Renderings, student reactions and the fate of the Sparks Center

Artist rendering of the front of the new Campus Center. Courtesy of Shepley Bulfinch.

Walking into Lilly Library any weeknight, students are sure to find the many scenes of college life. Of course, there is plenty of studying going on—but unlike most college campuses, Lilly Library also serves as the unofficial campus life meeting spot. From the video game room to Student Senate meetings, our library serves double duty. The reason for this dual use: Wabash conspicuously lacks a dedicated building for student life. That may be about to change.

In the third year of his tenure, President of the College Scott Feller has highlighted three strategic priorities as critical to his vision for the campus: belonging and inclusion, philanthropy and enrollment. One critical component in actualizing those priorities, according to Feller, is the Campus Center.

“To me, the Campus Center is at the intersection of belonging, enrollment and philanthropy,” Feller said. “Most campuses on college tours can show a true campus center. This is an area where we don’t show so well. We have a library that serves some of that role. And it’s nice in some ways, but there are real downsides to it.”

Feller isn’t alone; several Trustees of the College believe that a Campus Center could improve campus unity and brotherhood.

“I think more than ever we need our ‘one Wabash’ facility, a place where everyone—independents, fraternity guys, La Alianza, MXI—can feel that it’s their home,” said Trustee and Vice Chair of the Buildings and Grounds Committee Jay Williams Jr. ’66. Williams serves as President of Broadcasting Unlimited and the co-founder of DMR Interactive. “Even back when I was there, people felt isolated in their living units and academic pursuits from others who were different. We need a place on campus where everyone can go and enjoy themselves—to dine, to go to Wally’s, to sit in the living room, bring a date— to intermingle with other students that they may not otherwise meet. I think that’s what we need: a place where everyone can feel like it’s their home.”

Feller envisions the Center as a neutral space, one that is not the domain of any specific group or activity other than a united Wabash locale.

“We don’t have a lot of neutral spaces on campus,” said Feller, explaining that the library often serves as the default, somewhat-neutral space. “But when you’re there, you know it’s an academic space. We can have events in Chadwick Court, but that’s athletics space. We could have a party at the Beta house, for example. But it’s their space.”

Feller explained that designing a welcoming space is especially critical for creating a sense of belonging and inclusion among out-of-state and international students, who are further from home while on campus.

Artist rendering of the south side of the Campus Center, view from the Armory. Courtesy of Shepley Bulfinch.

“We’ve never made it a priority to have a space like a Campus Center that is owned by all,” Feller said. “That’s tough for students coming from a distance. They need a place that feels like home, that isn’t just a dorm or a fraternity room. They need to have a more dynamic place that has activity over the whole arc of the year. We have moments where campus can feel pretty tame—and that can coincide when in-state students go home. So for those who aren’t from Indiana, are left unable to find a place with a critical mass of people or things to do. We need to create such a space.”

Feller explained that such event space could be an effective neutral site for contact between students and the administration, such as the town hall regarding strategic planning that Feller held on March 2. Without the Campus Center, such events are typically held in academic spaces.

Some out-of-state students have echoed Feller.

“As someone coming out of state, I’d say there is a lack of a common space for students to hang out,” said Jacob Ramirez ’25 from Alamo, Texas. “The Mall is a good common space, but we need somewhere else for students to interact. A fraternity can be that place, but your options are limited to meet guys outside your living unit. Having that opportunity outside of Sparks would be amazing. Playing pool, finding a place to sit and talk, maybe a small restaurant—that would be amazing. Something that would get the campus body to show up and interact with each other.”

“I was initially pretty excited about the idea of a Campus Center,” said Carson Price ’23 from Hudson, Michigan. “I think that there’s not really that many accessible areas for students to spend time together outside of their rooms. Most buildings are designated for particular clubs or activities, like the Lilly Library or the Sparks Center. Having a Center where students can spend time together is important, and I see the benefits as a member of the MXI, as we have a place to hang out, study and just relax. It seems that a lot of students spend much of their time in their dorm, but some of the best things I’ve gotten out of Wabash have been the relationships I’ve built through socializing.”

This neutral-site vision has influenced the working designs for the new Center, as Trustee Jay Williams explained. One of the broader aims has been to design a Center that meets the context on campus in size and fit.

“We want it to fit the existing architecture,” said Williams. “We don’t want to overwhelm the campus. We want it to fit in and be a building that sort of blends in but also stands out on its own architecturally.”

Though the designs are not set in stone, the renderings give a strong picture of the core concepts of the Center.

“We’re to the point where we know what the basic program is and what the goals are of the building,” said Professor of Classics Dr. Jeremy Hartnett, who serves as the Faculty Representative on the Trustees’ Building and Grounds Committee. “We know what rooms there are going to be and how they’re going to be arranged. But we don’t know what wall color and what finishes there are going to be.”

Though the designs are not completely finished, many of the details of the designs are available. The Center will have two floors, with the second floor featuring an event center and a conservatory.

“The Event Center will seat at least 250 people,” explained Williams. “That will be a nice place to have dinners and functions, such as an event day or career fair.”

