Wheaton College planning 'gala year' to celebrate new music center
To get a sense of why the expansion of Wheaton College's music center is such a cause for celebration, Cindra Stackhouse Taetzsch tells the story of when she performed in the school's concert choir.
She remembers singing in Edman and Pierce chapels and their less-than-ideal acoustics, designed more for the spoken word.
"I remember thinking, boy would it ever be nice to have a space that was built just for vocal and musical performance," Stackhouse Taetzsch said.
Her graduation year? 1982.
So suffice to say, a new home for the music and the arts has been a long time coming.
Which is why Wheaton College isn't just planning an unveiling, but a yearlong, campuswide series of events showcasing the Armerding Center for Music and the Arts, its 648-seat concert hall and the nationally renowned talents of faculty and student artists.
School leaders are planning the "gala year" starting in fall 2020 -- when the expanded Armerding Center is set to open -- because of the significance of the project, capping more than eight years of planning, fundraising and construction. A gala year also recognizes the essential role of music on a campus where students grew up singing and playing instruments in Christian churches.
"So when we come to Wheaton, if we don't major in it, we still continue to make music most of us our whole lives," said Stackhouse Taetzsch, the alumni association's executive director. "So it's really a concert hall and conservatory for the whole campus, not just for majors."
Indeed, about half the students in the main ensembles are not music majors, but they are gifted musicians, Wheaton President Philip Ryken said.
"I love the fact that our symphony orchestra, our men's glee club, all of our ensembles have as many as non-music majors as music majors," he said.
Music programs previously have been spread across multiple buildings, including McAlister Hall, a venue meant "for at most 80 musicians, not 200 music majors, plus many others," Ryken said.
"It was a badly outdated space with very little sound control," he said. "And I don't think it's an exaggeration to say it was probably the worst practice studio facility of any serious music school in the country."
But the spaces in Armerding are the first in the history of the college designed specifically for music performance. And that's a long history considering the school's original faculty included a music professor.
"We've never really had a building that was solely dedicated to music and the arts, and this is a state-of the-art facility," said Kirk Farney, the school's vice president for advancement.
Completed in October 2017, the project's first stage transformed the Armerding Center, a 1970s-era science building, into a new home for the Wheaton Conservatory of Music, with a 110-seat recital hall, teaching and recording studios, practice rooms and a digital keyboard lab.
In February, the college officially broke ground on the project's second phase: Building an addition to accommodate the concert hall, a choral rehearsal room and a lobby containing the Marjorie Lamp Mead Art Gallery.
When the expansion is complete in fall 2020, Armerding will grow to 78,770 square feet.
So far, roughly $58 million has been raised for the Armerding construction through a capital campaign, and the college is looking to raise roughly $2 million more.
To help reach its goal, the school earlier this year launched a "Name-a-Seat" campaign to recognize donors that give $1,000 by placing their desired names on a concert hall seat. Close to half the seats have been sold.
"Our donors, who in many cases are alumni, but are not entirely alumni, have recognized for years that this was a real need for our current and future students, and they've really stepped up here," said Kirk Farney, the school's vice president for advancement.
Generations of alumni left a symbolic mark on Armerding by signing a section of a 36-foot-long, 1,493-pound girder installed Wednesday as the main support beam for a bridge to the concert hall. Wood will encase the beam, so while their signatures won't be visible, students and families swarmed the beam on a quad Wednesday morning to leave behind more than their signatures.
Retired piano professor William Phemister drew a keyboard in permanent marker. Other students wrote chapters and verses of passages from Psalms and Hebrews. Stackhouse Taetzsch also left her signature.
"We try to glorify God through what we do, through the music we sing and the music we perform, sharing the talents and really blessing people because there's nothing like music to do that," she said.