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A Century Later, a Fire’s Legacy Defines the College of Wooster

College of Wooster mall
Wooster, Ohio
— Fires have left their mark on any number of college campuses, but rarely has a blaze influenced an institution’s future as much as the one that destroyed the College of Wooster’s Old Main in the early hours of December 11, 1901. The red-brick Victorian building, with its tower and mansard roof, had housed much of the college since 1869. Its loss could have been catastrophic, Jacob Dinkelaker tells me at the beginning of an impromptu architecture tour of the campus.

Jacob DinkelakerMr. Dinkelaker (left) is a senior who came to Wooster to play football, but his passion for the Civil War has led him to a broader interest in history and, from that, historic buildings. For a senior project, he’s planning a Web site devoted to Wooster’s oldest surviving structures.

The tale of the college’s reconstruction is a good one. The president, Louis E. Holden, began raising money to replace Old Main while its ruins were still smoldering. He got help from an anonymous donor who pledged $100,000 if other donors contributed $140,000 within two months—and after they did, the anonymous donor was revealed to be Andrew Carnegie. Construction began on a series of new buildings in 1902.

Kauke HallPresident Holden, Mr. Dinkelaker tells me, tried to persuade the trustees to back a plan for a campus with buildings in a variety of styles, the better to expose students to different kinds of design. But the trustees also consulted the architect and city planner Daniel Burnham—the man whose plan for the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 led the U.S. into an era of classical buildings and broad, symmetrical malls. Burnham carried the day with a recommendation favoring a uniform style. So the president’s brother, Lansing C. Holden, designed a collection of richly ornamented Collegiate Gothic structures in pale-yellow glazed brick.

The signature building, Kauke Hall (right), occupies Old Main’s site and faces down College Avenue toward the center of town. Below Kauke, Scovel and Severance Halls face each across a tree-lined mall that was originally a block of College Avenue. Directly behind Kauke is the 1912 Severance Gymnasium, which is now the Ebert Art Center. Mr. Dinkelaker shows off student studios occupying not only the original gym but also the old running track suspended above it.

Timken LibraryThe post-fire buildings set an architectural standard to which much of what was constructed later aspired, with varying degrees of success. But there are two notable exceptions. One, now the Timken Science Library (left), predates the fire—which explains both its subdued neoclassical exterior and its extravagant polychromatic interior, restored in 1998 by Perry Dean Rogers & Partners.

The other, McGaw Chapel, is certainly the campus’s most unlikely structure. Built in 1971 to replace a Romanesque chapel that the college had outgrown, McGaw is a piece of sculptural Modernism that was intended to be mostly below grade, with towers poking up to mark its entrances. But when contractors hit bedrock sooner than they expected, the college decided to go ahead put the big windowless building up anyway. Recently, Mr. Dinkelaker says, the vast gray-cinderblock interior has been plastered over and painted pale yellow.

Scovel HallScovel Hall is one of a pair of matched buildings facing each other across what used to be a block of College Avenue.

Timken Library interiorNow the science library, this building originally served as the library for the entire institution. It was renovated in 1998.

McGaw ChapelMcGaw Chapel was intended to be below grade. The architect was Victor Crist-Janer.

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