History of Peirce Hall
With the exception of Old Kenyon, there is probably no other building on the College's campus that says Kenyon quite so clearly as Peirce Hall. From the moment of its dedication in 1929, when William Foster Peirce—already thirty-three years into his forty-one year presidency—famously proclaimed it "the last building the College [would] ever need," it has been central to life at Kenyon.
Planning for a new commons building had begun in the mid 1920s, as it became increasingly obvious that the commons on Chase Avenue—in the structure that now houses the development office—was inadequate. The main floor held a bare waiting room at the front and the kitchen at the back. The dining room was upstairs, connected with the kitchen by a dumbwaiter. As a result of this rather unwieldy system, only those men who were served first at any given meal stood a chance of getting hot food.
But the lack of a comfortable place to dine wasn't the College's only problem with regard to facilities. There was also no place on campus for students from different social groups to gather for activities—unless one counted the bakery on Brooklyn Street with the reputation for serving bootleg liquor along with its bread and cakes. President Peirce and the trustees soon recognized that a new building, of sufficient size, could serve both needs.
To design this proposed structure, Kenyon called on alumnus Alfred Granger of the Class of 1887. A Chicago architect with a thriving practice, Granger had already designed two other campus buildings, Stephens Hall and Cromwell Cottage. Peirce, though, would be acknowledged as Granger's masterpiece, a soaring structure whose finely wrought details blended college gothic and Arts and Crafts motifs into a seamless whole. The influence of medieval Oxford and Cambridge, and the early twentieth century revivals of Gothic architecture at Princeton, Yale, and elsewhere, can be seen in Granger's building, but what he produced is a true original.
As a result of munificent gifts from New York City lawyer and philanthropist William Nelson Cromwell, alumnus Frank Hadley Ginn of the Class of 1890, and the Diocese of Ohio, there was no skimping on the details of the College's new signature building. Famed stained-glass artist Charles J. Connick, who created the Brooke Memorial Windows in the Church of the Holy Spirit, also produced stained glass illustrating scenes from the life of Philander Chase for the windows on the stair landings in the Chase Memorial Tower. Perhaps most impressively of all, he executed the stained-glass medallions with scenes from the best-loved works of classic English and American authors for the windows in the Great Hall.
When Peirce Hall opened, it contained not only unparalleled dining facilities but also those student gathering spots Kenyon had long needed. There were lounges on the first and second floors, a billiard room, and a card room, along with a basement coffee shop. Student organizations established offices throughout the building, wherever there was an unclaimed space. The fledgling art department, decades away from securing a permanent home on campus, set up its studios in the well-lit rooms of Chase Tower.
In 1964, the College opened Dempsey Hall at the rear of Peirce to help accommodate the growing student body. Designed and built by the George S. Rider Company, the new structure, with a main floor capacity of 200, was named in recognition of the loyal support of several members of the Dempsey family, including Ernest C. Dempsey of the Class of 1911, a forty-year member of the Board of Trustees.
Although it served Kenyon well for forty years, it became clear by the beginning of the twenty-first century that Dempsey Hall was no longer adequate to the demands placed on it. The same was true—in spades, we might say—of the kitchen facilities that served both dining rooms. And the wear and tear of almost eighty years were showing everywhere in Peirce Hall.
So, in a daring move, the trustees decided to go forward with a complete remodeling—and, in the case of Dempsey, a remodeling that began with the demolition of the existing structure—that would necessitate closing the commons for two years. Luckily, the Ernst Center, built as a gymnasium, was sitting empty after the completion of the Kenyon Athletic Center, and it was refitted as a temporary dining hall for the duration of the Peirce and Dempsey projects.
With the help of another talented alumnus, this time architect Graham Gund of the Class of 1963, the College has now given Peirce and Dempsey halls the kind of additional spaces they deserve, not only functional but beautiful. Like Alfred Granger, Graham Gund is an architect who pays close attention not only to the grand spaces, like the new Thomas Dining Hall, but also to the smallest detail, like the images of birds etched in glass panels throughout the rebuilt Dempsey. The result is an even greater commons at the center of the Kenyon campus, a stirring testament to the genius of those artists whose work it represents.
Tom Stamp, Class of 1973
College Historian and Keeper of Kenyoniana