Tue, January 21, 2014

The Buildings of Sheldon Jackson College

by Rebecca Poulson
The five buildings of the Sheldon Jackson College quadrangle were built in 1911. The school began in 1878 as a Presbyterian mission, and retained its Presbyterian affiliation even as it became an independent four-year college. We came close to losing these buildings, when the college closed in disarray in 2007. (For the story of how they were saved, see the Sitka Fine Arts Campus Website.)
I love these handsome buildings, especially the light-filled spaces of the Richard H. Allen Memorial auditorium building.
But that’s probably not how they were ever seen by the college.
In 1946, the school planned to demolish the Allen building (saving all useful materials) and replace it with a new, two-story, reinforced concrete classroom and administrative building. (1)
Thank God, the Allen building was not replaced. But this may have been because just a year later they had a plan to redo the entire campus.

Sheldon Jackson College (E. W. Merrill)

What was it about these buildings that made the Presbyterians hate them so? The new design would have demolished all five of the central buildings, and put in an oval drive, with an informal arrangement of new one-story classroom buildings. That plan was never fulfilled, either. The campus today would have been mere real estate. But that was probably already how the college saw it.
Presbyterians are Calvinists, a particularly stern branch of Christianity. Human nature is hopelessly depraved. We deal with this deep sense of guilt through work; discipline; modesty; thrift; and fulfilling our civic duty. Pretty things, booze, makeup, social dancing, and fancy architecture were just not part of the program.
Native culture was also not part of the program of this Native school. This is also manifest in the architecture, which has no trace of anything remotely indigenous.
While they never appreciated what they had, this philosophy also made them lousy fundraisers. Professor Molly Ahlgren once told me, “They can’t succeed. It’s not who they are.” When they wanted to tear down Allen Hall in 1993, they couldn’t even afford the dump fees.
It also kept them from messing them up with trendy remodels. The buildings were preserved – under layers of plain and functional sheetrock, acoustic tile, and plywood.

In this way, these buildings’ very existence, their fanciful gothic-tudor-craftsman exteriors, and severely plain interiors – express a complex story of Presbyterian faith and works.