Observer, Volume 16, Number 18, Thursday May 25 1995


The Grand March of Oberlin campus plans

by Geoffrey Blodgett

Master planning at Oberlin has been a growth industry from the outset, but master plans that build on earlier master plans are not as common as they might be. Sometimes the record shows an awareness of what has gone before, but too often it shows ignorance and a failure to mesh. My aim here is to introduce Oberlin's present campus planners to our predecessors.

The Founders' Plan, launched in 1833, was to clear a 13-acre square north and west of Peter Pindar Pease's log house at the corner of College and Main and build a campus on it. That is why Tappan Square (known as The Campus as late as the 1940s) is so much larger than your average village green. Some half dozen college buildings of brick and stone once stood on the square, until the last of them was levelled in 1927. Meanwhile temporary wood-frame buildings, beginning in 1833 with Oberlin Hall on the present site of the Java Zone, went up along West College Street. Professors were expected to live in little wooden houses facing the square along Professor Street between the red brick homes of President Asa Mahan (where King Building now is) and Charles G. Finney (where Finney Chapel stands). This was the first master plan, modeled after an idealized 18th-century New England village.

Wars have a way of killing master plans. After the Civil War, affluence hit the college for the first time, and Oberlin's Stone Age got under way. Massive, seemingly indestructible sandstone buildings now rose along Professor Street, from Baldwin Cottage to the south northward to Severance Chemistry Lab, with Talcott, (old) Warner Concert Hall, Warner Gym, and Peters in between, all of them facing east. The campus now had a domineering new western edge, the makings of an academic grand avenue.

For the new century

At the outset of his long presidency in 1902, Henry Churchill King asked the Olmsted Brothers of Boston, sons of the great landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted and distinguished campus designers in their own right, to provide the college with a master plan for the new century. The Olmsted Plan of 1903, the most far-sighted in Oberlin's history, charted a design whose main elements would endure to the present day. It called for clearing Tappan Square of all buildings to create a large green open space accessible to both town and gown. It urged the college to buy up available land fronting the square on all four sides for future buildings, including a library and art museum. Science facilities should cluster along Lorain west of Professor, with new men's dormitories and athletic grounds stretching to the north. New women's dorms should be located to the south of West College. A new academic quadrangle west of Tappan Square could then fill gradually with classroom and social facilities, with heating plant and hospital still further west.

Critics of the Olmsted Plan called it grandiose, expensive, and impractical, especially its call for turning Tappan Square into an open pleasure ground--"a serious mistake," said architect J.L. Silsbee, who wanted his freshly built Memorial Arch (1903) to serve as portal to a new generation of college buildings on the square, all designed by him. But Silsbee's architectural rival Cass Gilbert, who became campus architect on the strength of his Finney Chapel (1908), soon developed his own plan, which meshed nicely with the Olmsted vision. The Gilbert Plan, published in 1914, projected a highly architectonic campus of large quadrangles and long vistas, inspired by the City Beautiful ideals that flourished in the aftermath of the Chicago World's Fair in 1893 and informed the new look of downtown Cleveland and the Mall in Washington DC.

High visibility

The Gilbert Plan centered on a long axis stretching from Hall Auditorium (already projected and sited in 1914) westward toward a tall clock tower to rise from the new academic quadrangle west of Tappan Square. The clock tower would be visible from 10 miles around. This dream, which long captivated trustees, required the demolition of both Peters Hall and Warner Gym and put those two buildings at risk for the next 55 years. The dream would not fade until the controversy over the siting of Mudd Library was resolved in 1972--resolved in such a way as to bring the student playground nicknamed Wilder Bowl into being in the 1970s.

The Bosworth Plan of 1928 would have placed men's dormitories in a quadrangle bounded by Lorain, Woodland, Union, and Professor streets, with most of the buildings parallel to Professor and Woodland, all surrounding an informal athletic field. Photo Credit: Oberlin College Archives
Blueprints of Bosworth Plan

The Gilbert Plan, which brought to the campus not only Finney Chapel but Cox Administration Building (1915), Allen Memorial Art Museum (1917), Allen Memorial Hospital (1925), and the Theological Quadrangle (Bosworth and Asia House--1931), was far from finished when Gilbert died in 1934. Meanwhile in the late 1920s trustees launched an ambitious plan to build a new men's campus in the quadrangle north of West Lorain between Professor and Woodland. This was the Bosworth Plan, named for the dean who chaired the committee that hatched it. The Bosworth Plan marked one of Oberlin's rare efforts to grapple directly with the chronic imbalance, obvious since the 1880s, in the college's relative appeal to men and women. (Other efforts were the creation of the social center called Men's Building, built in 1912 and renamed Wilder in 1955 when it became a coeducational student union, and the short-lived R.O.T.C. unit of the mid-1950s, which like the Bosworth Plan turned out to be abortive.) The Bosworth Plan called for 10 new men's dormitories, all in red brick neo-Georgian styling, to bring an air of self-contained 18th-century male dignity to the campus--comparable to the then-new house system at Harvard and the new colleges at Yale.

The Great Depression, followed by World War II, did in the Bosworth Plan. Only Noah Hall (1934) went up before the war intervened. Burton Hall (1946) followed right after the war--the last local Georgian statement before architectural Modernism reached Oberlin.

