In 1938, Wheaton College sponsored a competition to design an art center. The competition was inspired and organized by Professor Esther Seaver, who viewed Wheaton’s traditional Georgian Revival style architecture as outmoded and unfashionable. Seaver’s efforts to introduce Modern concepts to Wheaton included connected courses, improved resources, and arts conferences, culminating in the competition.
Gaining credibility through co-sponsorship with The Museum of Modern Art in New York City and Architectural Forum magazine, the competition garnered submissions from some of the greatest architects of the time. All entries were submitted anonymously to ensure fair judging of the designs. Despite numerous entries by world-renowned, experienced architects—including Walter Gropius, Louis Kahn, and Eero Saarinen—two young and relatively unknown architects, Caleb Hornbostel and Richard Bennett, took the top prize.
Objects in this section of the exhibition tell the story of the competition, as well as the struggle to bring Modernism to Wheaton’s campus. While the winning design never became a reality due to lack of sufficient funding, it led directly to the construction of the Student Alumnae Building (SAB), through which the college gained a reputation for progressivism and innovation in architecture.
Only a few years later, traditional styles were pitted against modernism in a controversy that would have a permanent affect on Wheaton’s campus. During discussions about campus needs, President Meneely and the Trustees stated their preference for traditional Georgian-style architecture. Students, alumnae and faculty became embroiled in public arguments about the college’s commitment to modernism, spurred by Seaver and her friends. Eventually, Seaver’s frustration with the President and Trustees led to her resignation in 1946, ending her influence at the college. Ironically, although the arts center was not under discussion by Meneely and the Trustees, they ultimately agreed that its eventual construction would be in the Modern style.
The 1938 competition to build an arts center was a turning point for Wheaton’s built environment. Although the winning design was never realized, the competition had a lasting effect on the physical evolution of Wheaton’s campus, as will be explored in the next section of the exhibition Modernism Realized.