The first thing Conservatory Dean Michael Wilder wants you to know about the new Armerding Center for Music and the Arts is that you are welcome there.
“We hope to say to folks right out of the gate, ‘We’re glad you’re here, we thought about you in advance,’” Wilder said on a tour of the building, standing in Armerding’s new hospitality room just inside the building’s front doors. Breezily, He described comfortable the seating areas and the state-of-the-art coffee station which will be available for guests here in just a few days. The doors behind us, he explained, will eventually be replaced as the main entrance to the building by a larger lobby connecting Armerding to an adjacent concert hall. The new big glass doors should make Wilder’s invitation evident.
“We want all of Wheaton College and the broader world to know that you’re welcome here,” Wilder said. “This has been built for you and your musical training and needs.”
Armerding Hall will be open to students on Oct. 19, after a year-long construction process and 38 years as Wheaton’s main science building. As the new home for the Conservatory of Music, Armerding provides practice rooms, teaching studios, classroom space and faculty offices which will nearly double the space currently available to the conservatory in Pierce Chapel and McAlister Hall. Wilder hopes the space will also serve as a center of activity and connection for the entire student body.
Armerding’s journey from science center to music conservatory began in 2012, when President Philip Ryken and Wheaton’s board of trustees declared the “ music and the arts” as one of four strategic priorities for the College. The first step to achieving this goal was finding a new home for the conservatory.
“We began with six potential locations on the campus, and … we ended up with two in the end,” Wilder said. “One was to take Edman and continue to build through the north, because we’d done that addition for music there, and the other one was this building. We ended up with as a result of our trustees and our president saying, ‘Maybe we ought to put music in the middle of the college,’ where it so often is in Scripture.”
With a team of architects, builders and acousticians, Wilder and campus architect Bruce Koenigsberg initially put together a plan for entirely new construction on the site. However, one factor was not compliant with these visions: money. So, the plans were redrawn — this time, using the existing structure of Armerding Hall as the shell for the new conservatory.
“To call it a remodel or renovation probably isn’t the right descriptor because it’s a brand new building inside of a repurposed box,” Wilder said. “It was completely gutted back to structural steel and the walls and the roof.”
On a tour of the building, Wilder and Koenigsberg pointed out “God’s leading” around every corner. The reconstruction of Armerding — as opposed to new construction or a different site — resulted in the unexpected benefits of added space (44,000 square feet, to be exact), a recital hall and — in phase two of the project — an attached concert hall seating 648 people. Koenigsberg sees the Armerding project as an example of “really good stewardship” and views its central location as yet another “providential” aspect of the building. Once Armerding officially opens, Breyer Hall — attached adjacently as the building stands now by a glass atrium — will be torn down to make room for the new concert hall. The new construction will be shifted 15 degrees from where Breyer stands now, as part of the project’s larger goal of hospitality.
“If it were on axis, it would make this a really long building, even a barrier to the north side of campus,” Koenigsberg explained. “But we’re tipping it putting this glass lobby here between it so it’s a connection between north campus and south campus. By tipping it, the front door aims right at the Beamer Center front door, sort of envelops the quad, and it gives a sense of hospitality on the north side.”
He went on: “It also says something about the arts.” Wilder jumped in with a laugh: “Just a little off!”
The building’s interior is also designed with a conscious eye towards the arts. According to Whitley Grey, in-house interior designer for the project, the driving concept was “the form of music, how music takes form in a variety of ways.” “We wanted the space to really relate well to the students who wanted to feel artistic, but then we also wanted to nod back to the fact that they also put on tuxes and … do amazing performance.,”Grey said.
The interior uses a combination of bright, “energizing” colors, “for when people are here for long hours,” Grey explained, and neutrals which keep it from edging towards “annoying.” Even a variety of different textures, Grey said, were intentionally chosen to connect back to the idea of music’s form.
Armerding’s other balancing act is between solo and community spaces. To Wilder, there is no better place to observe this than in one of the building’s many group seating areas. Most of these group lounges include large windows facing the quad — a “philosophical statement,” Koenigsberg explained, about how the best spaces are reserved for the students — and are located in the same hallways as sound-isolated practice rooms and studios.
“People want to do a lot in isolation all by themselves, but they also have a great need for community,” Wilder said. “Those two balances were really important in the way the building is designed and will function.”
Wilder stopped at one such group space on our tour, a view of the quad before him in the glass of a massive window.
“I think this might be the best view on campus,” he said. “Pretty idyllic – I think a lot of marriage proposals will happen in here.”
And those marriage proposals are not just limited to conservatory students — Wilder and Koenigsberg intend for Armerding to be “a pass-through building,” where all students feel comfortable studying, meeting friends or just hanging out. Conservatory students are also looking forward to the less “isolated” location of their classes and practice spaces; Abby Hughes, senior harp performance major, pointed to the building’s centrality as one of its most exciting features.
“Right now, the conservatory is way off on the edge of campus,” Hughes said. “I almost get the feeling sometimes that there’s a general consensus on campus that the conservatory is seclusive and its students are ‘unknown’ for lack of a better word. It will be nice to be in a more central area that will hopefully encourage more interaction between liberal arts students and conservatory students.”
Like Wilder and Koenigsberg, Hughes is also looking forward to the acoustical qualities of the new space, citing the lack of soundproof practice rooms as one of the major downfalls of McAlister Hall.
“It’s all about how it sounds,” Koenigsberg said. “I’ve learned that about the conservatory. It’s less about their eyes, more about their ears. Make their ears happy first.”
Wilder is confident that Armerding will deliver this happiness to the ear that many music students and faculty are anticipating, calling it a “Christmas morning-ish” feeling to get to watch them finally experience it all.
“They’re going to be pinching themselves for a long time actually about what this place means,” Wilder said. “It’s a high calling, to help students and faculty follow the Lord in refining their abilities as musicians. … This building says a lot about our invitation to excellence and to creativity, to collaboration, working in community. These are all really important, I think, as we study God’s way of doing things, and this is a brand new chapter.”
And as for students beyond the musical arts? Armerding is also for them; Wilder hopes they’ll be pinching themselves, too.
“We’ll lure you in,” Wilder said. “We’re going to have really great food or coffee, puppies you can check out at the front door. We’re going to get you over here.”