Wesleyan’s Building Boom

Wesleyan's Building Boom IN 1876 WESLEYAN ACQUIRED ITS FIRST LAWN MOWER. The front of North College, formerly a meadow, became a well-trimmed lawn with mature, beautiful trees. From a small collection of brownstone buildings, the campus would evolve toward an environment of open space, walkways, and architectural projects that, in each generation, revealed a great deal about the priorities and vision of campus leaders.

Yet growth of the Wesleyan campus, as at many other colleges and universities, has most often proceeded without any overarching principles. The university’s first attempt to implement a campus master plan, developed by the architect Henry Bacon in 1912, petered out. His call to convert Andrus Field into a traditional college quadrangle with 11 new buildings ran into both a lack of funding and opposition from alumni who were disquieted by the thought of Andrus Field as a piazza.

Now, with the campus undergoing the most dramatic transformation since the building boom of the ’60s and early ’70s, Wesleyan has adopted only the second campus master plan in its history. While this plan does not call for any new central quadrangle, it does echo the Bacon vision in one important respect: revitalizing the center of campus is a priority.

One pillar of that effort has just been completed in the $22-million renovation of Patricelli ’92 Theater, with the Ring Family Stage, and Memorial Chapel, linked by the glass-enclosed Zelnick Pavilion. The other major architectural component will be a new university center—a combination of new construction and adaptive reuse of Fayerweather Gymnasium tentatively scheduled to open in 2007. New landscaping and pedestrian pathways will accompany this project.

The master plan, however, is not limited to the center of campus. Its theme is connectedness: using landscapes and walkways to make traversing the campus a more continuous, integrated experience, while enhancing the links between Middletown and Wesleyan. The plan calls for some new buildings but also emphasizes renovation of Wesleyan’s architectural legacy.

It is meant to be implemented over years and decades. Advocates of the plan know that some projects may fall by the wayside while new ones may emerge as time passes, but they hope that the guiding principles and general outline will endure.

“I look at the improvements to the grounds as a way of celebrating the campus,” says Peter Patton, Wesleyan’s vice president and secretary. “We have the potential for a stunningly beautiful campus.”

Adam Gross, a principal with the firm of Ayers/Saint/Gross who helped Wesleyan develop the master plan, believes that the campus will feel “crisper and more elegant” within a few years. “There will be more of a sense that you’ve arrived, a greater sense of porosity to the campus. It will feel more like a walking and biking campus. At the same time, it shouldn’t feel different at its core. Its inherent qualities have to do with the richness and soberness of the architecture. College Row has a wonderful solidity.”


Even speaking at a good clip in front of the Board of Trustees, Gross takes the better part of an hour to present the elements of the master plan. His appearance at the trustees’ meeting is significant. “When you do a building, you are lucky if you meet a dean,” says Gross, whose firm is working with 35 campuses all over the country. “When you do a campus plan, you meet the chairman of the board and the president; you spend a lot of time with them. You deal at a holistic level.”

The master plan addresses everything from trash cans to multimillion-dollar buildings. In some important respects, however, the plan begins with walkways.

Administrators could be observed this summer examining a sample section of brick walkway laid in front of North College. When completed, the new brick walk will be set slightly farther from College Row buildings than the current pathway so that pedestrians will have a better view of Wesleyan’s signature architecture. Plaza areas at Judd Hall and North College will provide walkers the opportunity to congregate with views of the Connecticut River. Attractive new lighting, benches, signage, and trash receptacles will form a palette of items to be used across campus.

New and wider walkways will crisscross North College Lawn, leading to new entryways to the campus along High Street.

“It seems silly that the character of the walks would make such a profound difference,” says Gross, “but having lived through this at many campuses, I know that it can and it will at Wesleyan.”

One of his favorite examples is Johns Hopkins University, where his firm created the university’s first new master plan since an original one in 1904. New walkways complemented architectural themes, and rerouting of roadways significantly diminished traffic in the center of campus. The result, says Gross, was a more peaceful, contemplative ambience. Patton, who visited Hopkins with a group of Wesleyan administrators, exclaimed that he was “absolutely blown away by how spectacular the place looks.” Hopkins officials say that admissions yield has increased 20 percent since they finished the project.

Nothing quite so grandiose confronted Wesleyan President Joseph Cummings (1858–1875) when, in his first year of office, he directed that vines be cut away from North College, soil be graded, heaps of ashes be removed, and footpaths be replaced by sidewalks, as historian David Potts ’60 notes in Wesleyan University, 1831–1910: Collegiate Enterprise in New England.

