My first glimpse of Old Main was from a distance. Its central tower appeared briefly through the trees as I sped toward Bethany College, the mother school of more than a hundred established since 1849 by the Disciples of Christ.
My intent was to study this landmark of “Collegiate Gothic” architecture, a revival of medieval forms used in institutional construction in the late 1800s.
Yet, everywhere the complexities of the “Great Awakening” in America were being revealed, diverting me from the pure study of architecture and into American history. The form of the building could not be separated from intricate patterns of Christian diversification. Unleashed in a new land, Christianity was breaking the bonds of established forms.
In many ways, the complexities of the reformation in the U.S. are revealed in the complexity of the building.
Alexander Campbell, the leader the Disciples of Christ movement, sought to educate an independent clergy, and here in the hills above the Ohio he found an ideal setting for academic study. During his search for a site in 1840 he wrote:
“The location must be entirely rural — in the country, detached from external society, not convenient to any town or place of rendezvous — in the midst of forests, fields, and gardens, salubrious air, pure water — diversified scenery, of hill and valley, limpid brooks and meandering streams of rapid flowing waters.”
The valley of Buffalo Creek provided all that Campbell could ask. He moved quickly to secure architect James Key Wilson, who he tasked with designing an edifice that would inspire. Wilson had studied under James Renwick, Jr., architect for the fanciful Smithsonian Institution, a building that shares many attributes with its counterpart at Bethany. Both are built on a long axis, and when viewed from the front are principally symmetrical, though in both cases symmetry is interrupted by a whimsical combination of towers and rooflines.
These may best be illustrated in the design of the central tower at Bethany as viewed from the front of the building. The tower is principally symmetrical, though a tall octagonal turret ascends along its flank, intruding whimsically on the balance.
Unlike the Smithsonian, Old Main is built principally of red brick. The Smithsonian is of red Seneca sandstone. Good stone was not easily quarried in the upper Ohio Valley in the area around Bethany, though this limitation contributes to the building’s distinction. Unlike the Smithsonian, Old Main features a dominant tower, placed centrally, while the Smithsonian features several towers of similar mass.
The placement of such a central tower at Old Main is a hallmark of the style as defined by architect Charles Klauder, who coined the term “Collegiate Gothic” in 1929 is his book “College Architecture in America.”
Other hallmarks of the collegiate style include a tall central section at the building’s axis flanked by wings of connected sections. Old Main’s Gothic details, which have been transformed by brick construction, include buttresses, steeply sloped rooves, and stonework finials, parapets, and tracery windows. These elements combine to imbue the building with the austerity of a cathedral, which seems no accident, given Campbell’s purpose.
Regardless of one’s religious inclinations, I think that the building is likely to impress and inspire a reverence. It invites us to contemplate the academic and yet thrill at the soaring purposes of the divine as realized in its lofty towers.
Visitors are welcome to wander the grounds and the building, much of which is accessible year round, though be sure to call the college to announce your visit at 304- 829-7000.