Heating and Physical Plant
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From William C. Page, Public Historian for the State Historical Society of Iowa:
Constructed in 1917, the Central Heating Plant forms the northwest anchor of the Penn College quadrangle. The idea of a collegiate quadrangle forms the basis of the concept plan and gives shape to the campus. Like Penn and Lewis Halls, the Central Heating Plant was designed by the architect A.T. Simmons, whose work was influenced by the Prairie School of architecture. Notable features include the extensive use of ribbon windows punctuated by brick pilasters, the low pitched roof, and the use of stone trim work in geometric designs. The building's industrial style metal window frames, which remain in place, add an eclectic note to the building, suggesting the influence of the commercial building styles.
The Central Heating Plant is of historical significance because it illustrates the Quaker concern for business-like operations and practical applications. Architect A. T. Simmons designed a very useful and practical method for heating and lighting all of the other buildings he planned for the campus in only one facility. The design obtains further significance because it proved to be adaptable over the years. A new, fourth boiler was not even needed until the gymnasium was erected in 1955-1957. As additional campus buildings were constructed, they were also added to this system, and the plant was able to accommodate them. Until very recently all campus buildings except the McGrew Fine Arts Center were heated and lighted by A. T. Simmons' Central Heating Plant. This facility was considered very modern when it was constructed, compared with other colleges and institutions that used coal furnaces in each individual building. The Quakers' concern for practicality led them to adopt an innovative system that has fulfilled high expectations. The smokestack was originally 146 feet high. This great height was necessary to create the tremendous draft required to pull air through the original three boilers, which had no blowers.
The wisdom and vision of Simmons' plan became further apparent over the years as problems developed with the newer buildings. Instead of employing Simmons's idea of connecting these additional buildings through tunnels, the new buildings were connected by above-ground pipes that carried the steam. These pipes received much exposure, and severe winter weather repeatedly damaged them. Eventually the new buildings were disconnected from the system and given individual boilers of their own. Today, Penn and Lewis Hall, Spencer Chapel and the gymnasium and addition are still heated and lighted through the use of the Central Heating Plant. Those pipes and wires that run through Simmons' tunnels have needed relatively little repair beyond normal maintenance.
Page, William C., and Joanne R. Walroth. Penn College Historic District. National Register of Historic Places designation report. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of the Interior/National Park Service,National Register report, 1996.