A College's Architecture Comes Alive in One Student's Mobile Approach

Andrew Dolph for The Chronicle

Jacob Dinkelaker, a senior, created an interactive Web site about the College of Wooster's architecture that he designed for the average visitor. "I went light on the footnotes," he says.
May 08, 2011

Jacob Dinkelaker came to the College of Wooster to play football, but history is his passion. As a summer employee at the National Park Service's Gettysburg National Military Park for the past two years—most recently as an interpretive ranger—he's had plenty of practice giving tours and explaining the past to the public. And when he graduates this month, he'll leave behind an unusual senior project: an interactive Web site filled with videos, photos, and text describing the history of Wooster's most important buildings.

The yearlong project took Mr. Dinkelaker deep into the college's archives (where, it turns out, he found no support for one of the campus's most popular architectural legends). But he also spent a lot of time with members of the instructional-technology staff, figuring out what technology would best serve his goals. He ended up building the site with WordPress, the popular blog software, and uploading some of his videos to a site called VoiceThread, which lets users respond by recording or typing their comments.

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He also designed the site to be accessed as easily by smartphones as by computers. Someone touring the campus can aim a phone's camera at a barcode-like tag on a building—called a quick-response, or QR, tag—and be taken to the right page on Mr. Dinkelaker's site. (The college has not yet decided whether the temporary QR tags he has put up will be replaced with permanent versions.)

The site is a novelty not only for visitors to the college but also for faculty members and deans; they had to figure out how to grade a senior project that Mr. Dinkelaker could not hand in, at least not in any traditional sense. Plus, it's designed to appeal to the average visitor rather than to scholars—"I went light on the footnotes," Mr. Dinkelaker says—and will evolve as visitors add their comments. "I like to joke that I gave the dean a couple of gray hairs," he says.

Because Mr. Dinkelaker had only two semesters to complete the project, it focuses on four important buildings. The oldest is the Timken Science Library, a neoclassical temple opened in 1900 and beautifully renovated in 1998. It's followed by Kauke Hall, the campus's Collegiate Gothic centerpiece, which was built after a 1901 fire destroyed the college's tall, red-brick Old Main.

Kauke is the site's most significant building. In the fire's aftermath, the trustees debated what the campus should look like in the future. The president wanted buildings in a variety of styles that would give students good examples of each, but trustees consulted the well-known architect Daniel Burnham, who recommended against a "clashing of types which would result in discord and ugliness of effect." The president gave in, and Kauke's yellow-brick Gothic was the college's design standard for decades.

The third building featured is the Ebert Art Center, built in 1912. Originally a gymnasium, it became an art building in 1973 and was expanded in 1997. Fourth is the 1971 McGaw Chapel, a textbook example of a Modernist building that's proved hard to love. It's also the building about which Mr. Dinkelaker's research sets the record straight: It was not, as students and faculty members had come to believe, designed to be put entirely underground and then built at grade after construction crews struck bedrock. Crews did find bedrock sooner than expected, but the building was always intended to be aboveground, he learned.

Mr. Dinkelaker, who plans to go to graduate school in the fall, says his project is an example of "a new way to market your public-history site—it's where public history is going." Indeed, he hopes to spend this summer helping park officials at Gettysburg get up to speed with social media. "You've got to become relevant," he says, "or become a relic."