By then, the architecture and linear arrangement of College Row, based on a plan developed at Yale and emulated elsewhere, was established in the major brownstone buildings that stand today. North College was Wesleyan’s dormitory, Rich Hall (later ’92 Theater) was the library, and Judd Hall (1871) was one of America’s first buildings designed for undergraduate instruction in science.

Cummings valued good upkeep of the physical plant. With Wesleyan’s Methodist connections in mind, he told trustees: “There is a moral influence in well arranged buildings that cannot otherwise be secured. In our institutions the buildings do much of the teaching for good or evil.”

Scott Laboratory (1904) was an early breach with brownstone. Made of Harvard brick and Indiana limestone, the building introduced Beaux Arts classicism to the campus, a style marked by symmetry, axiality, focal points, and geometric clarity, according to Matthew Winn ’92, whose senior honors thesis traced the development of campus architecture from 1906–1942.

In 1907, Wesleyan initiated a relationship with Henry Bacon that lasted for nearly two decades. Bacon, who designed the Lincoln Memorial in 1912, continued in the Beaux Arts style with buildings such as Eclectic, Clark Hall, and Skull and Serpent. The administration of James McConaughy (1925–1943) carried out much more extensive additions to the campus, partly outside the confines of the quadrangle that Bacon laid out in his campus master plan. McConaughy oversaw the construction of Hall Laboratory (1927), Shanklin Laboratory (1928), Olin Library (1928), and the Alumni Athletic Building (1931), as well as the acquisition of Downey House, Winchester House, Russell House, and more. Early in his administration Wesleyan spent more on new buildings than it had on all previous structures.

By 1936, Wesleyan’s campus had assumed much of its current character. The next major phase of construction, beginning with the Foss Hill dormitories in the mid-1950s and extending through the opening of the Center for the Arts in 1973, broke with Beaux Arts classicism (though the CFA geometry is orthogonal and creates a central open space). At the time, campus master planning was not in vogue among colleges and universities, according to Winn, partly because growth was so explosive. Nonetheless, both the construction of the Foss Hill dorms and the major addition and renovation of Olin Library in 1985 reinforced the importance of Bacon’s central area.

In one sense, the master plan is a step back to the future. When complete, the new walkway will enclose Bacon’s quadrangle with a large loop, giving renewed visual definition to the area as the center of college life. For that to happen, though, Wesleyan must build the new University Center—the centerpiece of the master plan.


One morning in June, Gross sat in a fourth-floor seminar room of the Public Affairs Building, preparing to explain the master plan to a group of major donors. The room affords a striking view across Andrus Field to the site of the new University Center. Current plans call for adaptive reuse of Fayerweather Gymnasium, a Romanesque-style building constructed in 1894 with a bequest of $50,000 from Daniel Fayerweather, a tycoon in the leather business who was a close friend of the chairman of Wesleyan’s board.

The renovation will take Fayerweather back to its original appearance, which, unlike today, was not symmetrical on either side of the towers. Also destined for removal is the 1972 addition to the Wyllys Avenue side of Fayerweather. The Alumni Athletic Building (the Cage) will come down, to be replaced by a new building.

How to reuse historic structures such as Fayerweather has been one of the most challenging aspects of developing the master plan, says Joyce Topshe, assistant vice president for facilities. “We’ve spent more time talking about adaptive reuse than anything else. We know that there is a lot of sentiment attached to some of these buildings.”

By locating the principal campus dining facility in the new University Center—as well as a host of other services for members of the campus community—planners hope that it will become the beating heart of campus life. They also hope it will accomplish a major objective of the master plan: to eliminate the physical and psychological barriers between the center of campus and the Center for the Arts. “Right now the Cage and Fayerweather really create blockage in the artery system of campus,” says Gross. The new University Center, with major rerouting of pedestrian traffic, “allows for the whole campus to open up.”

Joseph Siry, professor of art history and educated as an architect, concurs with the need to strengthen connectivity and centrality. “Theorists of urban design consistently emphasize that any district’s vitality depends on a balance between the place’s self-contained, discrete identity, and its perceived linkage to external surroundings,” he says. “To enhance the series of spatial connections from the Science Tower area north to the Center for the Arts would, I believe, improve daily educational life on campus.”

Competitive factors also influence campus planning. “Has any American college not yet built a new student center?” asks the Chronicle of Higher Education. The demand is so great that one Pittsburgh-based firm has designed 30 in the past few years. Nor is this the first time that building frenzies have swept higher education. Memorial auditoriums were popular after the Civil War, while football stadiums blossomed in the 1920s.

A campus master plan, according to Siry, tends to counterbalance the tendency for short-term planning. The long view is more likely to raise hopes and aspirations. “A master plan,” he adds, “helps people to see relationships among the design of buildings, pathways, streets, and landscapes. This is helpful, because all of these elements are experienced as a totality in daily life, although there are few occasions to think about their integration.”