Science and men

Just before World War II broke out, art professor William Hoskins Brown came up with a plan for a new science quadrangle that won almost unanimous support from Oberlin's scientists. To be located just north of West Lorain and anchored at its southeast corner by Severance Chemistry Lab, the science quad promised to nudge the unfinished new men's campus pretty intimately, but the onset of war postponed that problem till the mid-1980s. At that point the new north campus dining facility (now named Stevenson Hall) threatened to intrude itself between the dorms on the north campus and the still-unrealized science quad--a tight squeeze indeed. Led by Danforth professor of biology David Benzing, the scientists mobilized against this prospect, and Stevenson migrated to its present site on North Professor, where it remains among the college's least-loved monuments. Meanwhile the Sperry Neuroscience addition to Kettering was consciously designed by its architect, Reed Axelrod, to provide a western leg for the anticipated science quadrangle of the early 21st century.

Would-be leveler

Architectural Modernism hit Oberlin full force in the late 1950s, its flat roofs and no-nonsense cinderblock economies heavy in appeal to trustees and administrators as they eyed baby-boom expansion. Bulldozer development, a campus version of urban renewal, commanded a rapt audience. Douglas Orr, a planner with a Modern vengeance, answered Oberlin's call with a breathtaking program of demolition. If the Orr Plan, published in 1959, had been implemented in full, the following buildings would have been blown away and replaced by mutants of the Oberlin Inn and Dascomb Hall: Johnson House (1885), Allencroft (1861), Baldwin (1887), Talcott (1887), Rice (1910), Warner Gym (1900), Peters (1885), Wilder (1911), Severance (1900), and Keep (1913). Apologists explained that the honored names of many of these buildings could be used again for their replacements, as was the case with Dascomb: after all it is the names that count. As things worked out, the main casualty of the Orr Plan was old Warner Concert Hall, leveled to make way for Minoru Yamasaki's pretty if somewhat brittle King Building (1964), while his new conservatory complex rose kitty-corner across the way. The conservatory would become an overnight bonanza for contractors in the business of renovation and repair (Observer 4 September 1980, 30 August 1984, 16 March 1989).

Just 14 years later consultant Richard Dober came in with a plan that swung 180 degrees away from Douglas Orr's. The Dober Plan of 1973 identified 18 college buildings, most of them on Orr's hit list, in need of careful preservation and recycling. What had happened in the interim to provoke this sharp reversal? The short answer is accurate: the Sixties. The record shows that Modern campus architecture was the main medium through which the student anger and alienation of the 1960s arrived in Oberlin--in protest against the big new slabs of sleeping and feeding space that went by the fetching names East, North, and South. The new mood, in reaction against the predictable rectangular regularities of cereal-box Modernism, had yet to acquire the label Postmodern, but the value it placed on idiosyncrasy, irregularity, and the quirks of history meshed with the surging ethic of historic preservation to create an attitude that has governed most architectural choices on this campus ever since.

Woven fabric

When landscape designer Edward Thompson, grounds manager, arrived in 1980, he brought with him a concept that many Oberlinians regarded with surly mistrust: outdoor beauty. The Thompson Plan, implemented across the following decade, wove a fabric of trees, shrubbery, grassy mounds, rock gardens, and perennial beds that lent pleasant continuity to an otherwise highly eclectic campus. Alumni old-timers agreed with Ed Thompson's local fans that after his 10 years here he left the campus more agreeable in appearance than it had ever been before.

Where do we go from here? Architecture, the journal of the American Institute of Architects, devoted its February 1995 issue to campus planning. Its lead editorial acknowledged that communication and computer technologies are merging to create an academic environment that collapses global distance and brings virtual learning to every wired room. The editorial argues that while "technology will deliver the learning tools of the 21st century, it cannot provide the setting for students to develop skills of interaction and empathy." The challenge for campus planners, it concludes, will be to demonstrate "how the built environment can fit appropriately with the climate, the landscape, and the culture of the region." Planners must urgently search for ways to pull people from their screens and bring them together. In other words, campus planning must provide an antidote to the technological revolution, not a surrender to it.

I think that the campus landscape handed on to us by the Olmsted Brothers, Cass Gilbert, and Ed Thompson can be improved upon in ways that will accomplish this, and in ways they would surely endorse. Their priorities--the need for well-designed shared spaces, for amenities of color and brightness to help us through the winter, for more places where indoor space flows to meet the outdoors--can be reasserted endlessly: sheltered porches and atriums, striped awnings on tall windows, green ivy over gray stone, more red brick underfoot, and less concrete. And, oh yes, tougher spring grasses for the Frisbee games in Wilder Bowl.

Of course we can improve this place. And to protect our investment against the Ohio Turnpike's new interchange on Route 58 we should start right now to do to Route 58 what Oberlin did to Route 20 back in 1937--arrange for a bypass around the town. Otherwise the automobile, the finest American masterpiece of modern technology, will crowd us out and do us in.

Robert S. Danforth professor of history Geoffrey Blodgett is a consultant to the general faculty planning committee's subcommittee for a campus master plan. He adapted this article from a presentation to the subcommitee.

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