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Records of the Conservatory of Music (Group 10)
[28] Records of the Conservatory of Music, 1841-1991, 144.5 l.f.

Administrative History

Formally established in 1867, the Conservatory of Music is a division of Oberlin College. The history of music education and performance at Oberlin dates from 1840 with the creation of an Oberlin Musical Association (today called the Musical Union) and, in 1855, a Department of Instructional Music followed. In 1865, Oberlin College instructors John Paul Morgan (1841-1879) and George Whipple Steele opened the Oberlin Conservatory of Music. Although organized as financially separate and independent of Oberlin College, within a year the Conservatory affiliated itself with the College.

The architectural history associated with the development of the field of music at Oberlin begins with the construction of a Music Hall in 1842. The one-story frame building, measuring 30' x 50' and located on the present site of Baldwin Cottage, was used primarily by the College choir and literary societies. Music students also attended classes and recitals in the Old College Chapel and Tappan Hall, both located on Tappan Square. In the 1860s, Music Hall was moved adjacent to the Second Ladies Hall and converted into a women’s gymnasium, only to be destroyed by fire in 1880. After a decade of making use of the second floor of Comings Bookstore and various rooms on campus, the College purchased the Mahan-Morgan House, on the northwest corner of W. College and Professor Sts., for music-related activities. In 1883, this house was torn down, and Warner Hall was erected on the site and dedicated in 1884. It was designed in the Richardsonian Romanesque Revival style by New York architect A.B. Jennings with funding from Dr. and Mrs. Lucien C. Warner. Warner Hall was one of the first buildings in the nation developed exclusively for instruction in music.

To this main music building, Oberlin added significant performance and education facilities after 1900. When architect Cass Gilbert designed Finney Chapel (built 1907-1908) for worship services, he was also aware of the need for choir performances and incorporated this element into his design. A new organ designed by E.M. Skinner of Boston was installed in 1915. To remedy the shortage of space for the Conservatory of Music’s instructional programs, Rice Memorial Hall was constructed in 1909-1910. It was named for former Conservatory Director Fenelon B. Rice (d. 1901) and his wife Helen and designed by architect Arthur B. Jennings in the Richardsonian Romanesque style. Located adjacent to Warner Hall, Rice Hall stood four stories high and contained six large lecture rooms, numerous studios, and over 100 practice rooms. Although intended for exclusive Conservatory of Music use, rooms in Warner and Rice Halls were eventually shared with classes of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Warner Hall was razed in 1964 to make room for the King Building group. Rice Hall was renovated and converted in 1962-1963 for use as a faculty and academic classroom annex as part of the King Building project.

By the 1950s, the Conservatory of Music faculty and administration sought to replace the outdated Warner and Rice halls with new facilities for its programs in order to meet modern principles of musical instruction. The holdings of the Conservatory’s music library were spread among the College Library, the Gehrkens Music Education Library in the basement of Rice Hall, and its own library in Warner Hall. Consolidation of these resources led to the construction of a new Conservatory of Music complex, designed by Detroit architect Minoru Yamasaki and dedicated in October, 1964. Located on the southeast corner of W. College and Professor Sts. (kitty-corner from the old site of Warner Hall), the new Conservatory complex encloses a courtyard and reflecting pool. Surrounding buildings include Bibbins Hall (facing W. College St. and Tappan Square), the main teaching, administrative and faculty office unit; the Central Unit, which houses the Conservatory Library, classrooms and equipment storage facilities; Robertson Hall, named for former Conservatory Director David Robertson (1911-1961)—a prime force behind the drive for new facilities—serves as a practice building; and Warner Concert Hall, which opens onto S. Professor St. and houses a grand 44-stop Flentrop organ. The Conservatory of Music’s exterior design is of steel-reinforced quartz-aggregate facades. Although aesthetically beautiful, the complex suffers from interior design flaws which have challenged school administrators with a continuous stream of acoustical and structural design renovations. A 10,000 square-foot addition to the Conservatory’s library, designed by Gunnar Birkerts and overlooking S. Professor St., was completed and dedicated in September, 1988.

