The Meaning of Peters Hall

By Geoffrey Blodgett '53

At the rededication of Peters Hall Saturday, October 11, 1997, Oberlin's renowned historian Professor Geoffrey Blodgett '53 reminisced about one of the few remaining "Great Halls" still standing in the United States.

Here we all are once more at the intersection of this campus. Peters was a crossroad for thousands of students in the past, and will be again now for thousands to come. We've waited three decades to be able to say that. For almost 80 years, from 1887 into the 1960s, Peters' court gathered Oberlinians on their way somewhere--to nearby classrooms, or to upstairs physics or psychology labs, or basement bathrooms, or a visit to a dean or registrar, or the faculty room--which was originally Adelia Field Johnston's teaching room--in the southeast corner off the court. With the opening of King Building in 1964, Peters began collecting fewer visitors but memories of its original centrality lingered on.

The Heart of the Campus

You could always count on seeing friends there. A young alumnus testified 80 years ago that "hardly a feature of College life can be called to mind which did not depend to some degree on Peters court. Friends were more easily found there than anywhere else on campus." When you climbed the stone steps from the sidewalk and pulled open the heavy doors, you could always count on meeting folks you knew inside, running their errands or maybe waiting for you, from eight in the morning 'til sundown. All day long for a century now, the tall glass window wall has opened the court to the changing western sky. In the winter through the 1920s there were crackling fires in the big fireplace. 'Til the 1960's, there was cool drinking water in the granite fountain. That fountain has been returned and placed in its old location, and we are trying to see if it will work again. [See "Stone Fountain Romance"]

The restoration of this remarkable 19th century space, surrounded by splendid new learning facilities for the 21st century, thanks to many generous donors including especially Paul and Edith Cooper, is what we celebrate today.

A History Made By Giants

The space has history. Anti-war protesters filled its air with the stench of burning human hair in the 1960s. Peters became a royal castle for a film parody of Shakespeare called Omlet in the 1950s. Later that decade, freshmen marched on Peters with a moose head from a Wilder lounge, chanting "The moose is loose," and, as a gift to the Dean of Men, they ran their dorm counselor's illegal 1947 Ford up Peters main steps.

Until 1935, the year the new dance hall opened in Wilder (then called Men's Building), most dances and proms were held in Peters court with live bands on the stair landing, and crepe paper drifting from the balcony, and the brass chandelier dimmed low. If you were there with someone you liked, it could be magical.

Sports rallies in the court were common in the 1920s on Saturday mornings before the game. Early in the presidency of Henry Churchill King, in 1904, King solemnly threatened to expel upperclassmen who prevented freshmen from standing on the hearth of the fireplace. An alumna from wartime 1940s recently recalled that she used to neck at night with a V-12 sailor friend under the north entry to Peters after studying in Carnegie 'til nine at night. It's fun to wonder if the first Peters kiss occurred in the 19th century or the 20th.

In the early 1960s I had an office on Peters' second floor with Bob Neil and Nate Greenberg in offices nearby. We often stayed up there writing lectures until well past midnight, and one night when I left I found a high-level administrator crouched downstairs in the dark, hoping to catch students who had broken into his office to ransack his files the night before. When I told Nate Greenberg about that recently, he replied, "Ah, there were giants in those days.

"The Most Perfect College Buidling"

The prehistory of Peters, before it opened on January 26, 1887, was faithfully told at the building's dedication on that brisk winter afternoon 110 years ago. Much of its subsequent history is nicely captured in the Mudd Library exhibit put together by archivist Roland Baumann and his staff. Rather than echoing these records, I want to explore the meaning of Peters Hall--first, as an architectural event; secondly as a clue to the changing character and quality of Oberlin, a college already well on its way in 1887 toward academic distinction; and finally as a 20th-century study in the perils of historic preservation.

Alumni who came to celebrate Peters Hall, old and new, could see at a glance the gifts of the early classes -the clock, the freizes, the chandelier, and the lampposts, all lovingly donated nearly a century ago."

The dedication brochure of 1887 for the opening of Peters pronounced it "the most perfect college building in the United States." Let's see why they thought so.

The architects of the building are not prominent in the annals of American architecture. Frank Weary from Cleveland and George Kramer of Ashland had joined forces in Akron in 1875, and collaborated on the design of court houses, churches, jails, and campus buildings all over the Middle West before they parted company in the early 1890s. The structural integrity of their buildings, and the resulting survival rate among them, is quite impressive. Their stylistic taste had been profoundly touched by the reigning master of their generation, Henry Hobson Richardson, the first American architect to have a style named after him--Richardsonian Romanesque. Richardson was a huge man whose grand manner and living style, as well as his buildings, made him a legend in his profession long before his early death at age 48 in 1886. He left his impress everywhere, and Weary and Kramer brought it to Oberlin.

