The (very) Fine Art Building at Northwestern Michigan College

Back in the 1960’s at Traverse City’s quiet, tree-shrouded, two-building Northwestern Michigan College, the college protests rocking the rest of the country seemed far away from Northern Michigan. Yet, had the suit-and-tie-clad college fathers busy in the plain, tan brick Administration Building been more aware they would have sleuthed a subversive plot, hatched by their tight staff of hippie-ish humanities instructors working in the basement classrooms beneath their Traverse City offices.

Clues? The parade of dusty footprints tracked from instructor Norm Avrill’s ceramics class up the stairs and, when possible, all the way into the president’s office. “He didn’t like dirt so we’d have the ceramics students go into his office with dirt on their shoes,” recalls retired Northwestern Michigan College art instructor Paul Welch—a memory that, 50 years later, Welch punctuates with a happily maniacal laugh.

Down in the cinderblock and linoleum room that served as the faculty lounge for the humanities department—which attracted in those early years such regulars as Harry Oliver (speech and drama) and Walter Beardslee (history)—there was certainly no shortage of passionate discussion about Viet Nam and civil rights, the nation’s controversies du jour. But those weren’t the issues that impelled the footprints. No, the right-brained dreamers of Traverse City’s Northwestern Michigan College simply wanted their own building—a generous-sized, well-designed utilitarian space flooded with natural light so that their students’ thoughts, horizons and creative expressions could soar. The dirty art-student footprints, they hoped, would make that need tangible to the Northwestern Michigan college establishment.

Those instructors dreamed, schemed and talked (a lot) and in 1972 saw their imaginations materialized in the Okerstrom Fine Arts Building: a cedar clad, light filled, rustic Modernist masterpiece with windows that slant upward as if reaching for the sky. Beloved for nearly 40 years now by a manifold of students and instructors, the building, cloaked in pines deep in this relatively obscure college campus, has the added global distinction of being one of the last projects ever to filter through the mind of Walter Gropius, founder of the famous pre-Nazi Germany Bauhaus school of art and architecture and all-around god of Modern architecture. If Gropius’s name is unfamiliar, picture an architectural Olympus where Gropius hangs out with his illustrious contemporaries, Le Corbusier, Mies Van der Rohe and Frank Lloyd Wright in flat-roofed, glass-fronted, socially responsible structures where form most always follows function.

While a cast of Traverse City characters past—those suit-and-tie Northwestern Michigan College fathers as well as some nicely-coiffed mothers, including former college trustee Shirley Okerstrom for whom the building is named—all deserve kudos for having an icon constructed in Traverse City, Beardslee and Welch are the narrative’s stars. They are an engaging pair: Welch, a free-spirited iconoclast whose towering frame and charismatic personality add up to a whir of flailing arms and expressive hands; Beardslee, more sedate but yet possessing a spark of rebelliousness that might surprise students who found themselves dozing in his 8 o’clocks. It was, after all, a flight over the Taj Mahal upon his return from World War II that helped to fuel Beardslee’s passion for architecture—a flight for which the young sergeant cadged himself a seat by borrowing an executive officer’s bars after a drunken night with said officer.What the pair shared was the heartfelt and profoundly simple conviction that their little Traverse City college was every bit as deserving of an architectural icon as, say, Florida Southern College with its Child of the Sun buildings designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, the University of Chicago with its Mies Van der Rohe School of Social Service Administration and the Gropius-designed Harvard Graduate Center.

EVEN IN THE GRAY LIGHT filtering through the windows of Northwestern Michigan College’s Okerstrom Fine Arts Building on an afternoon this past November, Walter Beardslee’s hair is a lustrous white. The glass in the slanted windows behind him is scratched and milky—after four decades of nurturing talent the building is showing signs of wear. Yet, the structure’s core is strong; its design is organically timeless. Likewise, the 90-year-old Beardslee’s sloped shoulders and stooped walk belie a sharp active mind (he and his wife recently returned from their annual cultural pilgrimage to New York City), and he tells in clear prose the story that launched a landmark.

Beardslee met Gropius only once, he says, on a rainy day in Cambridge, Massachusetts, at the end of the summer of 1966. The NMC instructor was winding up the second in a series of summer sabbaticals he took at Harvard during the 1960’s. (Those sabbaticals having been slightly suspect to at least one member of the NMC college establishment who, Beardslee recalls with a mischievous grin, asked him, “Why do you want to go to that old communist school?”)