The Center will also feature a W Store, a space similar to the bookstore that may serve as a convenience store with evening hours. For relaxing spaces, the Center will contain living rooms and a game room.

Artist rendering of the dining hall within the new Campus Center. Courtesy of Shepley Bulfinch.

But where will the Center be located? According to Williams, the Campus Center will replace the existing Sparks Center, built in 1954. Originally called the Campus Center, Sparks initially served a similar function to the new Campus Center that the administration envisions. Sparks originally offered bowling, a bookstore and meal service to create a neutral space for relaxation and campus life.

But to create the new Center, the College will lose the Sparks Center.

“That’s the ideal, centrally located spot on campus,” Williams explained. But in addition to the physical location, the proximity to the library offers an opportunity for a new skywalk. “We’ve planned a north-south corridor so you can go from the library to the inside of the Center going through the building. There will be an east entrance on the Mall. It’s centrally located, and we’ve designed it so it could be an intersection for the campus.”

The intersection aspect is key, as the goal is for the Campus Center to be a place for students to run into each other outside of the classroom.

“A truth of undergraduates is that they will take the shortest distance between two points—even if it’s the ugliest route,” said Hartnett. “We want the [path] to be somewhat intentionally inefficient—we want you to have to bump into two or three people you know and have a short conversation or just say hello. So we can essentially strengthen the social fabric of the campus.”

“Part of the purpose of the building is to take the inclusive spirit of the [Lilly Library],” said Hartnett, “which feels like it belongs to everybody, and to infuse that same sensibility into what currently reads as a space for independent men to eat.”

This location will match the exterior of the Center to the full campus scene.

“The Mall side will be much the more formal side,” Williams said. “The south side facing the Armory and the stadium will be more open and glass-oriented to catch the light coming in. The west side will have a portico and porch area, so people can enjoy dining inside out.”

The plans to demolish the Sparks Center and replace it with the Campus Center raises questions about two potential other dem- olitions, with proximity to Sparks: Morris and Wolcott, two smaller independent living units located directly behind where the new Campus Center will be located. The current plan, as Hartnett and Williams explained, is to keep the two independent living units in the same location.

“If the pandemic has taught us anything, having single rooms is not a bad idea,” said Hartnett. “But we also know that those are popular spots. And with a dynamic center of activity nearby, I suspect they will only become more popular.”

“Right now, we’re planning on keeping them,” Williams said. “I’ve been fighting to keep them for some time—they’re very popular units. A lot of guys are used to having their own private room, and they aren’t used to sharing space. For just a few million on each building, we could bring [Morris and Wolcott] and really improve them. I think that’s better than tearing down and starting over.”

Discussions about a new campus center have been a staple for the past few years. As many current seniors recall, these discus- sions began even before the pandemic. Price is one such senior.

“I’m unsure if a Campus Center will ever get built,” said Price, “but I think it would be a great resource for students who are feel- ing socially isolated. I think one of the biggest barriers is ensuring that it’s truly accessible and welcoming to all students.”

While these conversations aren’t new, this moment is. As President Feller explained, this time the conversations have become action steps.

“To me, the Campus Center is at the intersection of belonging, enrollment and philanthropy.”

– President Scott Feller

“There have been conversations about this for most of my 25 years here, but this is the first time we have architects,” said Feller. “Last year was the concept phase; now we’re in the design phase.”

The lead architect for the Center is Executive Vice President of Shepley Bulfinch Joe Herzog, son of Emeritus Professor of English Tobey Herzog H’11. Herzog’s firm also designed the renovations to Martindale Hall.

“They really understood our culture,” explained Hartnett.

Though the design phase is ongoing, it seems clear that the Campus Center will not be completed in the immediate future.

“I think we’re sitting in a position where the earliest possible time that this could break ground would i be spring of next year,” said Williams.

Though many students a may hope for a completed Center sooner, Feller explained that the deliberate process may help reduce error.

“The design work is moving, probably slower than any of us want,” said Feller. “But the more I watch, the more I think I don’t want it to go any faster, because a it needs to be done right. The hope would be that this a design work can largely be completed this semester. Not 100%, because there s will still be more feedback r sessions and action steps.”

“One of the things I’ve learned is that you can obviously change things up until you start building,” said Hartnett. “It’s cheaper—it’s free—to change things now. So there are a number of things that are still up for discussion.

Feller explained that philanthropy is a critical part of the planning stage for the Center.

Another critical stage in beginning construction is securing financial support.

“I’m talking with friends of the College to find out what level of giving they a might be contemplating,” said Feller. “We need to line up enough of the substantial gifts before we commit to breaking ground on a specific date.”

Feller contrasted this a fundraising campaign from the one leading to the creation of Little Giant Stadium. For the stadium, Kevin Clifford’s ’77 initial a $10 million gift was lined up before the project was s announced. While the stadium was designed and built, the College worked on completing the rest of the necessary fundraising. The Campus Center does not currently have the high-profile gift, though it d has some of the other funding sources lined up.

“We’re not going to break ground in May,” said Feller. “But it’s also not a project for 2032. We’ve got to do it sooner, because I think we’ve got to have it.”