On special occasions, members of the Men's Club enjoyed camaraderie and mugs of hot cocoa by the hearth of the Great Hall. Of course, in those days, College women were not included.

Viewed from a distance, Peters is a less coherent, more restless presence than Richardson's masterpieces; he was not easy to adapt or imitate. Frank Weary told his Oberlin clients in fact that the vertical thrust of Peters' pinnacles were a "type of Gothic architecture ... somewhat domesticated and Americanized." He offered to moderate the pinnacles if Oberlin desired, and at Oberlin's insistence he eliminated almost all decorative flourishes of the sort that delighted Richardson in his own buildings. Carved stone decoration is virtually absent from Peters' exterior except for the spandrels over the main arched entry.

Peters Hall Has No Halls

What has set Peters apart on this campus are Weary and Kramer's superb interior arrangements. There were no corridors in their design. Immediately surrounding the central court were two great rings of teaching space. Nine classrooms opened directly on the court, and eight more looked out on the balcony above. The criss-crossing traffic, the polished red oak woodwork of the staircase, balcony and ceiling, the absence of tight dark passageways between classrooms, and the big windows in each classroom all made for a warm and airy interior, a welcoming contrast to the soaring gray stone exterior one contemplated on approach.

The transition from outdoors to indoors was abrupt, but not without its psychological rewards, especially in the northern Ohio academic wintertime. Class gifts in the building's early years enforced the contrast--the fireplace in 1890 (a more Richardsonian structure than Peters itself), the casts of the Parthenon frieze in 1900 the chandelier in 1901, the brass

lampstands on the stairposts in 1907. Meanwhile, Peters' state-of-the-art forced air ventilation system installed at the outset--what made it a very modern building when it opened--changed the air in each room every 20 minutes, or so the furnace people claimed.

The most costly renovations of 1996 brought a comprehensive new heating, ventilation, and air conditioning system to Peters, new plumbing and fire-proofing, and a new elevator to bring the building up to code. Solving the aesthetic issues involved in meeting the Americans With Disabilities Act was a major challenge well met. The redistribution of interior space in Peters' upper stories responded to the new definition of the building as a center for language learning and international studies, and also to the radically shifting ratio between classroom space and office space which has marked the academic campus everywhere in recent decades. In 1887 there were three classrooms in Peters for every office; today there are four offices for every classroom. Meeting all these needs inspired intense debate through the mid-1990s, and produced, one hopes, effective and durable solutions. Those who dissented from some of those solutions were assured by the architects in charge of the renovation, Peter van Dijk and his associates, that when the time comes sometime next century for another Peters renovation, spatial rearrangements can be made by moving temporary inside walls around. The building itself was built to outlast us all.

Upon This Rock

Peters' arrival in 1887 was a clue to the changing future of Oberlin College. The money that made it possible came from a personal old-boy network carefully cultivated by James H. Fairchild, president of the College from 1866 to 1889. Alva Bradley, a Great Lakes steamship owner, gave the first big sum. He was one of Fairchild's closest boyhood friends, their families having migrated together from western New England to Brownhelm Township, just north of Oberlin, in 1817. Bradley's gift was soon followed by a larger one from Richard Peters, a Michigan timber king. The career of Richard Peters, in contrast to his building, was not all that stable. He moved from rags to riches and back to rags again twice in his lifetime. He would die blind and penniless at the age of 98 in 1927. Oberlin caught him in his riches. An upstate New York Congregationalist farm boy by origin, he enrolled at Oberlin in 1857, got married in his first year here, and was therefore promptly expelled along with his wife Evelyn. They evidently left without rancor. Peters' next move, into Michigan timber, brought him better luck. Soon he was prosperous enough to endow an Oberlin professorship. A few years later, in 1883, Oberlin tightened its bond with Peters by lending him several thousand dollars to prop up his business. Meanwhile, his wife Evelyn moved to leadership in the Christian temperance movement, a cause in which Oberlin led all colleges in America at that time. Oberlin professors became frequent preachers at Peters' Congregational church in Manistee, Michigan. All this was prelude to that jubilant telegram home from one of them announcing Peters' big gift of 1886: "With God all things are possible . . . Captain Bradley's work completed." An Oberlin trustee later nailed down the meaning of the gift: "Here is Peters, and upon this rock will I build my college."

