrust for trained authority or deference to tradition. All these combined to produce a college campus whose architectural cohesion is at best elusive.

The casual, free-wheeling eclecticism of Oberlin today is the result. You can stand on the plaque at the center of Tappan Square, turn on your toes through a 360-degree arc, and almost box the compass of the architectural history of the Western world. If something is missing or redundant, it has sometimes seemed that all you had to do was wait.

Still it is possible to detect some order in the variety. One can identify at least four distinct themes in the chronology of our architecture, each overlapping the next across the past century.



The Oberlin Stone Age (ca. 1885 - 1910)

The Oberlin Stone Age lasted for a quarter-century after 1885. It is represented by Peters Hall, Talcott Hall (1887), Baldwin Cottage (1887), Severance Chemical Laboratory (1900), Warner Gymnasium (1900), Carnegie Library (1908), Rice Memorial Hall (1910), and Wilder Hall (1911). These are all thick, chunky, aggressively solid buildings, made of heavy blocks of rough-textured buff Ohio sandstone. Six miles north of Oberlin is the huge Amherst hole from which many of them came.

The Stone Age can be divided into two modulations. The earlier examples enforce patterns of organic irregularity popularized by the work of America's greatest nineteenth-century architect, Henry Hobson Richardson, a style which acquired the label, Richardsonian Romanesque. They look a little like Richardson himself who was a massive, bulging man. Those that went up before the depression of the 1890s -- Peters Hall , Talcott Hall , Baldwin Cottage and the old Conservatory of Music -- were marked by much surface and interior complexity and by a decisive vertical thrust. They burst in a bold profusion of towers and bays and tall punched windows. Those that survive came from the drawing boards of an Akron architectural firm, Weary & Kramer, who described themselves as "specialists in court house, jail and prison architecture." Affable practitioners, they offered several versions of the Peters tower and invited the college to choose among them. Weary & Kramer's interior spaces- Peters Court,Talcott's elegant parlors, and the nook-and-cranny arrangements of Baldwin-have proved very adaptable over the years, gathering warm memories from generations of undergraduates.

The college resumed its building program shortly after the depression ended in 1897. Beginning with Warner Gym , a calmer mood sets in. Succeeding buildings were more crisp, oblong, and horizontal in their lines. Rectangularity, predictable fenestration, and shallow-pitched red tile roofs characterized their appearance. The turn of the century ushered in less swagger and more repose.

Although the buildings of the Stone Age acquired many loyal friends, they are regarded by some as the old gray elephants of the campus, and their careers have been punctuated by periodic demands for their demolition. American architectural technology and popular definitions of beauty and function have come a long way since Richardson and his local interpreters. It is hard to recapture the profound faith in progress that these buildings vindicated for those who watched them go up. For that generation, they were the promise of a modern future. President William Ballantine said at the dedication of one of them:

Oberlin College has reached now a new era. The pioneer stage has passed. The true university life has begun. We see no longer slab halls, or stumps and potato rows on the campus.... Massive and commodious edifices of freestone will look out across green shaven lawns, and graceful towers will rise above the elms. With the buildings already erected, or at once to be erected, Oberlin will take her place unchallenged among university towns famous for scholastic charms.

The elms are mostly gone now, but the buildings they rivaled remain. One hopes that their preservation will help to sustain some sense of connection back to that robust nineteenth-century pride in achievement among those who built them.


The Cass Gilbert Age (1908 - 1931)

The second stage of structural evolution can be called the Cass Gilbert era, stretching from the opening of Finney Chapel in 1908 to the completion of the quadrangle for the Graduate School of Theology in 1931. In the interim, as consulting architect to the college, Gilbert designed Cox Administration Building (1915), Allen Memorial Art Museum (1917), and Allen Memorial Hospital (1925). Cass Gilbert was one of the first-line building artists of the early twentieth century, although his reputation has been shadowed by his more daring contemporaries, Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright. Gilbert was a sound, conservative, academic architect, a close student of historical styles and their adaption to modern purposes. Whatever you wanted, Gilbert could do it for you, and do it well. Examples of this versatility include the Neo-Classical state capitol of Minnesota in St. Paul, the Woolworth Building in New York City (a soaring Neo-Gothic skyscraper), the George Washington Bridge over the Hudson, and the U.S. Supreme Court Building in Washington.