Proponents of the plan also hope that it will steer Wesleyan away from a tendency to approach facilities construction in fits and starts. “One of the things Wesleyan has not always done well is to maintain momentum,” says Joshua Boger ’73, a Wesleyan trustee who chaired the Board’s ad hoc Facilities Working Group. “It is instructive to note that when ground was broken on the Center for Film Studies, we were starting our first new academic building in 30 years. Having a vision that extends past one project is necessary to maintain the steadiness and momentum that, one hopes, avoids 30-year breaks.”

While stressing that buildings are not the most important element in a university, Boger argues that they can significantly help fundraising. “Dollar for dollar, the right-, the intelligent-, the considered-spending on facilities enhances our ability to justify and attract additional dollars probably more than any other dollar we can spend. The expenditure speaks to a wide variety of folks who can then observe that Wesleyan has momentum, and they want to help. They may want to endow a scholarship or a professorship or support financial aid, but they will be initially attracted and be visually inspired by the concrete nature of a wonderful University Center or a Center for Film Studies.”

The campus master plan far exceeds the $55 million allotted to facilities in the current campaign. Among projects already completed are the Admission Office in the Stewart M. Reid House, the renovation of 70 classrooms, the Schönberg Dance Studio on Pine Street, the Memorial Chapel, Patricelli ’92 Theater with the renovated Ring Family Stage, and the new Zelnick Pavilion. The master plan also calls for: the University Center, the new Center for Film Studies now under construction, a significant addition to the Freeman Athletic Center, a humanities district in the Downey House area, a teaching museum, new residence life facilities, and a major new science facility. Wesleyan will be raising funds and constructing facilities for years to come.

Hearkening back to Bacon, the plan seeks to pull campus life toward the center even as some projects, such as new athletic fields on the university’s 165 acres of Long Lane property, will enlarge the scope of the campus. Wesleyan’s long-term intention is to sell some of the wood frame houses at the periphery of campus to faculty and staff. The plan calls for new student housing facilities closer to the center of campus, such as on the edge of Fauver Field.

Perhaps the most challenging goal of the plan is to strengthen the connections between Main Street and campus. Wesleyan does not have a Nassau Street adjacent to campus, as Princeton does. The same topography that gives Wesleyan its hilly New England feeling creates a disconnect with Middletown. Some of the streetscapes leading to downtown are less than inviting. Patton says that Wesleyan is working closely with the city to improve the appearance of streets so that the walk, for instance, from Main Street to the campus bookstore on Broad Street and on up the hill to College Row is more appealing.

Any plan, of course, is only as meaningful as the intention to carry it out—not just the intention of those who have championed it, but that of their successors as well. Gross believes the desire on the part of Wesleyan officials to implement the plan “is about as high as it can be right now.”

Boger concurs, and he notes that Board support is the result of a lot of discussion. “Two years ago there was a wide range of opinion about whether Wesleyan was capable of executing multiple facilities projects simultaneously, whether or not this was wise, whether or not this was a distraction from things that should be higher priorities. I think the Board has come to have confidence in this plan and believes that it is fully consistent with, and supportive of, the principal educational mission of the university.”

Gross found the process of consultation to be refreshing.

“People here may not believe this, but I found the process less political than at other places. People aren’t afraid of saying what’s on their minds. I think that’s healthy. The involvement of trustees has been unusual in its consistency.

“A campus plan,” he adds, “should be a physical mapping of the campus, but, more important, an ethical compass that states principles.” With flexibility, such plans can be maintained through decades of institutional life as they have at Johns Hopkins, Rice, the University of Chicago, and the University of Texas at Austin.

Patton believes that Wesleyan’s traditions and constraints will help to ensure that the plan is implemented. While future generations of campus planners, for example, could remove football and baseball from Andrus Field and erect buildings, the prospect seems unlikely, given the long tradition of athletics in that area. The master plan identifies logical sites for various buildings as well as options, giving future planners flexibility tempered by limitations. Underlying everything is the principle of connectivity. The challenge for future generations will be to avoid projects that undermine this principle.

“When a master plan identifies potential improvements,” says Siry, “this stimulates people to believe that the future can be better than the present. When people see a brighter future, then they work hard to achieve it. The better we make the overall built environment, the better the educational and social lives lived in it.”


[Editor’s note: For historical information, this article drew from Wesleyan University, 1831–1910: Collegiate Enterprise in New England by David Potts ’60, the senior honors thesis of Matthew Winn ’92, and the expertise of University Archivist Suzy Taraba ’77.]

William L. Holder ’75 served as editor of Wesleyan from 1994 until he retired in 2018.