Wisconsin State Journal
BELOIT (AP) — At the Powerhouse student center at Beloit College, empty coal hoppers with fresh coats of black paint loom above visitors’ heads along with a worn overhead crane from Pawling & Harnischfeger installed decades ago.
These circular steel hoppers, formerly used to crush coal into powder, have been turned into seating. Meanwhile, hulking pipes, once part an intake system used to draw water from the adjacent Rock River, now serve as a conversation piece for people using nearby pool tables or waiting their turn for the batting cages.
There’s a swimming pool, fitness center, 160-seat auditorium, study areas, a cafe and fourth-floor event space for 200 people. An elevated indoor track for walking and running follows the rim of the center, and a 17,000-square-foot, glass-enclosed field house with artificial turf is scheduled to open in May.
Students centers aren’t supposed to look like this. Neither are decommissioned power plants.
But a $38 million collaborative project by Beloit College has taken money provided by alumni and local donors, a gift from Alliant Energy and the inspiration and design work of a world-renowned architectural firm and used it all to save a piece of this city’s history and provide a one-of-a-kind attraction to the school and its 1,100 students, the Wisconsin State Journal reported.
“From the very outset this has been both a project that was going to be enormously valuable to the college community and the city of Beloit,” said Scott Bierman, Beloit College president. “This project, at its core, is fundamentally a student center and for those reasons we expect that prospective students and their families will play close attention to a college that has devoted this much energy and resources to improving the quality of their experience.”
Colleges and universities throughout the country have spent billions of dollars over the past 20 years to attract students to their campuses. The resulting projects have included dormitories, food and music halls, event and sports centers, student unions and outdoor spaces. In Beloit College’s case, there was a need both for more attractions and a new use for a shuttered powerhouse on the edge of campus.
Many power plants that have ceased operating end up being knocked down to make way for public green space. That was originally the plan for the former Wisconsin Power & Light steam-powered, coal-fired power plant, which has stood since the early 1900s at the bottom of a hill just below the college. The powerhouse stopped generating electricity in 2005 and was shut down by Alliant in 2010.
When the college began weighing its options for a new fitness center, it turned to Alliant. A deal was struck in 2014 giving the college three years to raise the money for the project. In the end, the work brought in about $28 million in donations and another $10 million in state and federal historic preservation and new-market tax credits.
The money will pay for the first five years of operations. No student fees will be used and no debt taken on by the college. Already, a 150-foot-long steel pedestrian bridge has been built over Pleasant Street, connecting the main college campus with the new student center.
The 120,000-square-foot project calls for the removal of a pair of 30 megawatt turbines and two 6-story boilers. Meanwhile, the building’s smoke stack, the most visible and familiar piece of the powerhouse, is remaining in place.
That stack rises 100 feet above the roof line.
“It’s a symbol,” said Dan Schooff, manager of the project and chief of staff and secretary of the college. “Its an echo of our industrial heritage.”
The powerhouse-turned-student center, which was fully opened this month, is just south of Riverside Park and just up the river from the Ironworks Campus. That project, by Ken and Diane Hendricks, turned the former home of the Beloit Corporation, which closed down in 1999, into a 24-acre hub composed of offices, manufacturing operations, small businesses and a YMCA.
Beloit’s downtown is thriving with new housing, small businesses, restaurants and events. A ballpark is in the works for the city’s minor-league baseball team, the former Angel Museum is being turned into a visitor center along with office and event space and Amazon is building a $105 million fulfillment center expected to create 500 jobs.
The powerhouse project will not only add to all this but also fulfill a need felt at a college that was founded in 1846, two years before Wisconsin achieved statehood. The school has not had a dedicated student union. Its field house, home to an indoor track and some fitness equipment, is in a World War II airplane hangar and will be demolished after the new field house opens. The Sportscenter, home to the school’s basketball and volleyball facility, will remain.
“We felt like we were kind of land locked. Where were we going to build a nice big space like everybody else was doing?” said Cecil Youngblood, dean of students and chief diversity officer. “There’s history here. It’s different. (The powerhouse student center is) not this cookie cutter thing you see all over the place.”
Work on the power plant began in 1907, and there were expansions in 1917, 1920 and 1925, according to the Wisconsin Historical Society. The plant was placed on the state register of historic places in 2017. What was once named the Blackhawk Generating Station, and is now the main part of the complex, was built between 1945 and 1949 to meet pent-up demand and fuel the post-World War II boom in construction and industrial development, according to the Historical Society.
Converting the powerhouse into a student center while retaining its historical features was a task assigned to Studio Gang, an architectural firm in Chicago founded by Jeanne Gang. Her firm has worked on everything from high rises in Chicago, San Francisco and Paris to music, art and cultural centers in New York, Baltimore, Chicago, Memphis and Taiwan. In 2019, the studio completed the design of the 2.2 million-square-foot O’Hare Global Terminal, scheduled for completion in 2028.
In 2018, Studio Gang’s design of the Beloit powerhouse received the top prize at the World Architecture Festival. The award is given to projects planned in response to pressing matters like climate change, energy saving and carbon emissions, water use, aging populations and health concerns, reusable materials, smart cities, building technology, ethics and power and justice. The powerhouse project, which has LEED certification and geothermal systems, also “reanimated a once tarnished river edge to a new center focused around community, health and wellness,” Anke Meyer, one of the judges of the competition wrote.
Bierman said he’s hoping to increase enrollment at the college, which is known for its liberal-arts instruction and the Logan Museum of Anthropology, which was established in 1894 and now has on exhibit nearly 300,000 archaeological and ethnological objects from around the world.
“One of the miracles of this building is the design element that Studio Gang brought to it. It turned our thinking upside down in how the spaces in this building could be used,” Bierman said. “It’s breathtaking to me. This thing is 100 times better than I ever conceived.”