Nosing around Cambridge in search of boxes to help pack his family’s belongings for the trip back to Traverse City, Beardslee stopped to look at a building under construction—a project designed by The Architects Collaborative, the world-renowned firm that Gropius founded in Cambridge, where he also taught at Harvard after leaving Nazi Germany in the 1930’s. As Beardslee wandered the concrete floor and maze of posts, Herbert Gallagher, a partner at the Architects Collaborative stopped by. The two struck up a discussion about Gropius, architecture, and Beardslee’s small college in Traverse City and its yen for a great fine arts building.Intrigued, Gallagher invited Beardslee across the street to the Architects Collaborative office to exchange addresses. Walking in they met Gropius who stopped for a brief chat. Beardslee recalls a jovial man in his 80’s—no real hint in his demeanor of his towering reputation or deeply intellectual background that included having been married to the widow of composer Gustav Mahler.

Back in Traverse City, many ceramic-dust footprints later, the college finally appeared serious about a new fine arts building—and Beardslee contacted Gallagher and discussion began on a project with a commission that was certain to be, by the standards of one of the most renowned firms in the world, very slim. “I think they wanted the challenge,” says Welch. “You know, We’re going to build something that these Northern Michigan hillbillies will be amazed at.”

As Welch tells the story, when Gallagher and his fellow firm member Norman Fletcher first saw the Traverse City campus in the fall of 1968 they were enamored with its oaks and maples ablaze with color. The deal, Welch recalls, was all but sealed at a party that he and his wife, Delphine, hosted at their Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired home on a wooded Northern Michigan hill behind the Traverse City college. “We took everybody over there for martinis and the whole works. We wanted them to see that we weren’t exactly living in colonial houses,” Welch recalls.While Beardslee took on the sensitive diplomacy needed to convince Northwestern Michigan College decision makers that it was time for the school to move away from Eisenhower-era architecture, the architects in Cambridge went to work. Gropius was not the architect or record—that title went to Norman Fletcher, the only architect on the staff certified to work in Michigan. But there is no doubt that Gropius’s thoughts, critiques and philosophies were a part of the building’s planning, right up until his death in July of 1969. “That is the way the firm worked—it was collaborative, every architect reviewed and commented on all of the projects,” Beardslee says. By that summer of 1969 the building committee, headed by Beardslee, had rejected, for one reason or another, plans for a brick and glass structure with cast columns, and a cast-concrete building.

In the meantime, another architect for the firm became involved—a woman by the first name of Konstancija, though Beardslee and Welch have forgotten her last name (and any record of it seems to be lost). “We had a correspondence in which she would write, ‘We can dream of this building …’ kind of thing,” Beardslee recalls, crediting Konstancija with coming up with the cedar-cladding solution—one that was durable, organically Northern and economical.

Nevertheless, the $1 million price tag surpassed the budget, so the proposed steel roof had to be nixed for shingles, and the thermopane windows replaced with cheaper glass. But the essence of the The Architects Collaborative blueprint remained intact. The modular structure, constructed with post and beams bolted to a polished cement floor, was absolutely cutting edge for the 1970’s. Moreover, the building has Gropius’s thought-prints all over it, from its slanted windows, to the Cubist pod design that enables the building to be easily added on to—an idea in keeping with the Bauhaus philosophy of fine, efficient and affordable design. Also noteworthy are the many grade-level interior/exterior doors on the buildings—a departure, says Beardslee, from the more fortress-like architecture built on college campuses during and after the turbulent sixties.

Welch was particularly jubilant about the design’s nod to Cubism. Call it his sweet revenge for a tussle he’d gotten into with one Maude Miller Hoffmeister, Traverse City’s only art teacher (as Welch recalls) in 1958 when as a young new instructor Welch blustered into Traverse City, blue jeans, motorcycle and all, and wrote an article for the Traverse City Record Eagle about the influence of Picasso (read: Cubism) in the 20th century. Hoffmeister wrote a scathing letter back that basically said, recalls Welch, “Who the hell is Picasso? He can’t even draw.”Indeed, the new-fangled Modernist structure being erected at the college was the what-is-this-town-coming-to? talk of Traverse City. At the dedication in 1972, Beardslee recalls overhearing a man turn to his wife and say something to the effect of: “Well, Mother, at least it smells like cedar.”

WELCH IS TRYING TO FIND THE LIGHTS in the Walter Beardslee Auditorium. But things have changed in the Northwestern Michigan College fine arts building since he retired almost 25 years ago, and none of the original switches work. He breaks into “Dancing in the Dark,” (the 1941 Artie Shaw tune, not the Bruce Springsteen song) props open doors for light and finally goes to fetch someone who knows the new computerized light system.

