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The Ongoing Debate on Changes to Walton Hall

     David Knickerbocker Boyd, architect of the Walton Estate, the present site of the main St. Davids campus of Eastern University, remarked that “good architecture tells its own story.” He did not have to defend his work, for he believed that it had universal appeal. This appeal remains to this day, as many Eastern students, staff and faculty comment that the buildings and grounds provide a beautiful setting for higher education learning. The main building of the original estate, Walton Hall, has served as the student center for Eastern since coming to St. Davids in 1952. As Eastern has grown in size, Dr. Bettie Ann Brigham, Vice Provost for Student Development, notes that a tension has developed between persevering Walton as a historic structure and making it fit the needs of a student center. Recent changes to Walton Hall as part of Eastern’s Master Plan have caused this debate to resurface. To those in favor of historic preservation, these changes, however minor, take away from the beauty and authenticity of Boyd’s architectural vision, and they open the door to future changes in favor of modern architecture. On the other side of the debate, Walton is seen as having to be modernized to make its spaces more usable and versatile as a campus center.

     Derck and Edson, the architectural firm in charge of overseeing the renovations in Walton, states that a historic preservationist was not consulted in the Walton renovation process. They add that the changes were “limited to the building interior and focused primarily on spaces that had previously been altered from the original building construction.” Former Valley Forge Military Academy and College art history professor Arthur Stevens notes that the new brown and white paint scheme is reminiscent of the “brown age” of Victorian times. Stevens points out that this clashes with the “Romantic eclectic combination of classical architecture in Walton.” In the former conservatory, now the entrance to the Dining Commons, Stevens notes that another “modern decoration” has been added with wooden curved slabs hung from the ceiling.

     According to Eastern benefactor John Baird’s book “Great House,” Walton Hall was completed in 1913 as part of the “Walmarthon” estate, developed by Charles S. Walton Sr. under the supervision of renowned Philadelphian architect D. Knickerbocker Boyd. Walton Hall is known as a historical landmark for the Main Line community not only for its connection with notable people, but also for its layout and ingenuity which make it a unique and inspiring example of American architecture. As former Suburban and Wayne Times editor Daniel Ehart notes in his article “‘The Great House’—And Its Founder,” “‘Walmarthon,’ now renamed ‘Walton Hall’…was renowned for its individuality, artistry and nationality. It was a Delaware County showplace.” While combining various 15th through 18th-century European architectural styles, John Baird writes that Walton “represented, in a broader dimension, a revived interest in those arts and crafts by a number of artisans who sought to recapture the integrity of individual work and thereby avoid the sterility of mass-produced building techniques which came with the Industrial Revolution.” In “A Dream Come True,” former Eastern Dean Dr. George Claghorn says, “Many famous people were entertained at the estate, including President Taft.” It was also the site of many charitable events, as well as a retreat for notable missionaries home on leave. The estate served as a center for community activity.

     In his description of the Great Hall (now the Upper Walton Lounge), Baird says, “Informality and simplicity are good works for this well-portioned place. The floor of wide teak planks fastened down with wooden pegs set the tone.…A stark fireplace dominated the north wall. Cut stone blocks rose from hearth to ceiling. Well above the opening Boyd put a large heraldic emblem in bas relief.…The design…[was] above the Latin motto ‘In Deo est omnis mean fide,’ [which translates to], ‘In God is all my faith.’” According to Baird’s description, the new modern stonework and freshly-painted dark grey ceiling in the Upper Walton Lounge is in contradiction with Boyd’s architectural vision. In the original plans Boyd ordered very light-colored Spanish Renaissance features for this room.

     Author William Morrison in his architectural study of Walton Hall says, “As mercurial inside as out, [Walton’s] interior was a pastiche of European decorative styles….Ceramic tile from the Henry Chapman Mercer works was found throughout the house, as were wrought ironwork by Samuel Yellin and wall murals by artist Albert Herter [who is considered one of the foremost American muralists of the early 20th century].” Charles Walton Jr. remembered that Herter spent weeks lying on scaffolding to “do the work by hand around the ceiling and the top of the walls.” Being that much of Herter’s work on Walton’s various ceilings still exists, a historic preservationist might be consulted to value the paintings and to ensure preservation, especially in Walton Hall’s VIP room, where recent painting has covered what may have been Herter’s original work.

     Walton’s recent changes include new furniture. Derck and Edson states, “The updated variety of furnishings are more typical of similar spaces at other peer institutions and provides flexibility for various seating arrangements during the day, as well as for various student group meetings and activities.” In the next few weeks, Brigham says that the Italian marble on the first-floor corridor will be covered with carpet, Eastern logo “branding” added to the walls and a new entrance installed. Derck and Edson says that as part of the 2014 Campus Master Plan there were other spaces within Walton Hall that were identified for renovation; however, “no specific timeframe exists for those improvements.”

     Vice President for Advancement Lisa Titus notes that Derck and Edson has “tried to keep within the flavor of Walton’s historic nature….[They] tried to work, I think, with the beauty of each of those spaces….You have to keep with the historic integrity of the building too because going in there and putting something totally modern in is going to look out of place.” Providing another viewpoint, Stevens says that the modern paint, new stonework and addition of the wooden slabs distract from Walton’s “classical aesthetic tradition.” In the desire to create a student center, some historic aspects of Walton that make it an architectural landmark have been severely altered over the years.

     According to Brigham, in the past few decades, several items of historical significance and financial worth have gone missing from Walton. These include the glass-paned wooden bookshelves that were taken out of the VIP room, Martha Walton’s portrait, oriental rugs and the original solid oak door to Walton.

     Shortly after Claghorn arrived at the St. Davids campus in the early 1950s he wrote, “There is an order, harmony and stability to the buildings….Unlike some overly ornate buildings of the same era, those of Walmarthon have a simplicity and dignity which still appeals.” Although most of these exterior architectural qualities remain, questions as to whether Walton’s interior historic aspects should be preserved or should be altered to meet modern needs will continue to surround current and future renovations.

     Sources: John Baird, “Great House”; Bettie Ann Brigham; George Claghorn, “A Dream Come True”; Derck and Edson;  William Allen Morrison, “The Main Line: Country Houses of Philadelphia’s Storied Suburb”; Arthur E. Stevens Jr.; Suburban and Wayne Times; Lisa Titus; Charles S. Walton Jr.

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