Perfectionism and Philanthropy

I think the crucial details in that story may be Mrs. Peters' faith in temperance, which her husband shared, and Oberlin's dogged missionary visits to the Peters' Congregational church in Manistee. And those details are symptomatic of a larger pattern, sometimes obscured by automatic thoughts about a Gilded Age of Robber Barons.

Peters Hall was one of six new buildings to go up, suddenly transforming the campus, between 1883 and 1887. Each had its philanthropic donor. If one could fashion a collective portrait from the careers of Lucien Warner, Charles Spear, Alva Bradley, Richard Peters, Elbert Baldwin and James Talcott, and later on, Louis Severance, Willis James, Frederick Norton Finney, Herbert Wilder, Jacob Cox, and Oberlin's own Charles Martin Hall, the resulting profile would be instructive. It would tell about a batch of earnest, pious men, born into active church-going homes, who made it big in the headlong age of business enterprise that followed on the Civil War, but who never forgot their families' antebellum origins, and never lost their admiration for Oberlin's perfectionist commitments to antislavery, women's rights, and temperance.

As the biographer of Oberlin's Lucy Stone once put it, "Many men who knew that riches were there for the earning believed also that man and society were infinitely perfectible. The American myth, even when it is materialistic, is [also] idealistic." Oberlin's post-Civil Was leaders, led by President Fairchild, understood that, and they proved to be remarkably skillful in trading on their college's moral-reform heritage to coax money from sympathetic moguls. Their goal was to launch a new Oberlin toward the century ahead.

Of course buildings alone did not make a new Oberlin. Their arrival across the 1880s was of a piece with the College's first decisive moves toward academic modernization. In the midst of all the fresh construction, as the walls of Peters were rising and the cornerstone of Baldwin was being laid, Professor William Ballantine, who would soon succeed Fairchild as president, gave a talk about what was going on. It merits some scanning:

"Oberlin College has reached now a new era," Ballantine said. "The pioneer stage has passed. The true university life has begun. . . . Massive and commodious edifices of freestone will look out across green-shaven lawns, and graceful towers will rise above the elms. With the buildings already erected, or at once to be erected, Oberlin will take her place unchallenged among university towns famous for scholastic charms. . . . [To our alumni] the Oberlin of today is a new Oberlin. . . .We should like to keep the precious past just as they knew and loved it. But that may not be. . . . We must move onward into the future. That Oberlin should become great and fully equipped university was the inevitable result of the past... Grand as was the work done by the old Oberlin, it could not render that service to learning which continuous progress demands. . . . Libraries and laboratories, and suitable buildings, are essential tools of learning. Scholars who are to lead at the frontiers of science cannot be frontiersmen of the backwoods." Ballantine went on to identify those values from the Oberlin past which ought nevertheless to remain part of the Oberlin future. It makes an interesting list:

On balance, all things considered, not a bad prescription for the future.

That Which Is Peculiar...

Students paused daily during World War II to follow actions of the Allied troops as they swept across Eurpoe.

Ballantine had at the outset of his talk called on Oberlin to join the trend of the day among Eastern colleges and become a university. The faculty rejected that change as overly pretentious. But in fact the decade of the 1880s witnessed breathtaking transformations. The endowment tripled, the student body doubled, library holdings doubled, and the faculty grew by 50 percent, an ominous number of newcomers lacking a proper Oberlin education.

The elective system, imported from Harvard, came on strong across the 1880s--too strong, some felt. A math professor grumbled that the curriculum was becoming so liberal that "a student could make everything elective and graduate without going through cube root." The new teaching technique of lecturing arrived, replacing rote recitation sessions, which were called "hearing your classes." Old habits died slowly, though, then as now, and in its early years Peters was still referred to as "the New Recitation Hall."

Laboratory work in the sciences flourished under Professor Frank Jewett, though Jewett had to wait 14 more years for the gift of a modern laboratory building from Standard Oil magnate Louis Severance. Student interest in lab science grew so fast in the early 1880s that President Fairchild feared the traditional humanities might suffer from the competition. He added, however, that "as yet there is probably no occasion for alarm." One reason was the arrival of attractive new course work in modern language and literature, often taught by newcomers uninitiated to Oberlin's peculiar ways. When Peters opened in 1887, only one modern language teacher graced the faculty, and he was fired for plagiarism a year later. H.H. Powers (of travel grant fame) came in from Wisconsin to replace him, but Powers left after four years, his religious and moral views under a cloud. It turned out his social concerns favored the abolition of the family, state-controlled childbirth, and legalized prostitution. Meanwhile Oberlin's first PhD, Charles Harris, arrived from Leipzig to teach German in 1888, but left after five years complaining that the College wouldn't buy the books he needed.

