Council of Independent Colleges Historic Campus Architecture Project


Grace Phillips Johnson Memorial Visual Arts Center

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Institution Name: Bethany College (WV)
Original/Historic Place Name: Irvin Gymnasium
Location on Campus: Campus Dr.
Date(s) of Construction:
1917-1919original design
1984remodeled Filoni, Albert H. Maclachlin, Cornelius & Filoni
Designer: Albert H. Filoni of MacLachlin, Cornelius & Filoni (Pittsburgh, PA)
Type of Place: Individual building
Style: Gothic revival, Other (Glossary)
Significance: architecture, education, religion
Narrative: see below
References: see below
Foundation: cement (?)
Walls: brick
Roof: slate on plank on wood (originally); asphalt shingle (currently)
1975-1980other (physical education, and dance studio)
1980-1984other (recreation center)
1984-present (2006)other (Grace Phillips Johnson Memorial Visual Arts Center: includes art studios, a clay lab, a television studio, and a ceramics lab)

As early as 1853, students at Bethany College began to petition for a place of amusement and physical exercise. It was not until 1870 that they succeeded in having a baseball field. In the fall of 1889, the student body began rallying for a gymnasium, and President Archibald McLean provided for this need for physical fitness by converting Commencement Hall in Old Main into a gymnasium by February 1890. In 1902, Bethany had its first physical director, and for the first time physical education classes were part of the class offerings. At a meeting of the Bethany College Board of Trustees on June 17, 1903, the unanimous decision was made to proceed at once to build a gymnasium. Mark Mordecai Cochran (class of 1875) began an alumni movement to procure alumni subscriptions. In the fall of 1903-04, the gymnasium in Commencement Hall was converted into Norman A. Phillips Dormitory for men, and a small gymnasium behind the main college building was under construction by the fall of 1903 but was not finished until 1905. The site of the gymnasium was part of a certain tract or parcel of land conveyed to the Trustees of Bethany College by Alexander Campbell and Selina, his wife, on July 3, 1843, and recorded in the Office of the County Clerk of Brooke County, Virginia, in Deed Book No. 14, page 284. It was the first college building on this site, and an incendiary destroyed the gym on April 27, 1915. Ten days earlier, a cow stable adjoining the building was burned to the ground. A few days after the fire, the timbers under the Old Meeting House were saturated with kerosene, but the fire was discovered before much damage was done to the building. The gymnasium was a wooden structure measuring 45 x 75 feet. The front faced toward Old Main, and it extended west, lengthwise toward the ravine. It had lockers, baths, and the newest forms of apparatus. The playing court was large enough, but it had the peculiar feature of having a basketball court with no out-of-bounds space. Because Bethany had its first basketball team in 1905-06 and because basketball was a new sport, the designers had neither the experience nor knowledge they needed to construct a proper court. Spectators had to crowd into the entrance, squeeze onto a very small balcony, or perch on braces that held the exercising apparatus.

As a memorial to Jennie Irvin (class of 1904), plans for construction of a new gymnasium began in November 1916. Irvin Gymnasium was under construction on this site in May 1917, but it was not completed until 1919. The contractor was P. W. Finn and Son. Cement and lime used in the building were supplied by C. R. Carman. The name of the architect has not yet been discovered. When the student strike in the spring of 1919 took place in protest over enforced participation in ROTC, the students made the new gymnasium their headquarters. The new building measured 100 feet in length and 52 feet in width. By June of 1922 a swimming pool measuring 20 x 60 feet on the ground level was in operation in the building. There were shower baths, team rooms, coach rooms, faculty offices, lockers, an indoor track, and a gymnasium floor. The five-story tower contained a coach's lecture room, janitor's quarters, and an office. Between Old Main and Irvin gymnasium was a track and football field. Bleachers faced the track, and a long-jump pit was positioned near the sidewalk in front of the gymnasium.

Finally having a state-of-the-art facility for physical education, the athletic program at Bethany flourished.

The John J. Knight Natatorium, built in 1968, replaced the swimming pool in Irvin Gymnasium. The new 25- yard swimming pool in that facility was dedicated on May 25, 1968. Alumni Field House and the Edwin M. Rine Athletic Field gradually replaced Irvin Gymnasium and the athletic fields behind Old Main. Edwin M. Rine Athletic Field was dedicated in October 1939. Alumni Field House, under construction in 1948, was not completed until the winter of 1957, due to lack of funds. It was dedicated June 1, 1957. Irvin Gymnasium continued to be used as a physical education facility for women from 1948-1975. From 1975-76 until 1979-80, it was used for physical education for both men and women and for many years included a modern dance studio. In 1980-81, it began to be used as a recreation center for the campus and continued in this capacity until 1983-84, at which time it was closed in order to begin preparation for remodeling as a visual arts center.

On October 11, 1984, the renovated and refurbished Irvin Gymnasium was dedicated as the Grace Phillips Johnson Memorial Visual Arts Center. Its new function was to provide studios for painting, sculpture, crafts, drawing, photography, ceramics, computer graphics, and graphic design, as well as providing space for a television studio, classrooms, a slide viewing room, a gallery, and offices. The architect in charge of the remodeling was Albert H. Filoni of MacLachlin, Cornelius and Filoni, Pittsburgh.

Irvin Gymnasium was used as the physical education facility for men and women at Bethany College from 1919 until 1948. It continued to be used for physical education for women until 1975. For four years, it was used as a physical education facility for men and women, and for three years it was used as a recreation center for the campus. When it closed for remodeling in 1983-84, it had served the campus for 64 years as a physical education center. During this time, the physical education program grew from infancy into an important part of the college curriculum. The first field day was in 1890 in celebration of having the advantage of a gymnasium, and this space continued to be used by students and faculty until it was needed as dormitory space in the fall of 1903-04. It is evident from articles that students wrote in the Bethany Collegian in the 1890's that a proper facility for physical education was an increasingly serious concern for students. The first building constructed for use as a gymnasium was completed in 1905 and was burned to the ground in 1915. During that time, athletics began to take a firm hold on campus. After the fire, it was nearly four years before the students had a physical education facility Irvin Gymnasium. During the years that it served the campus in this capacity, competitive sports became an irrefutable part of campus life. From modest beginnings, the campus now has the state of the art Thomas Phillips Johnson Health and Recreation Center, Hoag Field for football and for track and field, and several soccer fields. Students using the health and recreation facility take for granted the indoor track, volleyball and basketball courts, swimming pool, weight rooms, and racquetball courts. Students of today could not imagine college life as it was slightly more than 100 years ago. Irvin Gymnasium played an important role in that transition.

Renamed the Grace Phillips Johnson Memorial Visual Arts Center in 1984, the building is now fulfilling another important function, that of demonstrating the importance of visual arts in the curriculum of a small liberal arts college. The Phillips and Johnson families, long-time benefactors, have repeatedly demonstrated in a tangible way their understanding of the important elements of a liberal arts education.


Browne, Henry J. Bethany Historic District [including Bethany College (WV)]. National Register of Historic Places designation report. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of the Interior/National Park Service, 1982.

Woolery, William Kirk. Bethany Years: The Story of Old Bethany from Her Founding Years through a Century of Trial and Triumph. Huntington, WV: Standard Printing and Publishing Company, 1941.


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