Building a Legacy: Growth in the midst of the Depression

Part three of a series on the iconic architecture of campus by Alyssa (Jackson ’19) Bootsma 

The Great Depression brought a trial to our nation greater than any could imagine and Grove City College was not exempt from the weight of the economic disaster.

Nonetheless, the College’s leaders had a plan to pursue: Relocate the heart of the campus over the creek, up the hill and create a strategic yet picturesque layout. This plan included a new relationship with an architectural building firm and nationally renowned landscape architect that produced five buildings. The first phase of this plan was the building of Memorial Hall in 1913, dedicated to Joseph Newton Pew, who gave generously and worked tirelessly to establish the College with its first President, Isaac. C. Ketler and also served as Chair of the Board of Trustees (1894-1912).

Grove City College partnered with W.G. Eckles, an architect who had attended Grove City College as a student from 1885 to 1887, finishing his studies at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. He opened W.G Eckles Company in New Castle, Pa in 1898 and quickly gained a reputation for excellence and experience in the region.

“Even despite the Great Depression, the College and Eckles were able to design the five main buildings in what became the iconic Quad,” Hilary (Lewis ’09) Walczak, College archivist said. The quadrangular plan was the original layout created by the architectural landscape firm with which Grove City College would soon begin a relationship.

As the College acquired land above the creek from the heirs of J.W. McMillan, it considered bids from several landscape architects. In the fall of 1930, the College asked the renowned Olmsted Brothers Firm of Brookline, Mass. to help design the upper campus. The company was founded by Frederick Law Olmsted and its office became a National Historic Site run by the National Park Service. Olmstead gained his fame when he won a bid to design Central Park in New York City, as well as many other city parks and college campuses, including Yale University, Cornell University and Bryn Mawr College. The “father of American landscape architecture,” as he was known, passed his business onto his two sons, who would continue his legacy and join Grove City College’s history.

The Olmsted landscape architecture firm worked closely with Grove City College and the W. G. Eckles architecture firm to design buildings in a Collegiate-Gothic style to be built around the quadrangle plan. But when tragedy struck with the Great Depression in 1929, Grove City College had a decision to make: Halt construction, or continue stewarding the project with resources available?

The approval to build Harbison Chapel, the Hall of Science (later named Rockwell) and Ketler Hall all happened in one day: March 3, 1930. The College would not back down in its pursuit to grow the institution in the face of hardship. The building projects would provide work important to the local community, helping to sustain the town that so generously supported the College in its founding.

“The building costs could be kept at a reasonable figure, unemployment would be relieved, and the use of the buildings by the College would not be deferred,” President Weir C. Ketler said.

The chapel was a memorial to Samuel Pollock Harbison, made possible by his sons William Albert and Ralph W. Harbison. The sons followed in the footsteps of their father, who had served on the Board of Trustees from 1895-1905. The elder Harbison had accepted the position “because of the Christian work of the college.” 

Harbison was a teacher for a time but switched his line of work to the refractory business and worked for the Star Fire Brick Company. He eventually grew the business into the Harbison-Walker Company, which remains in existence today. In his will, he bequeathed a stipend to Grove City College, which provided his family the opportunity to decide how to use it best. His sons knew he would approve of the construction of a chapel and that’s when they approached the Board with a proposal.

With the trials of the Great Depression weighing heavily at the time, the Board of Trustees asked the Harbison brothers if they wished to proceed or defer the project until the economic climate improved. They assured the Board that they would honor their father and the promise to the institution and begin construction. The brothers did hit financial trouble along the way, but sacrificed their home, selling it in order to complete Harbison Chapel.

“This building is set in the most prominent place on the campus, and thus witnesses to the fact that the Christian religion is at the heart of its life,” the Rev. Mr. W.L. McEwan, Vice President of the Board of Trustees said at the dedication address on Oct. 8, 1931.

Later that same day, the second building in the master plan was dedicated. As with the chapel, it would become an iconic symbol of Grove City College. The Hall of Science, later named the Rockwell Hall of Science in 1966, still features a magnificent clocktower that overlooks the center of the quadrangular plan the Olmstead firm created. The clock tower stands majestically at more than 100 feet tall and is a beacon from different vantage points of the town.

Willard F. Rockwell Jr., the namesake of the massive science structure, was born in Boston in 1914 and was a member of the College’s Board of Trustees (1952-1987). The professional engineer also served as the President of the Rockwell-Standard Corporation of Pittsburgh, writing a book on the matter called “The Twelve Hats of a Company President.”

He had earned a bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering from Pennsylvania State University in 1935 and received five honorary degrees. He served as a captain in the U.S. Army during World War II and was the first person elected and inducted into the World Level of the Hall of Fame for Engineering, Science and Technology.

“The dedication of the Hall of Science is an event peculiarly characteristic of our generation. We are living in a time when science has become one of our most engrossing interests,” J. Howard Pew, President of the Board of Trustees at the time, said at the dedication ceremony in 1931, according to the dedication program from the Grove City College Archives.

Ketler Hall was dedicated in 1932 to Isaac C. Ketler, the founder and first President of the College from 1876-1913. The Hall provided much needed residence space for male students.

“The Board of Trustees realized that one of the greatest assets of this College was the memory and influence of its founder and they were determined this dormitory should stand as a lasting memorial of this work,” Alva J. Calderwood, dean of the College said at the dedication of the Hall as archived in Grove City College Bulletin Alumni News of 1932. 

Only through the support of generous donors like the Harbison family and the Joseph Newton Pew Estate could the College continue to expand during the Depression. The Board had hoped, along with the rest of the country, that the Depression would only last a matter of months, but of course history revealed a different story.

According to an archived address to the Board in 1941, President Ketler noted the prudence of moving ahead with the plan despite the Depression. “It is perhaps fortunate that in the past few years the College has used its available resources for the erection of needed buildings. It is not likely that the buildings on the campus could be duplicated now or in the near future at the same cost,” Ketler said.

With the building of Mary Anderson Pew Residence Hall in 1937 and the administration building Crawford Hall in 1938, the first phase of the architectural plan was finished, and Grove City College had successfully navigated a decade of challenges to achieve its vision. But more trials would come. Only days after Ketler’s comment in 1941, Pearl Harbor was bombed, and America entered the deadliest war of the century. The College would face another trial along with the country, but with the same grit and determination that Isaac Ketler set forth as a value in the people of the College decades earlier.

Read the Building a Legacy Series

Part 1: Campus buildings tell College’s story

Part 2: Creating a campus in the community

Part 3: Growth in the midst of the Depression

Part 4: Weathering the war and completing the plan

Part 5: The Surge of the 60s, 70s and 80s

Part 6: The 21st century

Building a Legacy: Growth in the midst of the Depression

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