Does Centre Still Look Like Centre?

by Connor Parks

Admit it. Whoever you are, you’ve had that inevitable moment strolling through campus, observing each building surrounding you, and thinking to yourself something along the lines of, “Why are they all so…different?” How can a form so robust and imposing as the Norton Center coexist with the smoother, more traditionally straightlaced lines of Boles or Old Carnegie? Everywhere you look, anachronistic architecture and conflicting shapes make tracking Centre’s stylistic identity a difficult task. In talks with friends, faculty, and family, I’ve heard words such as “disjointed,” “random,” and “completely uncoordinated” to describe what’s going on with campus buildings and their placement. It’s a dense, nuanced question I’ve been mulling over for a while now, but one with quite a simple gist: what exactly does, and should, Centre look like?

We can begin, easily enough, with the fact that our school logo is a literal depiction of a notable building on campus – one of the more famous in the area, and one typical of old architectural form in this slice of America. Indeed, Old Centre stands out to all who meet it, and has for over two centuries – serving as everything from our first class building to a Civil War field hospital in its storied duration. As one of three campus buildings in the National Register of Historic Places (alongside Old Carnegie and, soon, the Norton Center!), I often hear claims that Centre should’ve stuck to this traditional Greek Revival form for all its campus buildings, prioritising a welcoming but formal façade for the dorms, classrooms/offices, or administrative hubs within. And were campus localised to just Wiseman, Boles, and Old Centre, then sure – we’d have our much-desired architectural coordination. 

So, what “went wrong?” After loads of research, I can narrow it down to two main factors: immense fires, and the 1960s. After spending a few hours on the invaluable CentreCyclopedia (thanks, compilers!), I learned that many original campus buildings were constructed to resemble the relatively inoffensive Old Centre, all the way up until the 1890s. This architectural solidarity was a key component of Centre’s early existence, and brick & mortar proof of administration’s desire to maintain an organised image. This is the same college whose first Board of Trustees meeting literally took place in a Danville hotel lobby, so clearly they had made great strides. Campus architecture remained unchanged until around the mid-1910s, with red-brick Greek Revival/Georgian being the norm for everything from academic buildings, to gyms, to dorms. The occasional raging fire would require a total rebuild, causing an influx of early 20th-century designed structures to be established, but up until this point the scene was relatively normal. 

The 1890 Boyle-Humphrey Gymnasium, where Old Carnegie now sits, was gutted by a 1912 fire. If only Sutcliffe were so visually striking!

(Credit: Francisco Lacson, CentreCyclopedia)

With this, I’ve come to categorise Centre’s varying architectural styles into 4 periods of construction: the early academic days (1819 to the 1890s, with Old Centre, the Craik House, the Ruby Cheek House, etc.), the first expansion (1900s-1950s, with Old Carnegie, Wiseman, Higgins, Stuart Hall, etc.), the modernist era (1960s-1985ish, with Old/New Quad, Crounse, the Boles Natatorium, most Greek houses, etc.), and the renovation/Y2K era (1986-2020, with a focus on renovating/expanding earlier buildings, and the construction of Olin, Bingham, CC, Pearl, etc.) Of course, there’s lots of weird exceptions to these general categories. I could’ve sworn Boles was built around the time as Old Centre, but it’s only a 1997 construction. Similarly, I thought JVAC was only 15-20 years old, yet it somehow dates back to the mid-1930s. And the Norton Center I can’t even claim as truly ours — originally designed for an Arizona institution, Centre bought the design rights in 1973 in order to place a new performing arts center on the old Danville High School grounds. Looking at it now, Arizona makes perfect sense.

Yet when it came to a broad shift in style, the largest period of upheaval came in the 1960s, when many original campus buildings were razed in a brief period of time for the construction of newer, squarer structures — popular at the time, yet highly disliked today. But for all those destroyed, some intrepid structures survived, unaffected by the nondescript quads and academic halls going up around them. This is where the crux of the issue lies: a desire to keep up with the times, but to preserve small portions of Centre’s architectural roots generation by generation, is the basis of the perceived randomness of our campus’ wild and “disjointed” architecture. Many of the buildings that weren’t razed were more than just four walls and a roof — they were sources of community pride, halls with decades of emotions and stories that Centre felt worth saving for future generations, even if it meant the building right beside it looked vastly different. It’s a fact reflected in the mass renovations of many original buildings in the mid-1990s, and one which has given me a different outlook on the entire question. Sure, Old Carnegie may look nothing like Sutcliffe, but there’s an endearing, meaningful reason why such an “outdated” style as the former was allowed a generous opportunity to stay on our campus for good.

There are those who may disagree with me, who may still argue that Centre’s architecture should have at least some form of consistency. And to those, I pose a challenge: make it happen! I’m here for it. Throughout 200+ years of existence, there’s been one factor yet to affect Centre’s architecture and building placement: student input and ideas. We all have spots on campus we cherish and hold dear, but it’d be amazing to see spaces architecturally designed around student decisions and identity, spaces which capture small essences of us all while coexisting with over two centuries of stylistic changes. With structures such as Champions Hall ushering in a new, fifth phase of campus building style, the time is ripe for change to occur. Centre will always look like Centre, whatever that means at the time. 

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