WFU Campus Construction
Anyone who has ever moved has a story of something lost or broken in the process; you just have to hope it’s not something expensive or irreplaceable. And then there are the stories of the inevitable glitches and delays, especially when the new home is under construction.
What happens when an entire college decides to build its new home on a 300-acre plot of wooded land 110 miles away? When Wake Forest College moved in 1956 from its birthplace in Wake Forest, NC, to its new home in Winston-Salem, it wasn’t immune from moving mishaps.
First, there were the delays. The ceremonial groundbreaking had been held on Oct. 15, 1951 for the new campus on a donated portion of the R.J. Reynolds estate, bordered by Reynolda, Polo and Bethabara roads. The plan had been hatched by the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation in 1946 to lure Wake Forest to Winston-Salem with a staggering gift that increased the school’s endowment by $15,000,000, propelling it into the top 10 percent of all American colleges and universities in terms of income from endowment. Mr. and Mrs. Charles Babcock donated the land, and the college raised its own funds for construction of the buildings.
“Six years ago, Wake Forest College was presented with a challenge almost unequaled in the annals of Christian higher education,” wrote William J. Conrad, chairman of Wake Forest’s Board of Trustees, in the Nov. 1952 issue of Wake Forest College. “Accepting it meant that within a decade, our Baptist college would be catapulted into one of the most prominent positions in the field of American education.”
Construction of Wait Chapel began on June 2, 1952, the same day the U.S. Supreme Court voided President Harry Truman’s seizure of the steel industry, resulting in a nationwide steel strike. While hampered by the strike, construction crews turned for six weeks to basic grading for campus roads and transplanting 20 elm trees to line the quad in front of the chapel.
Besides the steel strike, there were continually rising costs and unexpected site problems that caused delays and reduced the initial phase of buildings from 22 to 12: chapel, library, science building, administrative-student services building, law school building, gym, and six residence halls. A bog appeared under the site for the gym that required wider footing, extra stone and special drainage work.
The original moving date of September 1955 was delayed to May 1956, when faculty and staff took 27 days to move all the books, desks, equipment and faculty belongings to the new campus. One bit of irony: the library books from the Baptist college were packed in liquor boxes provided by the state Alcoholic Beverage Control Board.
About 2,000 students were expected to enroll in the fall of 1956, a 33 percent increase over 1955. Greeting them would be stately Georgian buildings designed by renowned architect J. Frederick Larson and decorated inside with pastel greens, blues and yellows. The most impressive building to delight students and faculty would be Wait Chapel, with its ceiling of “light blue which takes on a greenish tint from light through yellow panes in huge windows,” according to a 1955 article in the Winston-Salem Journal & Sentinel.
The chapel windows supply the most interesting moving story. It took three tries for the specially designed panes, imported from Germany, to make it to the new campus in one piece. The first batch was lost in a truck wreck; the second batch was destroyed in a lumber company fire. The third try was the charm. “We put them in without breaking a pane,” an unidentified contractor told the Journal. “The panes are of many colors, casting a dappled pattern on the opposite walls.”
The design of the new campus was meant to provide visual continuity with the old campus, but it would take a while for Winston-Salem to grow on those whose first love lay 110 miles east in the town of Wake Forest. “The rock wall and the big magnolia trees at Wake Forest typified age, and looking at them it was easy to believe the school was founded in 1834,” wrote Charlotte Observer reporter Jay Jenkins in 1956. “On the new campus, the scarred red clay, the chaste new buildings in model arrangement, the absence of ivy, nature’s veil for the ancient â€“ all of these things dramatize change.”
Conrad, William. Wake Forest College, Vol. 1, Issue 1, Nov. 1952.
Fyten, David. “Pilgrim’s Progress.” Wake Forest Magazine, Sept. 2006.
Jenkins, Jay. “New Wake Forest Campus to be a Modern Beauty.” Charlotte Observer, 12 Feb. 1956.
Weatherman, Rom. “$10,000,000 Campus Takes Final Form for Arrival of Students in June.” Winston-Salem Journal & Sentinel, 4 Dec. 1955, p. 16B.