WMC music building plans back on track

70 years later, Westminster college proceeds with project

June 28, 1999|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN STAFF

Halley's Comet swings by Earth every 75 years. Opportunities for the Western Maryland College music department to get a new building come about as often.

In 1929, the stock market crash dashed plans for a music building at the quaint Westminster college. But the school has finally returned to the task and next spring will finish a $1.5 million project that gives the department adequate space for the first time.

It's been 70 years. Pardon the faculty for their pessimism.

"I didn't believe it until they started breaking ground," said band director Linda Kirkpatrick. "It's actually happening. This is really going to be a building."

If it's not Carnegie Hall to folks here, it's close.

It means that the 55-piece concert band can stop rehearsing in the cramped loft of Baker Memorial Chapel.

Try squeezing a 32-inch timpani drum through the loft's narrow door. Timpanis being what they are -- not at all foldable -- it doesn't work.

So timpanists rehearse on what should be a four-piece timpani set, short the fourth timpani. The granddaddy timpani is added for the dress rehearsal on the performance stage.

The entire percussion section, as well as others, suffers miserably from the lack of space. Percussionists have to leap from one instrument to another mid-rehearsal, even mid-tune. That's rough when half the instruments are four or five steps up on a platform elevated from the band.

"You had to run up and down," said Adam Schwaninger, 21, a percussionist from Easton who graduated this year.

The new building means Kirkpatrick can stop giving flute lessons in her office that lacks elbow room. The department, which is in Levine Hall, can store its instruments and its 12 filing cabinets full of sheet music somewhere other than the chapel balcony.

Levine Hall, a 1891 former dormitory, lacks "acoustic value," says department chairwoman Margaret Boudreaux. Translation: The walls are really, really thin, not lined with fancy tiles that suck up noise. When a drummer pounded his set, if a student studying next door seethed, the drummer was banished.

The new building, which will connect to Levine, will have acoustic value. Lots of it. Lots of noise-sucking tiles.

"This is the first time in the history of the college that we'll have a building built for music," said Boudreaux, who commends the college for its dedication to music -- despite the 70-year delay.

"Excellence is expensive," she said.

The two-story addition features a spacious main-floor rehearsal hall with an 18-foot cathedral ceiling. (The door is wide enough for any timpani.)

The Levine expansion ends a long saga for a never-say-die department in search of a good home.

"It's always been this little family without support, a ragtime fugitive fleet using old rusty instruments and a recital hall infested with ants," said Bob Pick, a 1992 graduate who played trumpet in the band.

Maude Gesner, an acclaimed classical pianist, chaired the music department in the 1920s and was dead-set on a new building.

She got her wish in 1922, when college trustees supported the construction of a Conservatory of Music. Meeting minutes indicate they wanted to spend $60,000 on the project, part of a 10-year, comprehensive college expansion.

Comprehensive expansions take time, of course. Priorities are set, and music was not at the top. A science building, Memorial Hall, was completed first, in 1928, at a cost of $250,000.

Then the market crashed late the following year, a time when funding for the expansion was already dwindling because many of the project's supporters had left. The college suffered. Student enrollment dropped. The endowment shrank. Faculty saw their $2,000 salaries cut.

"They were eking out an existence," said James Lightner, emeritus professor of mathematics and college historian.

And the college was putting up more buildings.

Music moved into Levine in 1940. The college renovated the building, trying to turn a dorm into a music facility.

Gesner, still chair, was evidently skeptical as renovations continued over the summer of 1940. On vacation in Oregon, she wrote to the college president:

"We need pianos desperately. And, if you weren't a man you would know there must be closets for mops and brooms, etc. It's perfectly awful, terrible to be three thousand miles away imagining what is not being done, and what is being left undone, and what is being done right, and what is being done wrong."

The college has funded sundry other projects since the Depression. A dormitory and gym in 1937. Another dorm and Baker Memorial Chapel in 1947. A student center in 1975. A library in 1990.

The music department withered in the 1960s and 1970s because there was little interest among incoming students and the college threatened to abolish it. But enrollment is growing now. The number of band members has nearly tripled since 1995. The number of full-time and adjunct faculty, now 21, has doubled since 1989.

Boudreaux said she is watching closely to make sure everything in a project that waited generations to be completed is perfect.

Above all, she said, faculty wanted to be sure the large timpani would fit in the elevator.

"We had people go out there with tape measures," she said.

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