Six years ago, in his inaugural address as the new president of Whittier College, Eugene S. Mills outlined an ambitious game plan for the small liberal arts institution. Among the campus needs, he said, was a top-flight performing arts center that could stand as a "shining example of the college's commitment to excellence" as it moves into its second century.
At a dinner Monday night, Mills' promise moved closer to reality when it was announced that a performing arts center will be built on campus, the largest construction project in the Quaker college's history. He also told a group of college trustees and potential donors that the college has pledges for nearly half of the $8 million needed to construct and maintain the complex.
If all goes well, architects of the project estimate the complex--with a 500-seat theater, a smaller experimental theater and a drama education center with faculty offices and classrooms--could be finished by summer, 1988. Construction would begin early in 1987, the centennial year for the 1,150-student campus. It will be built on the campus' north side on Painter Avenue between Philadelphia and Olive streets.
"The performing arts center will serve as the gateway to our campus," Mills said this week. "This will be the showcase project of our second-century drive."
Since 1968, the college has been without an on-campus theater. On Feb. 13 of that year, the college's oldest building, Founders Hall, burned. Lost in the blaze was Poet Theater, where the college held concerts and theatrical productions. As a result, the college's drama and music departments have used the campus chapel, its faculty center or the Whittier Community Center for performances.
"We've been living on hope for 20 years. Now that hope is turning into a reality," said Jack de Vries, chairman of the college's drama department, who joined the faculty in 1965. "Ever since Founders Hall was destroyed, we've been waiting for a chance to call a theater our own. We've been like gypsies."
Although renderings and models of the complex will not be unveiled until sometime next month, Mills said the exterior of the complex will probably blend with the early California look of other campus buildings. "There are a lot of red-tiled roofs, arches and softly landscaped walkways and courtyards on this campus," Mills said. "I suspect many of those same qualities will be incorporated in the performing arts center."
Besides the main theater, there will be a 75-seat experimental theater. The stage will be small, about 40 by 60 feet, and extend out into the seats. The complex will include offices for the drama department's three faculty members, a classroom and large work areas for building sets and rehearsals.
Because Whittier College is privately financed, Mills said a key to the project will be fund raising. Trustee Ruth Shannon and her husband, businessman E.L. Shannon, longtime Whittier residents, are spearheading efforts to raise the $7 million needed to build the 40,000-square-foot complex and an additional $1 million for the college's endowment fund to maintain the facility.
Ruth Shannon, chairwoman of the Performing Arts Center Committee, said the group has received commitments of about $3.5 million. She said it plans to contact dozens of corporate foundations for money.
"For years, other Southern California universities and colleges have benefited from corporate sponsorship," she said. "We believe Whittier College is on a par with those institutions and should receive the same support."
Shannon said she hopes to raise more than $1 million for the project from Whittier businesses and residents.
Campus officials believe the performing arts center will strengthen ties between the college and city. Originally, college leaders considered putting the theater complex east of the main campus, in the foothills, according to Richard J. Wood, vice president of academic affairs and dean of the faculty. But eventually Mills, the 35-member board of trustees and city officials agreed access to the center was critical, so they settled on the Painter Avenue site--only two blocks from the center of Uptown Village, a shopping area undergoing extensive redevelopment.
"This center will serve both the campus and the city. Therefore we needed a central location," said Wood, who has guided the project for Mills since 1981. "For example, this town has a sizable elderly population, which would have had great difficulty reaching some of the sites first considered."
In order to erect the center, a string of old houses, some occupied by the college's fraternal groups, and Victoria Hall, a two-story, brick faculty office building at Philadelphia and Painter, will be demolished later this summer. Members of the fraternal societies are being moved to smaller bungalows and houses around the campus, while the English, history and business professors in Victoria Hall are being relocated to remodeled Hoover Hall.
Council Must Approve
Although city officials have given verbal support to the project, the final design and construction plans still must be approved by the City Council.
Serious discussion about the performing arts center began four years ago. Campus officials, including de Vries and music department chairman Steve Gothold, began drawing up a list of specifics for the complex. Then the Los Angeles-based architectural firm of Albert C. Martin was hired to design the project. A British company, Theatre Projects Consultants, has since been added to the design team.
Martin has worked on numerous Southern California projects, including Thousand Oaks City Hall and the twin ARCO Towers office and shopping complex in downtown Los Angeles. Theatre Projects Consultants designed the National Theatre of London and is working on the 800-seat Beverly Hills community theater.
Gothold said the new center will help both the music and drama programs recruit students. Gothold also believes more teaching professionals will come to Whittier to work with students and faculty because they will have a first-rate place to perform.
Unlike the music department, which has its own building, the drama department has been searching for a permanent home since Founders Hall burned. On the average, the department stages four major productions a year, including a musical, all in the city's community center, several blocks away on Washington Avenue.
"We have to schedule our productions around the city--and we're usually limited to one week," de Vries said. "So we move in on a Sunday, build the sets, rehearse, open the show Thursday night, run for three nights and then tear it all down the following Sunday. Now we'll have time to polish our acts, extend the plays and put on a higher-quality show. It's a big plus."
Mills agreed: "The heart of any liberal arts college is its cultural center. This campus has lacked that for two decades. Now we're getting it back."