If the walls of two buildings on Catawba College's campus could talk, they'd tell of laughter, tears, weddings, funerals, christenings, music, praise, celebration, and the staged and real comedies and tragedies that have occurred over the past half century in both the campus community and the Rowan-Salisbury community.
The much-used Omwake-Dearborn Chapel and the Robertson College-Community Center mark their 50th anniversaries this year. The occasion is a reminder of how connected the college is to the broader community and just how a town-gown relationship is nurtured.
Catawba College President Brien Lewis said the two buildings are "part of the lifeblood of the college and larger community" and their anniversaries serve as a reminder of "how intertwined" these communities are.
The chapel is the locale for weddings and funerals, and for the past 26 years, the college's annual Service of Lessons and Carols. The Robertson College-Community Center has been the setting for Catawba's and local high schools' graduations, Salisbury and N.C. Symphony performances, theatrical offerings, concerts, candidate forums, symposia and inaugurations.
A Dream of Two Buildings
Catawba's 14th President, Dr. A.R. Keppel, dreamed the dream of a new chapel and an auditorium on Catawba's campus, but it was Catawba's 15th President, Dr. Donald Dearborn, who inherited these two unfinished projects when he took office in 1963. Both were under construction and neither was fully funded. President Dearborn's task was to find adequate funds to finance the construction and see the dream realized.
Conversations about raising funds to construct these buildings began in early 1961. Dr. Keppel turned to the Salisbury-Rowan community to assist in funding the auditorium, and to the congregations of the Southern Synod of the Evangelical and Reformed Church (today the United Church of Christ) for financial assistance with the chapel.
Within two years of launching the chapel campaign, pledges to the Chapel Fund reached $338,321.33. Trustees approved the chapel construction and ground was broken for it on December 16, 1962. R.K. Steward & Son of High Point, the low bidder at $424,000, was awarded the contract.
Almost simultaneously to the chapel fundraising, a campaign was launched in the Salisbury community to raise $600,000 to erect a facility to house an auditorium and a little theatre. James F. Hurley, III, whose family owned and published "The Salisbury Post," wrote to Catawba Trustees urging them to approve a program to build an auditorium that would serve both college and community. He said his newspaper would support such a project, both financially and in providing publicity. The then executive director of the Salisbury-Rowan County Chamber of Commerce also weighed in, supporting the idea and committing the chamber's efforts to ensure this project's success.
In February, 1961, college trustees authorized the building committee of the board to seek bids for the proposed College-Community Building and instructed Dr. Keppel and that committee to engage the John Ramsay and Associates architectural firm of Salisbury to draw plans for the structure. Under Dr. Keppel's leadership, and with the help of almost 250 Salisbury and Rowan citizens, $615,699.85 was raised for this construction. R.K. Stewart & Son, also the low bidder for the college-community building with a price of $687,018, was awarded the construction contract.
The Omwake-Dearborn Chapel
The first of the two buildings to be finished was the American Gothic, 1,000-seat chapel. It was dedicated on a cold clear Sunday afternoon, February 2, 1964.
Its most prominent features include its nave, lined with stone gothic arches; the chancel dominated by soaring three-paneled stained glass windows rising above the reredos; a large stained glass rose window at the rear above the balcony; and a 75-bell carillon. Although an electronic organ was in place at the time of the dedication, it was later replaced by a Cassavant Organ. Imbedded in the west wall of the narthex is a single stone from the Salisbury Cathedral in Salisbury, England, which was built in 1220.
Prior to the dedication, an act of "presentation and acceptance" was staged outside the chapel. The keys to chapel passed from the chapel architect, of Barber and McMurry in Knoxville, Tenn., to the college trustees. The Reverend Richard "Dick" A. Cheek, a 1947 alumnus who led the campaign within the churches of the denomination, and the Reverend Dr. Banks J. Peeler '19, former president of the Catawba Trustees, led the dedication service.
Less than three weeks after its dedication, on February 20, 1964, the new chapel was the setting for Dr. Dearborn's inauguration as Catawba's president. James Dayvault, then president of the Catawba Student Government Association and a member of the Class of 1964, brought greetings at the inauguration. Ironically, in this same venue five months later, Dayvault would wed Martha "Marty" Seiwell '63 in a ceremony officiated by her father, Catawba's Campus Pastor, Reverend Porter Seiwell.
"Jim and I, along with my mother, Maria, were very excited to be married in the new Catawba Chapel by my dad, Porter Seiwell," Marty Dayvault recalls. "I remember thinking how long the aisle was compared to First Church in Salisbury. We wanted to be the first couple married there, but we were the second or third. We were married July 26, 1964, and I remember only too well how hot it was that day (the chapel was not air conditioned back then).
"Our only daughter, Susan, was baptized in the chapel by my Dad in April, 1969," Marty continued. "My brother Dick '67 and his wife, Linda, were also married in the chapel by our Dad on Dec. 24, 1972. Our entire family has always loved Catawba and have had a passion for supporting the Campus Ministry Fund."
Under President Dearborn's leadership and thanks to the generosity of key trustees, namely J.W. Abernethy and Dr. Adrian Shuford, Jr., the final funding for the chapel was raised after its completion. President Dearborn died unexpectedly after suffering a massive heart attack in November, 1967. Several years after his death, the Catawba Trustees named the chapel the Omwake-Dearborn Chapel in acknowledgement of the role he and his father-in-law, former Catawba President Howard Omwake, had played in the college's history.
The Robertson College-Community Center
On March 2, 1964, a two-week long fine arts festival marked the formal opening of the college-community center. A brief ceremony of dedication preceded the opening night performance by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.