Scope and Content

Organized in 15 series and dating from 1841 to 1991, the records of the Conservatory of Music document the development of music education at the college in addition to the expansion of facilities to support the program’s students, faculty, resources and performances. Architectural records, 1928-1991, are held in Series XI “Buildings, Grounds, and Musical Equipment Files.” Also extant are numerous photographic files of Conservatory buildings. These images, primarily of the Conservatory of Music’s construction and dedication, 1961-1989, are found in Series XV “Photographs and Postcards.”

Architectural records in Subseries 1 “Buildings and Grounds,” of Series XI “Buildings, Grounds, and Musical Equipment Files” cover the period 1940 to 1991. Included are not only Conservatory of Music buildings, but also Oberlin structures which have hosted Conservatory performances. Consisting of approximately 80 architectural drawings (mostly blue line prints, but also some sepia prints and photostats), architectural plans include images for the Conservatory of Music complex, 1957-1987; the Conservatory of Music Library addition, 1987-1988; Rice Hall ,1940; Sturges Hall, 1940; old Warner Hall, 1940; and the new Warner Concert Hall, 1959-1985. Architectural plans for renovations and additions to existing buildings—namely, Fairchild Chapel, 1980-1986; Finney Chapel, 1974-1988; and Hall Auditorium, 1991—are also part of this subseries. These representations include working drawings of floor plans, architectural renderings and elevations, as well as specification and section details for the Conservatory of Music’s structural, mechanical, and electrical features. This series includes architects’ reports, correspondence, program notes and bound specification manuals; acoustical reports, reverberation studies, and recommendations by acoustical architects; academic and staff program “building requirements” for the new design of the Conservatory of Music complex, 1957-1960; work orders, internal memos, invoices, planning notes, work and finish schedules, and financial support documents, 1959-1987.

Correspondence, although retained primarily in files marked by the architects’ names, is also scattered among the subject and building files in subseries 1 of series XI. Notable correspondents include Clarence Ward, 1944; the architectural firm of Minoru Yamasaki, designer of the Conservatory of Music complex, 1957-1965; the firm of Bolt, Baranek, and Newman, acoustical engineers for Warner Concert Hall and the Conservatory’s other performance and practice facilities, 1959-1971; acoustical expert R.L. Kirkegaard, 1979-1983; and the Lorain firm of Clark and Post, Inc., 1981-1985, who led the design and acoustical renovation of Warner Concert Hall. Other prominent materials found here are three original specification manuals, 1986-1987, for the Conservatory of Music Library addition by Birkerts, as well as a 12-page report to the board of trustees. The June, 1957 report from New York architect Douglas Orr presents a detailed proposal for campus building development that includes cost itemizations and a four-phase progressive site plan for the Oberlin campus. Ten design drawings of the 44-Stop Flentrop Organ, 1961-1971, now housed in Warner Concert Hall, are also available.

Items of visual interest in Series XV “Photographs and Postcards” are located in Subseries 2 “Building and Construction Photos.” Items consist of over 500 black and white images of the construction phases, dedication ceremonies, and special architectural features of the Conservatory of Music complex, 1961-1989. Extant is a historical “Conservatory Ensembles, Buildings and Grounds, Scrapbook (1955),” which features some images of the facilities at old Warner Hall; in addition, architectural renderings and photographs exist of other “modern” schools of music from around the nation, ca. 1955.

A December, 1993 oral history interview of architect Gunnar Birkerts, conducted on behalf of the Frank Lloyd Wright Archives at Taliesin West in Arizona, is held in RG 37 “Motion Picture and Tape Recordings.” The interview makes references to Birkerts’ background, training, architectural philosophy, and contemporary projects. Usage restrictions apply.

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