The campus I first walked across when I was 17 will always be fixed in my mind as the authentic one, but the truth is that the college has never stopped changing since its founding. A time-lapse view of the Hill would show a 3-D chess game of pieces moving from one plot to another, going up, coming down, and sometimes replacing ones that were removed.
The buildings and grounds are only a part of the story of an institution, but even as I’m reading about a person or event from the past, the physical setting elbows in to steal the narrative. Buildings and their purposes are really the recurring characters and the most reliable witnesses to the human story, and even the ones that are long gone seem to have the clearest voices about what happened when, and why.
Take a walk across campus with me, and I’ll interrupt our conversation at least once to gesture in the direction of something that isn’t there and tell you what it used to be. It’s the college tour from The Sixth Sense—I see dead buildings. New ones too, of course. After two years of poured concrete and steel on the lower campus, the Eisner Center for the Performing Arts has just begun to reveal its expansive red brick presence on West Broadway. As with any new player on the stage, the local audience is adjusting to its appearance and character, but for the class of 2022 and beyond, the Eisner Center always will have been here.
This is where I interrupt myself to tell you that not only was it not always here, but the lovely open green that preceded it wasn’t always there either. Standing in the same spot as the Eisner’s entrance, you would have seen this rambling folk Victorian from the 1870s to 1960. It was the home of Professor of Rhetoric and English Literature Almon Thresher and his wife Mary—near neighbors of Dr. and Mrs. Follett, two doors down in Monomoy Place.
By 1897, the childless Threshers decided their house would be best preserved and used if they left it to Shepardson College for Women, to the west. So it became the Shepardson Music Conservatory, and after Denison acquired Shepardson, it was called Thresher Hall, or “The Conservatory.” There were classrooms, practice rooms, and offices, with upstairs apartments for single female faculty.
Lacking a good performance space, an incongruous white Greek Revival “Recital Hall” was tagged onto the back end of the very long house. Recital Hall’s proscenium stage and raked seating made it the cultural center for the college and also for Granville, hosting operas and orations, chamber and orchestral concerts, and, of course, individual music recitals.
Some alumni will remember Thresher Hall, and I’d like to hear from you if you do. It was torn down in 1960, an era when “fire trap” justified the demolition of too many historic buildings, but its tail end, the Recital Hall, was left orphaned where it stood, on what has been Burke Hall’s entrance circle. It continued to serve as the music department’s performance space until Burke was built in 1973 with its own rehearsal room and recital hall.