From the building’s opening in 1972 until he retired in 1986, Welch taught hundreds of art history classes in the wonderful, amphitheater-shaped auditorium with its half-ring of cushioned benches, his meaty hands cupping to illustrate a Botticelli bottom, his lectern conspicuously absent of notes. He didn’t need them. Welch is still enraptured by this room, as he is with the rest of this building from the music wing, through the open Paul Welch Studio, right down to the Norm Averill Ceramic Wing that still houses one of the two kilns the art faculty built themselves after the building was completed. “It’s like a cathedral to me, an art cathedral,” Welch says.

Certainly, the NMC fine arts building ushered in a period of enlightenment in that encouraged a pool of talents who still live and work in Traverse City, including artists Glenn Wolff, photographer John Robert Williams and metal sculptor Bob Purvis. Students in those early years recall working until the wee hours of the night in the building (a practice that the need for increased security unfortunately ended several years back), sometimes with the likes of Frank Zappa blasting in the background, other times a soothing Mozart piano concerto. “It was a symphony of smells and flavors—cedar and fresh air mixed with a whiff of turpentine and the earthy smell of pottery drying in the kiln,” Williams recalls of the building. “I would walk in and think, this is where I want to be.”

Where there was passion there was also plenty of humor—especially after a Northwestern Michigan College maintenance man drove a truck into a tree, distracted as he was by a view of the life drawing class through a bare window. Shades eventually went up on those windows—as did half-wall dividers in the studio space and security grates over offices whose ceilings once opened to the rest of the room. On a recent tour, Welch greeted those changes with a series of sloppy Bronx cheers. More important are the several students sketching a driftwood still life in the studio and others working on computerized synthesizers in a music room. Proof that the essence of the building’s Traverse City-coming-of-age zeitgeist remains blissfully intact.

Article Comments

  • http://community.mynorth.com/members/shineglass/ shineglass

    I love seeing great architecture hidden away in the wilderness of Michigan like that. It truly is quite breathtaking. Hilarious story about the maintenance guy as well!
    I wanted to also notify who ever might be interested, but in your article you described the glass and being scratched and etched. I run a glass restoration company that operates out of Ann Arbor,and we travel all over the place restoring old glass like this. I love being involved in restoration projects especially when it comes to buildings with so much history. So if anyone is interested in scratched glass removal services feel free to contact me.
    http://www.shineglassrenewal.com

  • Anonymous

    What a thrill it was to attend classes in the Fine Arts Building my second year at NMC, after enduring the old Coast Guard barracks attached to the Administration building my first year. I had a variety of art, music, and history classes throughout the various areas of the new building, attended concerts, and viewed fellow students’ creations in a range of art exhibits. It’s good to hear that some of my former instructors are still around and sharing the story of the Fine Arts Building. Thanks for the memories! – SB, ’72 NMC grad

  • http://community.mynorth.com/members/lynboyer/ Lyn Boyer

    Thanks for the fabulous article. What a rush of memories. It’s been a long road from Illustration instructor at NMC to Durango, Colorado. I’m not even sure how to wrap words around the the tangible feeling, light, scents and camaraderie the article brought back. What a great time. What great students and a great staff – Paul, Norm, Walt, Jill, co-instructor Jim.

    I can now confess how I (only momentarily) lost half a dozen art students I had taken to New York on a class trip. Having to pile half of the students in a second cab on the way to Times Square for some R&R to se ‘Little Shop of Horrors’ I was dumbstruck and a little panicky when cab number 2 failed to show up at the theatre. Finally rolling in a half hour late the students piled out of the cab quite giddy and regaled us with their adventure. Their thickly accented cab driver had been driving them around the Times Square porn district desperately looking for the theatre playing ‘Little Shop of Whores’.

    Please forward my warm thoughts and regards to all of the staff – present and past. Would love to hear from them.

    Lyn Boyer (previously Boyer-Pennington)

  • Anonymous

    I fondly remember all of those wonderful moments in the Fine Arts building. It was a haven from the tiny, cement block dorm room where I lived on campus. How lucky we were to have that building, and luckier, yet to have those quirky instructors. Each and every one of them had a passion for their art, in whatever form it took. I was so fascinated with Paul Welch’s art history classes, that I snuck into all three segments of them the following year, just to get a refresher course. He made it all come to life!

    My husband and I met in the commercial art program. We married after graduation and now, 27 years later, we share many fond memories of our adventures in the Commercial Art program at NMC. That building and program, as well as the students and instructors there, hold a special place in both of our hearts.