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Wheaton College, in conjunction with the Museum of Modern Art and Architectural Forum, conducted a competition for the design of an art center in 1938, one of the earliest such competitions of its kind. According to Searing, "the thrust of the competition" was to "overthrow established conventions of collegiate architecture." The competition was "an astonishing success," with 243 architects submitting 252 plans. Although such renowned architects as Walter Gropius and Eero Saarinen entered the competition, the first prize was awarded to Caleb Hornbostel and Richard M. Bennett, young architects from New York who had collaborated for the first time on this project.
Although there were no funds to build the winning art center design, Wheaton alumnae and students had been raising money for a student alumnae building since 1928, holding teas, flea markets, concerts, plays and other fund-raising events; a gift from Herbert M. Plimpton, of the Plimpton Press in Norwood, Mass., and a trustee for 28 years, in memory of his mother, Priscilla Guild Lewis Plimpton (Class of 1835), made construction of the Student Alumnae Building possible . As a consolation prize, Hornbostel and Bennett were hired in 1940 to design the SAB, as well as additions to the science building and library. All reveal the influence of the Bauhaus style, and are among the earliest examples of modernist architecture on an American college campus. Wheaton President J. Edgar Park described their work as "modern models of what college buildings might be," adding that the structures "will always have their place as historic landmarks in the development of American college architecture. They may even be prophetic of a new streamlined education of the future, free from ornamental concretions."
The SAB's modernist angled shape provided access to both upper campus and the lower Peacock Pond, and fit into the hillside while not disrupting the classical facades of surrounding buildings. Its modern style included rows of simply framed windows and a minimum of decoration. Many of the windows on the north (Chapel Field) side provided views through the building and out the other side. Plimpton Hall, one wing of SAB, was used for dances, plays, concerts, lectures, and campus meetings. An innovative Game Room included a built-in piano, record player, and radio. A two-lane bowling alley was adjacent to the Game Room. Yellow Parlor, with furniture, rugs, curtains and carpeting all contributing to the (bright!) yellow theme, was dedicated to and used primarily by alumnae. A terrace and stone-paved and landscaped courtyard provided an outdoor room.
Now known as the Balfour-Hood Center, the SAB was an immediate success and was the first building ever given to the college and paid for with outside funds. The chairman of the art department, Esther Seaver, wrote that the building was useful "in helping students to understand the underlying principles of genuine American as well as modern architecture," and revealed the architects' understanding of the "unique blend of tradition and experiment that [had] characterized Wheaton" since its founding.
The interior of the Balfour-Hood Center was altered in 1968-69 according to a design by Howard L. Rich. A 150th anniversary project to modernize and expand the building was designed by a collaboration of two Boston firms, Amsler Hagenah MacLean (Kenneth MacLean) and Bastille-Neiley (Robert Neiley). Their postmodern addition was an adaptive response to the modernist SAB structure; it filled in the courtyard with an atrium, and joined SAB to the Admissions Center and the Loft with new underground spaces. A new entrance of glass skylights and columns echoes shapes found on the Chapel facade, and its skylights extend over the atrium. The angled north side of the original building forms the south wall of the atrium, and a straight brick wall with simple square fenestration ending in a false "stage" facade near the Pond forms the new north wall of the building. The south angled facade and entrance remain unchanged except for an additional entrance.
Plimpton Hall was turned into office space for various student activities and the balcony end became the Media Center. The ground and main floors are comprised of lounges and meeting rooms and the Hood Café. Student Life offices occupy the third floor. The trustees named the Balfour-Hood Center on 30 May 1986 in honor of Mr. and Mrs. Lloyd G. and Mildred Balfour (Balfour class rings) and the Gilbert Hood family (trustee and father of an alumna) in thanks for two generous donations to the project from the Balfour Foundation and Emily Hood (Class of 1953). During the summer of 1991, the Campus Shop was changed to a Student Game & Media Room, and the Fitness Center moved to the old pool wing of the Gymnasium/Admissions building.
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