The History of Balfour-Hood Center

Beginning in the 19th Century, a movement designated to redesigning cities — later called the “City Beautiful” movement — took off in many popular European cities including Paris, Vienna and Barcelona. In lieu of this movement, American cities began to take notice. First in Chicago with Daniel Burnham, the trend eventually sparked interest all the way down in Norton, Massachusetts in 1897, when Ralph Adams Cram designed a campus blueprint for Wheaton College. 

Originally, all of the campus’ designs mimicked Thomas Jefferson’s University of Virginia — each with their focus on education while representing a classical style. However as the years passed, new eras led to different styles of buildings on campus. As Wheaton College reached the Modernist Period, Watson Fine Arts Center was created, and as it reached the Postmodernist Period, Balfour-Hood Center was designed.

Balfour-Hood Center is a prime example of a postmodernist building. Built with a variety of materials, Balfour-Hood reflects the ideas of Horace Walpole’s “Strawberry Hill House,” as it creates an organic extension of a past campus building. Balfour-Hood Center was originally the campus’s Student Alumnae Building (SAB)1, and being built in the 1940s was Wheaton College’s first “International style building.” 

The original Balfour-Hood (The SAB)

This original SAB building, designed by Caleb Hornbostel and Richard M. Bennet, was later redesigned by architects Kenneth MacLean and Robert Neiley to include this postmodernist extension and create what students now know as Balfour-Hood Center. 

When Balfour-Hood Center was redesigned in 1984, its main function remained. Before the evolution of the building, the original Student Alumnae Building served as a focal point for the campus and was used as a place for students to interact. The original building did not hold the office spaces and club rooms it does now, but did hold spaces for student interaction. 

Balfour-Hood Center’s original blueprint held components such as an outdoor patio2, a ballroom, and was very close to (or incorporated) a gymnasium as well. One of the main functions of the building during that time was to hold the Alumnae dances and receptions, and thus act as a place for large student gatherings. Still today, Balfour-Hood Center is a place of student involvement. 

Image of the outdoor patio for SAB, now Baflour-Hood’s indoor atrium. 

As the original Student Alumnae Building was enveloped, its structure and function were kept intact. Office spaces were created out of the old building, and the patio then became an indoor atrium3, which would still hold the college’s dances in the following years. In an original blueprint for the redesign of the building4, Balfour-Hood’s purpose was clearly still centered around student involvement. The proposed design included not just the large atrium with seating and greenery, but multiple student lounges, a game room, a loft/pub area, a dance studio, and an aquatics center complete with a pool, hot tub and sauna. 

Image of Baflour-Hood’s indoor atrium.

The blueprint even shows a possible connection to the library for easy access to studying, and a mysterious room called “nautilus” (the current stretch room for the Pappas Fitness Center). Although some of these proposed elements did not show up in the final building, they clearly proposed the idea of continuing the SAB’s commitment to student life on campus.

Upon completion of the new design for what is now the Balfour-Hood Center, the building continued to be one of the main hangout spots for students. Since the redesign and expansion of the building, Balfour-Hood has hosted many of the school’s clubs and organizations. 

The “Club Hub,” as it is called on campus, is the main center for club meetings, and hosts the offices of the Student Government Association (SGA) and The Wire (Wheaton’s campus newspaper). Student Leadership and the Office of Student Affairs are also present in Balfour-Hood, as well as Pappas Fitness Center and the Ellison Dance Studio. 

While Balfour-Hood Center serves as a hotspot for student and campus activity, its architecture does not initially reflect this. With a glance, one would probably not guess what could lie inside of Balfour-Hood because of its unique appearance. 

As stated in a book about the Modernist styles of Wheaton College, Melanie Sosinski, the section’s writer, stated that since the construction of Balfour-Hood Center took place during the postmodernist period, its main purpose architecturally was to mock the modernist ideas of the centuries prior to its construction. 

A common architectural design phrase, coined by Frank Lloyd Wright, “form follows function” means that the design element of the building should not interfere with the building’s functional components. Modernists twisted this phrase to be “function without form,” as the modernist buildings were very minimalistic and often did not have many design elements to them. However, as Sosinski comments, the creation of Balfour-Hood was a clear example of postmodernist ideas and another twist of the phrase: “form without function.” This can clearly be seen in a few of Balfour-Hood’s main attractions.

First up, the faux wall. This big brick wall that extends from the building near Peacock Pond is more of an art piece than a functional wall, as it has a large window cut out in its center revealing nothing but more buildings behind it. With its large and abstract presence, Sosinski says that it is as though it serves as a grand entrance to a “third campus” (not upper, or lower, but a third section). However, all this “grand entrance” reveals is an extension of the upper campus, which leaves this art piece without a proper function. 

Image of the original blueprints for the redesign of Balfour-Hood Center.

Details such as this one illustrate the avant-garde nature of postmodernist buildings. Avant-garde, according to the dictionary definition, is an artistic style that is unusual, experimental and new. Balfour-Hood Center shows other aspects of the avant-garde in the inside balconies overlooking the atrium, the small corner balcony that can only be accessed by one entrance, and the newspaper office that is tucked away on its own story of the building, with two cutouts in the corners, making the room a funky shape instead of a rectangle. 

Looking back at the architectural components of the building, the avant-garde and postmodernist elements can be seen in the large triangular windows and in the patterned brick façade, which serves to mock the “symmetry” of the building.

Balfour-Hood Center is well known as the center for student involvement and is great eye-candy for interested tourists roaming through the campus. With its unique postmodernist design, Balfour-Hood is definitely an architectural wonder on the inside and the outside, so even though it does not look as old as the other buildings, it is still important to remember its history.