McGaw Chapel sparks controversy

Love it or hate it, McGaw Chapel is certainly one of the more recognizable landmarks on the Wooster campus. This summer saw the completion of some much-needed renovations to the 37-year-old building, both indoors and outdoors.

The project, which began last fall in preparation for President Grant Cornwell’s inauguration, updated both the inside and the outside of the building, including the controversial measure of removing the signature staircase that formerly led to the building’s roof.

Many of the changes, particularly to the interior, have been enacted to improve the building’s unappealing appearance.

“It always had this sort of ‘unfinished basement’ look to it, because of the cinderblock construction,” said Associate Vice President for College Relations and Marketing John Hopkins. “They did a number of cosmetic things to the inside.”

These cosmetic renovations, many of which were completed last spring, included new carpeting, new steps leading up to the stage, minor changes to the lighting and a stucco-like coating which makes the walls a uniform color and texture. In addition, a retractable curtain can now cover the Holtkamp Organ when it isn’t needed for an event.

On the outside of the building, new concrete was poured in several of the entryways and new railings were added.

“It’s already a space that gets used a fair amount for forum lectures and concerts,” said Hopkins, noting that McGaw’s seating capacity of 1,600 far outstrips any other indoor space on campus. “I wouldn’t be surprised if more people want to use it.”

One particular group of students was specifically to benefit from the new renovation.

“The thought was that the Scot Pipers don’t have adequate space to practice, and if we were to make McGaw a more attractive spot and maybe do some work with the curtain as a backdrop for sound perhaps we could create an acoustically-contained spot where the pipers could hear themselves, and hear each other play,” said Peter Schantz, director of the physical plant.

Admirable as it may be, this goal may go unrealized.

“The curtain they put in front of the organ was supposed to help with the acoustics a little bit,” said Pipe Major Galen Priest ’09. “Unfortunately, a lot of the other renovations that happened basically made the acoustics quite a bit worse, and it’s absolutely terrible for bagpipes at this point.”

Professor of Music Nancy Ditmer, who frequently directs ensembles in the chapel, had similar feelings about the interior renovations.

“It looks fabulous, but the acoustics are worse,” said Ditmer. “It’s louder and there’s more ring to it.”

Ditmer speculated that the new wall coating might be responsible for the acoustics, since it seems to be less absorbent than the old concrete walls.

Though the cosmetic changes may be the most noticeable, the real necessity of the renovation resulted from longstanding water seepage issues with the building’s construction.

“For the maintenance and structural integrity of the building, it was something that had to be done,” said Hopkins

Schantz explained that the original roof design was created with heavy pedestrian traffic in mind, since what we know as the “roof” was designed to be at ground level. This idea was scrapped when the builders hit bedrock halfway down.

McGaw was originally meant to be a park, complete with trees and pools, designed with a redundant water-relief system that included not only drains but a granular fill that would capture water that seeped through the concrete and filter it into the drains.

About 12 years ago, perhaps due to the constant wear and tear of students and local skateboarders, that system began to fail and a drainage problem developed. The solution pursued by the College at that point was a spray-applied rubber-like coating, which held until the last few years, when the drainage problems reappeared.

Careful examination suggests that the new leakage was caused at least in part by work that was done in the earlier renovation that failed to take into account details of the original system, so this time the renovators tried for the best of both systems.

“We installed a roof system that’s sort of a hybrid of the original design intent and a roof that was put on about 12 years ago, to sort of capitalize on the best features of both of those systems,” said Schantz. “So any concerns we had about water getting in have been taken care of.”

The renovation entailed repairing damage that the leakage had done, such as rusted I-beams, as well as preventing further damage through the installation of a plastic-like membrane over the entire surface area of the roof.

Since the Seaman Corporation donated the material for the new membrane to the College, the total cost for the renovation was only about $290,000, a figure which includes new audio-visual equipment for the chapel.

But the real cost of the new system is that the roof of McGaw, originally designed as a public park and made available to students for the past 37 years, will no longer be accessible.

The large outdoor staircase was removed as part of the renovation, both because of water leakage at the joint and because the new membrane isn’t designed to withstand constant pedestrian traffic.

“That membrane will have a life of ten to 15 years, but it will only have that lifetime if there aren’t people walking on it all the time,” said Hopkins. “Having put resources into repairing the interior, we didn’t want to repeat the same problems.” Schantz put the estimated life span at 25 years.

Schantz also noted that the roof has been a constant liability risk to the College, especially as its sloped towers seem to appeal to local skateboarders.

“To have people up there exposes the College to risk, especially if people are going to climb those towers, which there’s evidence of them doing all the time,” said Schantz.

Although many students haven’t seemed to notice the absence of the staircase, some are quite vocally opposed to the change.

“The only good part of McGaw was that you could go on top of the roof and you could get a wonderful view of the campus,” said Mary Latalladi ’10. “Now McGaw looks like even more of an accident.”

For better or for worse, the new face of McGaw Chapel is here: a beautified, if acoustically inferior, inside space and a waterproof, if inaccessible, roof.

“I don’t think there will be a negative reaction to the vast majority of the building and I don’t think there will be a negative reaction to the fact that water doesn’t seep into it anymore,” said Hopkins, “but I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a negative reaction to the removal of the staircase.”