A popular young literature professor, William Thomas, arrived from Tennessee by way of Berlin in 1889 to start a modern English department. In 1893 he decided to become a sociologist instead. He left for the University of Chicago, wrote a startling book, Sex and Society, and a few years later was fired by the University for violation of the Mann Act with the young wife of a soldier fighting overseas. The case made headlines. That was the trouble with these new language and lit professors brought in from other places: you couldn't count on them; they were often too secular and cosmopolitan; they didn't fit in. The new Oberlin was not supposed to be that new.

The fast-growing Conservatory of Music posed a similar problem. When a wave of old-fashioned religious revivalism hit Oberlin in October 1891, the College suspended classes for it, but the conservatory did not. A history professor wrote in his diary, "At the faculty meeting [today], the lack of religious activity in the Conservatory was deeply lamented."

The College, as you know, survived all the young Turks who came to teach in Peters, and its new neighbors, then and later on, and benefited from most of them.

One other young Turk merits attention. Alumnus John R. Commons returned to Oberlin from Johns Hopkins in 1891, and in the single year before he left, he

introduced the modern social sciences at Oberlin--the first course in institutional economics, first course in sociology, first course in modern American history. He went on to become the leading labor historian of his generation at the University of Wisconsin.

Chicago's Shadow Falls On Oberlin

How Peters itself managed to survive is my last concern. I'll deal with the story briefly because it's been told before, and the

tension in the tale has now happily disappeared. The castellated Romanesque appearance of Peters became problematic sooner than anyone anticipated. The long Richardsonian moment in American architecture ended abruptly with the Chicago World's Fair of 1893 and the surge of Beaux-Arts neo-classicism it inspired. One up-and-coming young architect whose taste was changed by the Chicago fair was Cass Gilbert, who had been a strong admirer of Richardson in earlier years.

When Gilbert visited Oberlin for the first time in 1903 to start designing Finney Chapel, he was dismayed by the rest of the campus, including Peters, which he regarded as altogether too awkward, fussy, and dated. But in deference to what else he found here--he liked Warner Gymnasium, for example, and he liked the red tile roofs of Baldwin, Warner Gym, and Severance--instead of moving the full distance toward formal neoclassicism, he chose a more picturesque, Mediterranean theme for his Oberlin buildings, evolving from 12th-century Southern French Romanesque to 15th-century Italian Renaissance.

He also championed the concept of the City Beautiful, another legacy of the Chicago World's Fair, and along with Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. and others he helped develop the design of the Mall in Washington, D.C., a model of City Beautiful planning. He later collaborated with Olmsted to lay out a City Beautiful design for the 20th-century Oberlin campus, a design marked by broad rectilinear sub-campuses taking off from Tappan Square to the east, north, and west, with grand vistas in each direction terminating in picturesque new buildings to be designed by Cass Gilbert.

Peters was in the way of this plan, and as early as 1911 Gilbert made President King promise that Peters would come down as soon as possible--meaning as soon as the College could find the money to level it and distribute its functions to new buildings. That proviso saved Peters, because the College never did find the money, and alumni raised hell whenever campus planners brought the matter up. When word leaked out just after World War I that Peters was doomed to make way for Gilbert's grand design, and alumni started growling, the College took another look at its budget and announced it wasn't going to happen after all. In the early 1970s, when several influential trustees tried to revive Cass Gilbert's dream in the site planning for Mudd Library, which threatened both Peters and Warner Gym, again a storm broke and the site of Mudd was moved instead. And in 1992, faced with costly maintenance problems, and the news that Peters--by now an administrative annex loaded from the attic down with paper and beaverboard--had become a firetrap, campus planners again considered demolition. President Fred Starr, a committed preservationist with a few tricks up his sleeve, then proceeded to orchestrate a successful campaign to save Peters one last time.

So here we are back at the crossroads. At Peters' first dedication in 1887, the main speaker predicted that "fire and cyclone and earthquake excepted, [Peters] will still be standing and doing good service when the 20th century shall strike its midnight hour." The oldest survivor on this campus, now new again, Peters has made it, with three years to spare.

Geoffrey Blodgett is Oberlin's Danforth Professor of History. His books on the architecture of the College and the town of Oberlin are always in demand. His Commencement-Reunion Weekend presentations on the subject, as well as those on Oberlin in the '30s and '40s, are just as popular.

All photographs courtesy of the Oberlin College Archives except where otherwise noted.