For Oberlin he chose historical models from twelfth-century Southern France to fifteenth-century Northern Italy, a stylistic reach from medieval Romanesque to Renaissance Classicism. His Oberlin buildings were mostly dressed in warm, rubbed tan sandstone, trimmed with red sandstone, and roofed in red tile. They lent a certain Mediterranean aspect to an otherwise solemn, Protestant Ohio campus. And, in Gilbert's mind at least, they related well to Warner Gymnasium, which he regarded as the best of the Stone Age structures.

Gilbert's architectural conservatism was matched by the formalism of his long-range campus landscape plan, which he worked up in collaboration with President Henry Churchill King and the Olmsted Brothers of Boston, sons and successors of America's greatest landscape architect. The arrangement they blocked out was a highly rectilinear plan, taking off from the square angles of Tappan Square. Its primary axis ran from the designated site of Hall Auditorium across the Square through J.L. Silsbee's Memorial Arch (1903) to climax in a tall campanile or bell tower which Gilbert envisioned rising into the Ohio sky west of Peters Hall. Peters was the main obstacle to his scheme, and he began urging its demolition as early as 1912. His grand design was reminiscent of Frederick Law Olmsted's plan for Stanford University, the Daniel Burnham plan for downtown Cleveland, and the McMillan plan for the Mall in Washington-monumental in scope with long formal sight lines and impressive vistas. His plan was never realized, but it tantalized trustees and other planners for long decades. It continued to define the terms of local architectural debate down through the early 1970s. In the controversy over the siting of Mudd Learning Center, Gilbert's vision was revived, and its frustration narrowly averted the disappearance of both Peters Hall and Warner Gymnasium.



Inter-War Era (ca.1918 - 1942)

The third phase in our building history spanned the years between the two world wars. This was a time of relatively slow growth, for several reasons. One was the long presidency of the aging Henry Churchill King, which seemed to lose some of its drive after the remarkably vigorous pre-war years. King was followed by Ernest Hatch Wilkins, who for all his other virtues was not much interested in buildings. Finally the disruptive impact of the wars bracketing this era, and the Great Depression in the middle of it, did not encourage building expansion.

The era witnessed three significant initiatives, each of which fell short of fulfillment. The first was a decision reached by the Board of Trustees in 1928 to build a residential campus for men on the quadrangle running north from West Lorain Street to the athletic fields. This would be Oberlin's modest analogue to the residential clusters launched in these years at Harvard and Yale. Its purpose was to gather Oberlin's male students from their scattered locations in private rooming houses all over town, and endow the male social life of the college with more cohesion and vitality. This reflected a long-standing concern to which the college had first addressed itself in the construction of Men's Building (later renamed Wilder Hall) in 1911. In 1928 the trustees resolved:

that Oberlin shall have a Men's Campus on which the men shall live together in buildings owned and operated by the college, a campus on which the life of men can be organized and developed in such a way as to stimulate scholarly ambition and to create an active masculine social atmosphere.

These are quaint words, especially to the students who live on the North Campus today in chummy co-educational contentment. Only one building of the new men's campus, Noah Hall (1932), went up before World War II intervened. The college met vast difficulties in financing the construction of Noah during the bleakest years of the depression.

The second impulse of the inter-war era was a move toward building in a Neo-Georgian style. This caught the current popular taste for things colonial which was pervasive nationally in the 1920s and 1930s. The most influential inspiration for this cult was the Rockefeller-financed restoration of colonial Williamsburg, which got underway in the late 1920s. The best Oberlin example of Neo-Georgian architecture is the President House on Forest Street, designed by Clarence Ward for Physics Professor S.R. Williams in 1920 and acquired by the college for President Wilkins in 1927. Executed in red brick, it bears a resemblance to the best loved of all American colonial homes, the wood-frame Craigie-Longfellow house on Brattle Street in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The new men's campus was to be Neo-Georgian in mood. Noah Hall is faithful to its colonial prototypes, Massachusetts Hall at Harvard and Connecticut Hall at Yale. Burton Hall, completed just after World War II, seems more reminiscent of Tidewater Virginia plantation architecture, although the proportions of the central block between its flankers are distended to accommodate more bedrooms. Burton proved to be the last gasp of the Neo-Georgian impulse.

