Constructed in the Clouds: The Unrealized Buildings of Wheaton College

Buildings, like people, mature and settle, acquiring unique histories and personalities through the passing seasons. Even when a beloved structure is lost to time as the result of demolition or decay, its influence burns a distinct impression into communal memory. At other times a form is planned but never built, perhaps due to lack of funding, changing needs, or diminished interest from its advocates.

The following structures, projected for the Wheaton College campus, remained stagnant on the drawing board but suggest fascinating, unrealized possibilities.   

The idealistic depiction on the left, conveying the ambitious “Greater Wheaton” project printed in the 1934 Tower, visualizes a series of modern buildings burgeoning upward from the solid basis provided by the old fashioned, neo-Romanesque Blanchard Hall. In this sketch, the drafts of a future Wheaton pile higher and higher into the clouds of the artist’s imagination, where it would remain.

Connecting this architectural vision with the central mission of Wheaton College, the Tower staff explained:

In building this Tower the staff has endeavored to show that life in Wheaton College is earnest, happy, and wholesomely Christian. The demand for what Wheaton has to offer the youth of the world is growing, and never in the history of American education was a college like ours more imperatively needed than today. Three years ago the Board of Trustees approved a schedule of the College’s essential physical needs. New dormitories and buildings with adequate equipment for the various departments will enrich Wheaton’s intellectual social, and moral life, as well as strengthen her testimony. In creating the theme we have unfolded this “Greater Wheaton” by presenting the proposed plan and our artist’s conception of the program. Wheaton College stands in a unique position in the Christian world; hers is a trust she must not betray in this critical hour. This program challenges the faith of those who believe there is nothing too hard for God.

Tower 1934, Foreword, p.6.

This cheerfully optimistic narrative anticipated the tremendous growth ahead for the college. The confident tone resounds with the decisive, forward-looking approach instilled by Dr. J. Oliver Buswell, third President of Wheaton College.

Seen on the left, the proposed Blanchard Memorial Building was planned to “accommodate our executive offices and meet the need for a new, larger college library. (Tower 1934, p.16).” Today the executive offices remain in Blanchard Hall, and Buswell Library is entirely separate, but this design more or less prefigures the Memorial Student Center, built nearly twenty years after the Greater Wheaton proposal.  

On the right, relieved graduates, donning cap and gown and armed with hard-earned degrees from Wheaton College, depart the magnificent archway of the main building to embrace the challenges of the waiting world. Highlighting again the connection between environment and purpose, the Tower remarked, “Wheaton’s contribution to young life does not cease with the presentation of a degree. The wisdom, character, and consecration developed are manifested as the student finds in the will of God his life’s purpose. The “Greater Wheaton” will prepare her graduates even more adequately for Christian service and able leadership.” (Tower 1934, p. 30).

The “Greater Wheaton” project also turned its attention to the growing music program. As the Tower described, “The Conservatory of Music had a humble origin, beginning with a few small rooms in Blanchard Hall. Even the present quarters in the College Chapel building do not adequately take care of its rapid development under the direction of Dr. Robert L. Schofield. A new music hall will provide the ideal atmosphere for musical, literary, and social functions; and thus be a much desired cultural asset.” (Tower 1934, p.88). The elegant, New York-style concert hall imagined here is strikingly similar to the venue planned for the Pierce Chapel renovation nearly seventy years later (see image at end of post).

In the below left-hand sketch, the Tower presented the artist’s idea for a new men’s dormitory, to be accompanied by a similar one for women, adding that “these must be provided if the present student body is to profit to the greatest extent from the training which Wheaton offers.” (Tower 1934, p.102). This magnificent dormitory reflects the artist’s penchant for dramatic, arched entrances. Interestingly, the two open books situated parallel above the arch anticipate the new logo introduced in 2020, featuring two open books side by side, representing the twin emphasis on top-tier academics and Christ-centered faith.

Poised, manicured male students exit the gymnasium in the above righthand image, flanked by two sturdy columns and large windows fitted with seemingly multi-colored panes. From 1899 to 1942 the gymnasium was located on the third floor of Adams Hall, now the Art Department. “New Lawson Field,” where the structure was intended to stand, is now called McCully Field. Reviewing the early design, the staff of the Tower stated, “The New Lawson Field is ideally located and spacious enough for a new, well-equipped gymnasium on the northeast corner. Here our men and women will have ample opportunity to develop sound bodies and train for participation in hard fought contests.” (Tower 1934, p. 160).

Accompanying the above sketch of a new bell tower, the Tower staff nostalgically mediated on “the mellow tones of the old historic Tower Bell [that] are as familiar a part of Wheaton’s activities as is the well-known Tower in which it swings. Around this many unique traditions center which will ever remain dear to our hearts.” (Tower 1934, p.254). Interestingly, the angular, church-like tower bears no resemblance to the octagonal Blanchard Tower, suggesting that the Greater Wheaton plan may have sought to eventually displace existing structures. Though the caption praises tradition, the plan seems to envisage a campus without certain iconic landmarks.

While the “Greater Wheaton” series provides one of the most comprehensive visions for an unrealized Wheaton in the College Archives, it is certainly not alone.

Near the end of WW II, Dr. V. Raymond Edman opened the fundraising drive for the Memorial Student Center, commemorating the “brave sons and daughters true” who died during the conflict. The building would house a 1000 seat dining hall, a supply store, the post office and quarters for several student organizations. It was intended to stand at what is now the parking lot behind Edman Chapel. (The Wheaton Record, February 17, 1944). The 1949 proposal for the Memorial Student Center, pictured on the right, was less commodious than the 1944 plan, closely resembling the present structure, though without the portico and columns.

A decade later, in 1960, The Century Club launched a capitol campaign titled “Through Gates of Splendor” for Memorial Gates, marking the main entrance to McCully Field, honoring Edward McCully, who with Jim Elliot and three other missionaries were killed at the hands of the Waorani tribe in Ecuador.

The proposed limestone gates included ticket windows and a transformer vault for lighting the field and track. Two large bronze plaques would tell the story of the missionaries. Today the entrance to McCully Field is a simple turnstile, with a plaque telling his story affixed to a boulder beside the gate. (McCully Field promotional booklet).

As Wheaton approached the end of the century, a connecting annex was planned to join Pierce Chapel with the Conservatory. The three-story annex featured architectural details from both buildings, attempting a consistent transition. Today a breezeway connects the two buildings.

Opened in 2017, Armerding Hall, formerly the science building, now contains the Conservatory of Music, with offices, classrooms and a 108-seat recital hall. As part of the same renovation, this luxurious interior was planned for Pierce Chapel, boasting plush red draperies, refurbished seating and fancy chandeliers. 

For more glimpses of unrealized campus buildings, as well as alternative designs for familiar structures, see the digital exhibit, “Unbuilt Wheaton,” from the College Archives.

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