by Yonathan Tarekegne Ararso '13
For a first-time visitor to the beautiful Hampden-Sydney campus, navigating can be a daunting task. The placement of the scattered academic and office buildings is hard to understand; the confusing cement trails webbing around campus successfully lead you astray. Had it not been for those handy campus maps all over the dining hall, a freshman's first couple of weeks would be disastrous. Which leads to my curious question: what were the architects thinking?
To answer that question, one only needed to pay the College museum a visit. On display from November through January at the Atkinson Museum were plans, models, and documents tracing how the College campus developed and what it could have become.
Dr. Richard McClintock, Director of Publications and amateur College historian, gave a gallery talk on the 19th of January. "The first conscious effort at campus planning was commissioned in 1919," he started. "The Visscher and Burley design for the College called for sixteen major new buildings, all of which could have been built for only one million dollars. That was when a million dollars meant something." The symmetrical center-campus design featured a horseshoe of buildings, one for each academic department; on the outskirts were to be two new dormitories, a laundry, an ice plant, a student center, a gymnasium, and an infirmary. It was a huge upgrade considering that before 1919 the Hampden-Sydney campus had only four academic buildings -- Venable Hall, Graham Hall, McIlwaine Hall, and Cushing. A revised version was published in 1929 in an elaborate booklet designed to raise money for the project. "The only problem was," continued Dr. McClintock, "the brochure came out 4 weeks before the Stock Market Crash." In the end, the construction plan didn't come to be.
Dr. McClintock discussed the different plans and proposals in a chronological order. To get to where it is right now, the campus has seen many building spurts, coming with increasing frequency as time went on. For example, the first buildings went up in 1776. Nothing much happened thereafter until the 1830s, which saw the construction of Cushing and Venable Halls; sixty years later McIlwaine was built. Thirty years after that, Bagby, the Bell Tower, Cabell House, and the Atkinson Museum appeared. The modern growth spurts began with Johns Auditorium in 1951; then Eggleston, Gilmer, and Whitehouse followed in the 1960's. Kirby, several new dorms, and the Blakes were built in the 1970's. The new Bortz Library, finished in 2007, was the highlight of the most recent building spurt, which included additions to Johns Auditorium and a remodeled Via Sacra.
"This exhibit was a personal project," commented Dr. McClintock in an interview. "In my mind, I have been working on this project for 20 years, collecting evidence for all the things that could have happened here. The hardcore part was the last 4 or 5 months -- putting it all together. Physical preparation involved organizing objects and deciding what needed to be enlarged, mounted, and hung. Writing labels took a lot of research - and conscious effort to keep them objective, without making fun of near disasters that must have seemed like good ideas at the time."
The exhibit featured a lot of interesting and ambitious plans for the school. For example, on display there was a 1973 plan for a giant Athletic and Convocation Center, which was to serve both as a sports arena and a venue for conventions - an ambitious plan which included building a Holiday Inn to house convention-goers during the summers and students during the school year. Our campus could have turned out quite different. In fact, our friends in Ashland would not have been the only ones with a railroad cutting through the heart of campus. That is right: at the turn of the 20th century, when trains were still fashionable, there was an actual plan to build a railroad -- The Orange & Keysville -- running parallel to College Road.
"This exhibit," concluded Dr. McClintock, "is more than just a cabinet of curiosities. It is a cautionary tale for master planners: we need to be very careful that the grand plans we make today don't become the laughingstock of tomorrow."
What might Hampden-Sydney have looked like if all its visionaries had had their way? This exhibition gives an overview of some of the plans, dreams, aspirations, and downright follies which, as John Brinkley says in his epicOn This Hill, "seemed like good ideas at the time," but never came to fruition.
Architects' models, drawings, and quotations from the masterminds themselves will give visitors insight into the way people have envisioned an ideal campus for Hampden-Sydney College-and inspire gratitude that sometimes it didn't happen.