June 4, 2014

Powerhouse Project Re-energizes Beloit College Campus

  • By: Katherine Flynn
Credit: Robin Zebrowski, Flickr
Beloit College, founded in 1846 by Yale University alumnus Aaron Lucius Chapin, is the oldest continuously operated college in Wisconsin.

We Beloiters -- students and alumni of Beloit College in Beloit, Wisc. --  love history. It’s inescapable. From the Pearsons Hall student center designed by Daniel Burnham -- architect of the Flatiron Building in New York, Union Station in Washington, D.C., and much of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair -- to Wisconsin Historical Landmark Middle College, our rich heritage is as much a part of our identity as our campus-wide love of New Glarus beer and Ultimate Frisbee.

That’s why a new adaptive reuse project at Beloit, which proposes to convert an early-1900s power generating station on the adjacent Rock River into a state-of-the-art campus center, is receiving so much enthusiasm from students, alumni, and community members.

In October 2013, Beloit enlisted the help of Chicago’s Studio Gang Architects to render a design for what has been christened the “Powerhouse project.” The finished facility will be an innovative mixed-use complex that will combine recreation and athletic practice space with a new student union, including a competition-grade swimming pool and a 150-seat public auditorium.

“We’re looking at it as an opportunity to do two things,” says Jason Hughes, director of communications and marketing at the college. “We want to have a true thriving campus center and marry it also with a health and recreation center. There’s a wellness aspect.”

This type of complex, Hughes explains, doesn’t have a lot of precedent at other colleges and universities. “There aren’t really good examples of that around the country. We’re trying to get a twofer here in that way. Studio Gang has really been helping us think in more sophisticated ways about this example.”

Credit: Trevor Johnson, Beloit College
The Blackhawk Generating Station, left, built in 1913, is being re-imagined as a mixed-use campus recreation center for Beloit College.

The now-defunct Blackhawk Generating Station, which Beloit is slated to acquire from utility company Alliant Energy Wisconsin by 2017 on the condition that it raises sufficient funds for the project ($30 million total), looms large in the imaginations of Beloit College students -- or at least, it did in mine. I had a clear view of the plant’s industrial smokestack from the window of my third-floor freshman year dorm, and I always wondered what it could possibly feel like inside -- how high the ceilings were, how loud the machinery was. (The 1913 power plant was decommissioned for good in 2010, three years after I arrived on campus.)

I’m not the only one whose curiosity was piqued by the hulking structure. In the fall of 1950, after a $7 million construction project and equipment update, former building owner Wisconsin Power & Light held an open house to show off the newly revamped facility to the town. More than 6,000 people showed up, dressed in their Sunday best, eager for a tour.

Preserving this industrial heritage is an important part of Studio Gang’s new design.

“Our goal from the beginning has been to try to maintain this beautiful, heroic scale and character of the building, and the challenge has been how to make this scale of space a human scale and something that people feel comfortable being in,” said Jeanne Gang, the MacArthur Award-winning founder and principal of Studio Gang architects, in a May 5 presentation to Beloit students, faculty, staff, and community members.

The project’s strong commitment to sustainability is demonstrated through Studio Gang’s plan to incorporate water from the Rock River into the building’s heating and cooling system, an energy-efficient approach to keeping the large building at a comfortable temperature in both the winter and summer months while still maintaining the look of the historic exposed brick in the building’s interior.

Credit: Studio Gang Architects
A digital rendering of the Turbine Hall student union space within the new complex

Beloit’s dean of students, Christina Klawitter, sees the project as a chance to create a space that will allow students to engage with their education in a new way.

“I really think that this is going to be a place where we can live out the values of a residential learning environment and cater to students’ social, recreational, and physical health needs,” says Klawitter. (As a residential college, Beloit requires students to live on campus for a minimum of three years, making the need for up-to-date spaces and amenities all the more essential.) “The sky’s the limit in terms of how this is going to impact student life.”

Response to the project by community members, alumni, and, most importantly, students has been overwhelmingly positive thus far. In the spirit of its strong belief in experiential learning, Beloit has used the project as an opportunity to involve students in the decision-making process from the very beginning, and four students were given the opportunity to participate in cross-disciplinary internships with Studio Gang this past spring.

The Powerhouse project will also be part of a larger downtown revitalization in the city, transforming the appearance of a building that has long been an eyesore for both the campus and town and landscaping the surrounding area into an inviting community space.

"The community really wants to see this place alive again," says Hughes. "They recognize that we have a need for these spaces. We don't have a place that is really the active, beating heart of campus. This project will give us riverfront property that we can use ourselves, and [that] we can also share with the community."

Katherine Flynn is a former assistant editor at Preservation magazine. She enjoys coffee, record stores, and uncovering the stories behind historic places.


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