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Fridays with Fred: the buttresses of Beloit College (alternate Beloit)

Part two of Fred reimagining Beloit.

While strolling across the college grounds, gazing at its many fine, impressive structures, do you ever pause and think to yourself, “What this campus needs is more buttresses!” Possibly you don’t, but one architect in the mid-1950s envisioned propping up an elongated Eaton Chapel with not one buttress, but eight, with surely at least as many on the other side. As we return for part two of our alternative Beloit, we find a campus abounding in buttresses.

In 1946, in desperate need for a new field house, the college purchased an army surplus aircraft hangar from the War Assets Corporation. Initial plans by Chicago architect, Maurice Webster, called for a substantial multi-story tower looming above the repurposed hangar. Webster’s modeler imagined an Italian villa built into a Tuscan hillside. However, initially the college opted for hangar only, adding the natatorium in 1956 and the larger Sports Center in 1987.

Was the “proposed School of Business Administration” another one of President Carey Croneis’s Centennial ideas? Or an earlier dream during the lean years of the Great Depression? So far archival files refuse to cough up the date, location, or even the reasoning behind the proposal. The artist, Schell Lewis, appears to have been active for decades. The doorway to the right resembles those on each side of the Smith Building, but it is unclear whether the school was a planned renovation or an entirely new structure.

With an ever increasing post-World War Two student population, the college needed to build more dormitories. Under President Carey Croneis, the college succeeded in adding Aldrich and Maurer halls, but by the time Miller Upton’s administration began in 1954, they clearly needed even more. An unused plan from the mid-1950s shows Aldrich and Maurer to the left with a decidedly modern-looking structure at center. College administrators found the design’s flood-proof stilts intriguing, but unnecessary. Better to let students frolic in the quad’s lake-sized puddles. The much more traditional-looking Chapin and Brannon halls appeared in 1957-58.

By the 1960s, after 70 years of service, Pearsons Hall of Science was vastly outdated. With its eye on both an expanding student body and rapid growth in technology, the college developed plans for a new, cutting-edge science center. An early mockup included a planetarium perched on top of the future Mayer Hall, which also featured a mysterious cylindrical structure attached to its side, resembling a half-finished above-ground missile silo. Plans called for a new observatory, thrusting high above the great rectangle later named Chamberlin Hall of Science, when completed in 1967. By then, however, the reconceived Thompson Observatory squatted much closer to the roofline.

During the height of the Beloit Plan-era of the late 1960s and early 1970s, the college commissioned one of its most ambitious campus plans, the South Campus Complex, also known as the South End Complex. A brochure entitled “Resource Building for the Seventies: The South Campus Complex” included a statement of philosophy fitting for most, if not all, eras of the college’s history: “In seeking to build a total environment for learning, the college continually must be adventuresome and optimistic in its undertakings…”

With the South Campus Complex, the college dreamed up a sprawling, interconnected configuration of arts-related buildings, as the brochure explained:

…Both Wright Art Center and Logan Museum have been preserved and – through renovation – will be integrated into the modern new complex. Their physical connection is not a barrier; the Complex primarily is to be a below-ground structure with the roof area planned as a raised terrace at the south end of the campus. This serves the dual purpose of maintaining a relationship between the campus and the city of Beloit and, at the same time, of forming a conclusion to the campus space…The concept provides for the grouping of anthropology, art, music, and theatre arts around a two-story enclosed court, which serves as a common ground between the disciplines as well as a general exhibition and “happening” space for any functions related to any of the various disciplines or to the campus in general. The exterior of the Complex will be finished in concrete block of various sand beige and tan tones.

Are those groovy beanbag chairs or a gaudy cluster of Beloitian fungus? We’ll never know, because the college never built the “happening” common area. Estimated cost of Phase One of the South Campus Complex exceeded 5.5 million dollars, which proved far too expensive when the college dealt with financial losses as the decade turned. College administration revised plans and then revised them again. Ultimately, the college abandoned the underground plan for more conventional, but still ultra-modern structures, which included the Godfrey Anthropology Building and the Neese Theatre, both dedicated on June 21, 1975.

Beginning in the early 1990s, the college planned major renovations and restorations of Memorial Hall (Logan Museum), the Wright Art Museum, and the Smith Building. A March 1993 Beloit Magazine article described Smith’s proposed future:

Smith will house studios for drawing, painting, sculpture, photography, ceramics and computer art. Additionally, the building will accommodate a student art gallery and a casual lounge open to all.

After the Jeffris-Wood Campus Center opened up in Pearsons Hall in 1985, the Smith Building stood dormant, its old Student Union jukebox no longer rocking the floorboards and its upstairs ballroom home to roosting pigeons. While work at the Logan and Wright proceeded apace, Smith remained quiet and forlorn until the college evicted the pigeons and spruced up the ballroom for its February 1996 Sesquicentennial Ball. When the party was over, workmen began the process of turning the now former ballroom into art studios and darkrooms. With the college print shop taking over the departed bookstore’s space on the lower level and with Physical Plant offices in the old snack bar area, Smith became a multipurpose hodgepodge. However, on our alternative Beloit campus, as depicted in an artist’s conception, Smith serves as a fine arts complex.

Fred Burwell ’86
November 15, 2013

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