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‘A castle of learning’: At 120, Ad Building embodies Bethel’s history, identity

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NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – Bethel College’s Administration Building is not only the symbol of the college for generations of alumni. It is also a tangible piece of history and the centerpiece of this year’s Fall Festival at the college.

Bethel, chartered in 1887, will mark its 125th year in 2012, but the celebration begins already this year when the Ad Building turns 120. Students will compete with each other and the clock on Friday afternoon, Oct. 3, to build replicas of the Ad Building out of recycled materials. A display of Ad Building memorabilia, a story-telling project and a birthday party are on the Fall Festival schedule for Saturday, Oct. 4, on campus.

So, too, is a multi-media presentation put together by emeritus professors Bob Regier (art) and Keith Sprunger (history), to be given twice during Fall Festival weekend (Oct. 4 and 5) as well as for convocation Friday, Sept. 26, all in Krehbiel Auditorium and all free and open to the public.

Sprunger remembers his first glimpse of the Ad Building in 1963, when he drove to Kansas with his family to begin his nearly 40-year teaching career at Bethel College. “Even from a great distance, [the Ad Building loomed] over the Kansas landscape,” he says, “a castle on the prairies.” Seeing the building was “a dramatic experience,” he recalls.

When the Bethel College board of directors laid the cornerstone for the Administration Building on Oct. 12, 1888, they stepped squarely into history. Church-related liberal arts colleges were rising by the hundreds across the Great Plains as part of the movement to “civilize and educate the American prairies.” Southwestern College at Winfield, Kansas Wesleyan University at Salina and Bethany College at Lindsborg were all chartered in 1886, Sterling College in 1887 and McPherson College in 1888. In those days, it was common to build one large, main college building, frequently referred to (even today) as “Old Main.”

More than that, however, Bethel was the first Mennonite college in the Western Hemisphere. Its founders, well aware of the precedent they were setting, were determined that the college’s main building would be an outstanding structure. Varney Brothers Architects of Newton drew up the first set of plans, which would have produced a four-story building with a 60-foot bell tower. The board later changed to a firm of unknown but promising architects from Wichita, Willis T. Proudfoot and George Washington Bird.

Proudfoot and Bird revised and scaled back the original plans, shortening the building to three stories and cutting the second entrance and the bell tower. The resulting design fit better with Mennonite modesty and frugality – and, said at least one writer, made the building less of a target for tornados.

Despite these adjustments, the building is considered a fine example of Richardsonian Romanesque architecture, named for American architect H.H. Richardson and known for castle-like designs including heavy stone walls and huge rounded arches. A number of Kansas courthouses, including Marion County’s, were built in this style. Examples of Proudfoot and Bird buildings can be found all over Wichita, including Davis Hall at Friends University, the old City Hall (now a historical museum) and McCormick Elementary School.

Although the Ad Building cornerstone was laid in 1888, lack of funds stopped construction when the building was only about half done. The board was determined not to go into debt to build, and in the early 1890s, town and state were in a financial depression. Bethel College’s detractors called the half-finished structure “a monument to Mennonite stupidity.”

But it was finished at last in 1893. By that time, Proudfoot and Bird had moved west to Utah and Elbert Dumont, another Wichita architect, oversaw completion of the Ad Building. The final cost: $37,000.

The “pure white” limestone building could “be seen for miles,” according to Newton newspaper accounts. “In arrangement, it is perfect.” A new professor, arriving in Newton for the first time in 1893, was pleasantly surprised to see the fine building. “This proves to me that the Mennonites are not sleeping, but have a grand history before them,” he wrote.

Two wooden buildings were hauled in from a Mennonite seminary, closed by then, in Halstead, for a women’s dormitory and a dining hall. The Ad Building served all the other functions – it contained classrooms, library, chapel, music room, men’s dormitory, and apartments for the president, music teacher and janitor and their families. It was the site of weddings, funerals and even a few births.

Changes over the years have included a flagpole, originally erected in 1893 and moved to its present location just to the west of the front entrance in 1934; fire escapes, 1910; and attic rooms completed, with a dormer added, originally to house the departments of art and dramatics (now the Alumni Relations office and a teacher education classroom), 1935. In the early 1960s, the city street that ran right up to the steps of the Ad Building was closed just north of Bethel College Mennonite Church, and the college Green began to take shape in front of the Ad Building. A new roof of flat concrete shingles went on in 1992, at a cost of $78,926.

Almost since the beginning, the Ad Building has attracted the eye of artists and photographers. Its image shows up on everything from T-shirts to china cups. It has appeared as a wheat parquetry portrait, a molded metal coin bank and a wooden birdhouse.

Across the Midwest and the Great Plains, half the colleges so optimistically chartered in the late 1800s have closed their doors. Of those that remain, only a handful of “Old Main” buildings still stand.

“Our Bethel College founding fathers and mothers stretched and sacrificed to erect a [worthy] building,” Sprunger says. “It embodied all the hopes and ideals of Mennonite higher education. Our ‘castle of learning’ [is] where, for 120 years, Bethel students and professors have collected, created, preserved and interpreted knowledge on a Christian foundation.”

“A Castle on the Prairie: Bethel College’s ‘Old Main’ in Word and Image” will be presented at 11 a.m. Friday, Sept. 26, at 1 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 4, and at 7:30 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 5. For more information and a complete Fall Festival schedule, see www.bethelks.edu/fallfest, or call 316-284-5251.

Bethel College is a four-year liberal arts college affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. Founded in 1887, it is the oldest Mennonite college in North America. Bethel is known for its academic excellence and was the only Kansas private college to be ranked in Forbes.com’s listing of “America’s Best Colleges” for 2008. For more information, see the Bethel Web site at www.bethelks.edu.

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