Key campaign projects kick off as chapel, library undergo renovations.
As students packed up and left Alma College for the summer of 2021, a different group of people arrived and went to work with hammers, blueprints and hard hats.
Construction on the Dunning Memorial Chapel renovation project kicked off this spring, and the new Learning Commons project is expected to begin in 2022. Both are considered priority capital projects, paid for with funds raised during the “Our Time is Now” campaign.
“Construction crews on campus are always a welcome sight, because it shows that Alma College is investing in itself and its future,” said Alan Gatlin, chief operating officer and senior vice president at Alma College. “These projects in particular are very exciting for the way they will alter campus life for the better. Our students will benefit from these projects in a tremendous way as the college makes a full leap into the 21st century.”
Flexibility, accessibility key in chapel renovation
For Andrew Pomerville ’01, and many other students and alumni, Dunning Memorial Chapel was where they explored who they really were — as students, Christians and simply as people in the world. For Pomerville, who is now chaplain and director of spiritual life at Alma College, the chapel renovation project is a way to ensure that future generations can enjoy the same freedom of self-discovery.
“During my sophomore or junior year, I was at a small group gathering, and I was challenged for the first time that I can remember, as a Christian, to consider Christianity as something more than a monolith, or an orthodoxy,” Pomerville said. “That was a wonderful thing to experience.
“Spirituality is still at the heart of people on campus, including current students. They are still searching for meaning and purpose. Maybe it’s a little less institutionalized or formalized in more recent years, but they still want to understand who they are and what their place is in the world. The chapel renovation will support them in doing just that, right here at Alma College.”
Construction on the chapel kicked off this past spring, with Easter Sunday representing the final service before a planned shutdown. The college made the chapel’s pews available to those who wanted them and saw a fantastic response, according to Pomerville. The chapel is expected to reopen before the start of the 2021 fall term.
When it does, Pomerville said, the community will be greeted with an updated facility designed to be a valuable, distinctive instrument of campus spiritual life. While the well-known exterior of the chapel — where students have posed for photos for generations — will largely remain the same, the interior of the facility will be fully modernized.
Sections of walls in the worship area will be replaced by windows that will allow the community to see what’s going on inside the chapel, and allow those inside to look out at the wider world. The traditional church pews are being replaced by flexible seating, which can be altered to suit the needs of many different styles of worship. An elevator is being installed, which will improve accessibility — allowing patrons to easily use the downstairs restrooms for the first time.
“It’s been an interesting question, how to renovate that space while maintaining a sense of tradition, and I think we’re doing a marvelous job of that,” Pomerville said. “I think when the community gathers here, they’ll feel a sense of awe and grandeur, but also notice its usefulness. The community will appreciate the progression of the college while feeling welcomed. I’m really looking forward to it.”
Constructed in 1941, the chapel is named in honor of Dr. John Wirt Dunning, a 1904 graduate and the only Alma alumnus to become president of the college. The new sanctuary will be named after the Rev. Joe Walser, a retired college chaplain and professor of religious studies, who taught from 1964 to 2000.
Learning Commons will be a hub of education, campus community
The new Learning Commons is one of the signature elements of the “Our Time is Now” campaign. When complete, it will transform the Kehrl Building — commonly known as the college library, completed in 1964 — into a hub of campus activity, with versatile spaces for learning, dining and collaborating.
A design blending the college’s Prairie School architectural style utilizing red brick with glass helps to demonstrate the campus is vibrant and bustling with activity. The Learning Commons will feature a cafe, open performance area, classrooms and study rooms, digital media center and book collections, among other offices and amenities.
“One of the primary benefits of this project is more people in the building,” said Matthew Collins, library director. “In every library I’ve worked, that’s one of the goals. The more people you bring in, the more staff have the chance to interact with them. Students may be there to meet with friends or visit the cafe, but they will be there — and that’s always a good thing.”
Construction is expected to begin in early 2022, following fall term 2021 exams, so as to not disrupt anyone’s schedule at an important time in the academic calendar. When that happens, the library’s entire collection of books — some 120,000 volumes — as well as its special collections, archives and every other piece of media contained within, will be packed up and moved to storage while the library building is renovated.
“The thought of the move itself is just incredible. Thankfully, we have contracted with a good company that specializes in this very task of moving libraries,” Collins said. “What they do, generally, is use a special cart, outfitted with a protective cover and designed to keep the books in their respective order. They’ll move the entire collection in about one week. It’s a truly enormous labor.”
Construction is expected to last the entire year, Collins said, which means that books and other media will be housed in a temporary location, yet to be determined. While it may be challenging, Collins said, staff and faculty will continue to provide great service to students and faculty.
The Kehrl Building was named after Floyd A. Kehrl, who provided the college with a major bequest. The building was originally named after the Rev. John Montieth — the first Presbyterian minister to reach Michigan — in honor of the college’s Presbyterian heritage. The library’s collections have maintained the Montieth designation through the years.