The third inter-war initiative was a plan to build a science quadrangle along West Lorain just south of the men's campus. Severance Chemistry Lab was to be the southeast anchor for this complex. A leading proponent of the idea was W.H. Brown, a young architect in the Art Department who introduced the modern international style to Oberlin in his designs for several private homes. Wright Physics Laboratory (1942) was barely completed before war intervened. Its anomalous red brick wall patches indicate anticipated points of future junction for the thwarted science complex. As it is, Wright stands as Oberlin's last expression of the round-arched style launched in Warner Gymnasium four decades before.



The Modern Era (ca. 1946 - 1974)

The end of World War II punctuated the beginning of the fourth phase of Oberlin architecture. Almost half the buildings on the campus have gone up since 1946. When William Stevenson assumed the College presidency that year, he found a badly antiquated physical plant. Zoology was taught in a converted church; Humanities classes met in an abandoned high school; converted wooden homes housed Botany, Geology and Geography, as well as hundreds of student roomers; Carnegie Library overflowed with books; theatrical productions wandered about town like orphans in search of a stage. Stevenson promptly launched a modern building program which continued through the years of his successor, Robert Carr, and on into the 1970s. In this construction drive, two rival trends are discernible. The first is an expedient conversion to bland cereal-box functionalism in postwar dormitory construction. The fraternal twins of 1956, Dascomb and Barrows, are characteristic examples. These flat, anonymous slabs of sleeping space, aptly dubbed "motel modern," may be understood as an unimaginative vernacular version of the Bauhaus style which Walter Gropius helped translate into American collegiate architecture in his Harvard Graduate Center of 1949. The merits of this twentieth-century Oberlin plain-style, elaborated in the gigantism of Kettering Hall (1961) and South Hall (1964), are more economic than architectural. The new plain-style met a need for inexpensive interior space at a time of steady inflation in building costs, and the necessity after 1955 to conform to the guidelines of federal subsidy programs. Bearing in mind the dozens of aging wood-frame houses demolished to make room for new dormitories, one can define them as Oberlin's campus version of urban renewal.

As antidotes to this homogeneous sprawl, we have been blessed (outraged? entertained?) with a sequence of striking, theatrical architectural statements by building artists of national renown. These include Wallace Harrison's melodramatic but curiously functional Hall Auditorium (1954) -- the seventh and final version of a project forty years in the making; Minoru Yamasaki's pretty white Conservatory and King Building (1962-66), controversial exercises in machine-molded Neo-Gothic formalism; Hugh Stubbins' vast, handsome Philips Gymnasium (1971), which remained a subject of contention right up to the day it began to be used; and the Mudd Learning Center (1974), by Warner, Burns, Toan & Lundy, which, owing to its central location and long construction process, provoked more sustained debate about its size, appearance and propriety than perhaps any building in Oberlin's history. The monumental scale and doubtful neighborliness of its facade turned out to contrast vividly with its bright, lavish, and accessible interiors, and while the debate sputtered out, Oberlin's students quietly took possession of Mudd and made it theirs.

No sooner was Mudd completed than attention swung to the other side of Tappan Square, where Robert Venturi's addition to Allen Art Museum gave the community's talent for aesthetic polemics a climactic test. Venturi is a thoughtful iconoclast of modern design convention and a self-conscious architectural populist. He met the "impossible task" of expanding a contained Renaissance palace with a purposeful collision between Gilbert's palace and his own checkered billboard. While the setbacks of his addition defer to the older building and related nicely to the nearby appendages of Hall Auditorium, the Venturi entry on the Oberlin scene easily achieves its own identity. With its staccato surprises at every turn it is, like each of its important predecessors, an insistent demand for personal attention. A trip through Venturi's spaces is a challenging and sometimes puzzling adventure. It is pleasant in the end to walk away from the excitement, returning to the quiet pleasures of Tappan Square.

Since the mid-1970s, the demolition and construction dust has blown away. Preservation, recycling, and a careful landscaping program now govern Oberlin's campus development. Its bracing non-conformity constantly refreshes: strolling around the campus, one never fails to discover something new to ponder, depending on the season, weather, time of day, or one's own mood.



Geoffrey Blodgett is Professor of History at Oberlin College and a 1953 graduate of the College. He is the author of Oberlin Architecture, College and Town: A Guide to Its Social History (Kent State University Press, Kent, Ohio, 1985). This guide is an updated excerpt from his article which appeared in the Oberlin Alumni Magazine, May/June 1979.

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