Attending the ceremony were the architect, trustees, Dr. Keppel – for whom the large auditorium was named in appreciation for his efforts to begin the project - and the three daughters of Mr. and Mrs. B.V. Hedrick - for whom the Little Theatre was named. Also on hand was Dr. Tom Thurston, then president of the Salisbury-Rowan County Chamber and general chairman of the fund drive that raised over $600,000 in Rowan County and Salisbury for the facility.
Dick Banks, a drama and music critic with the "Charlotte Observer," wrote a column about the facility. He described it like this:
The 1,500-seat A.R. Keppel Auditorium, designed by Salisbury architect John Erwin
Ramsey, has the contemporary rakishness one sees in photographs of new
festival halls in Europe.
Loges zigzag down at each side from the balcony level. The balcony protrudes
like a wedge from the rear wall. Seats slope to the front of the balcony, of course.
The underside of the balcony, instead of being flat and creating the customary
sound trap, drops on a sharp slant to the rear wall.
Sound of music in the hall has proved more than satisfactory, said Lawrence Bond
of the Catawba music faculty, even better for instruments than vocally.
The auditorium seems more wide than deep. There is knee-room between rows of
seats and no center aisle. Color scheme is a sober brown, yellow and white. As a
startling as the staggered line of loges are the acoustic panels in the ceiling.
A second auditorium of 250 seats noses up to one end of the backstage area. It's
the Hedrick Little Theatre. The intricate dimmer system and other lighting equipment
are used for both halls.
Banks' column failed to mention the building's Crystal Lounge venue, surrounded on three sides by floor-to-ceiling glass windows. It would become the perfect place for seated dinners and receptions and would eventually be named Peeler Crystal Lounge in honor of Clifford A. Peeler, son of the founder of Cheerwine, Inc. and a longtime Catawba Trustee.
Dr. Hoyt McCachren, now a Catawba professor emeritus of theatre arts, was on the faculty during the college-community center fundraising and construction. He remembers the excitement that surrounded this project "that had been talked about for a number of years."
McCachren was involved in the design of the center, working with the architect and Horace Robinson, a theatre consultant from the University of Oregon, to finalize the details of the theatre elements included. When the college-community center opened, McCachren's production of "Romeo and Juliet" was staged as the opening production for Hedrick Little Theatre. The first Catawba-produced, large-scale theatre production on Keppel stage occurred in December of 1964 with "My Fair Lady."
McCachren said college theatre and musical performances had been performed in a 300-seat venue in the Hedrick Administration Building prior to the construction of the center. That same space had also been used for the college's mandatory, three-times-a-week chapel services.
"When the new college-community center opened, it made growth in Catawba's theatre arts program possible. That growth allowed us to become one of the leading undergraduate theatre arts programs in the country," he explained, noting the new facility role in recruiting students.
"I think the college-community center improved the college-community relationship. President Dearborn worked it out that the college would operate and be in charge of it, but it would be available for community use on some sort of rental basis," McCachren said.
After the opening, McCachren was given an additional title, director of center activities, and all bookings for spaces in this venue went through his office.
"When it first opened, Dr. Dearborn put a certain amount in the budget for us to bring in outside groups so folks in the community could get a feel for the things that could be done in these spaces. That lasted a couple of years and thereafter, the bookings came in on their own. Piedmont Players moved in immediately after it opened and we shared the space in Hedrick with them for a number of years."
In the early 1990s, the college-community center was named in honor of Salisbury's prominent Robertson family and in recognition of Catawba Trustee Julian Robertson Jr.'s generosity.
The Two Buildings Today
The Omwake-Dearborn Chapel and the Robertson College-Community Center remain prominent flagship buildings on Catawba's campus, 50 years after they opened. Requests for bookings in both come frequently to the Catawba Conferences office.
The chapel is used weekly during the academic year for campus worship services and it is the site of the annual Baccalaureate Service during Commencement Weekend. It continues to be where special services, like Opening Convocation, concerts and recitals, are held. On average, between 20 and 30 weddings and a half dozen funerals occur there each year. These weddings and funerals are not always those of Catawba alumni; many in the Rowan-Salisbury community request the venue because it offers a larger seating capacity than their home churches.
The college-community center continues to see use from both the college and the community. Catawba's annual graduation ceremonies, as well as the graduation ceremonies for several high schools in the Rowan-Salisbury School System, are held there. A number of Salisbury Symphony and N.C. Symphony performances are scheduled annually in this venue, along with lectures and symposia. Lectures, luncheons, receptions and seated dinners are frequently scheduled in Peeler Crystal Lounge.
Some significant changes have occurred in both buildings to make them more "user friendly."
The chapel was air-conditioned in 2005, a welcomed change for wedding parties who likely had heard stories of candles melting during ceremonies scheduled on hot summer days. The seating in the chapel was also enhanced that same year with pew cushions. And, the chapel's seating has also been "recalculated" due to today's larger individuals; seating was reported at a capacity of 1,000 in 1964, but now, using a standard 22" seat measurement, the capacity is 787 seats.
Seating in the college-community center has been updated several times since 1964. Today, this facility is handicapped accessible with ramps installed at the front of the building to allow ease of access into all three venues in the space – Keppel Auditorium, Hedrick Little Theatre and Crystal Lounge. Handicap seating in Keppel Auditorium also changed the original seating capacity of this space from the 1500-capacity touted in 1964 to the current 1,445.
Some structural and technical improvements have also occurred in both buildings. The columns at the college-community center have been replaced, as have the lighting and sound systems there. The sound system in the chapel has been upgraded and the carillon, automated.