May 19th, 2006
The Mountaineer Spirit May 18, 2006
By Monte Maxwell
If you attended West Virginia University anytime during the past 40 years, you probably owe the late Robert J. Bennett some appreciation for enhancing your college experience.
Whether you were an engineering student needing a place to study, an athlete performing his sport, or a student attending class, you benefited from Bennett’s architectural handiwork.
From the late 1950s into the 1980s, Bennett designed several new buildings and led renovations to many of the University’s historic halls, including Woodburn, Martin, and Chitwood.
After Bennett passed away in 1996, his wife, Jacqueline R. Bennett, and daughter, Sandy Bennett-Taylor, donated more than two dozen of his architectural drawings for WVU projects to the West Virginia and Regional History Collection.
“My first thought when I came upon all of these renderings of University buildings was that they had to be preserved,” Bennett-Taylor said. “We felt that the University would be the proper place, that they could refer to them in the future and have them for historic value.”
The drawings also hold special memories for Bennett-Taylor because she toured many of the buildings with her father. She recalls her father pointing out the intricate moldings framing the tall doorways of Woodburn Hall. He also shared with her how the restoration project would progress.
“It was fascinating. Daddy was concerned with keeping the integrity of the original architecture,” Bennett-Taylor said.
Jacqueline R. Bennett said her husband felt privileged and honored to be able to do the work on numerous buildings for the University.
“He was so happy they chose him to do it,” she said.
Mrs. Bennett still enjoys hearing compliments about his work. She said people regularly share their appreciation for the beautiful job his did on buildings all around the community. She is especially proud that The Dominion Post ran an article about him with a headline reading: “He changed the face of Morgantown.”
“When we’re driving down Patteson Drive and see the steeple of Drummond Chapel or when I’m over on the Boulevard and can see the Shell Building, it brings back a lot of memories,” Mrs. Bennett said. “I’m still very proud of him. He did so many beautiful things.”
A Wheeling native, Bennett settled in Morgantown in 1949 after graduating from George Washington University and serving with the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II. Shortly after his arrival, he founded an architectural firm that later became Robert J. Bennett, AIA and Associates.
His ties with WVU began in the 1950s when he was asked to redesign the dressing rooms at the old Mountaineer Field. WVU continued to turn to Bennett over the next three decades to design projects throughout campus and at Potomac State College.
Rudolph Almasy, Associate Dean of the Eberly College of Arts & Science, worked in Woodburn Hall before and after the building underwent its extensive facelift.
Almasy was pleased that Bennett opposed gutting Woodburn and instead was able to retain the original woodwork, doors, and transoms, and the shape of the large windows that stretch to the high ceilings.
“Fortunately, the most important part of his work is that the first two floors were preserved pretty well, and that makes all the difference,” Almasy said.
Along with taking on the renovations of the historic buildings in Woodburn Circle in the mid-1970s, Bennett designed the Clark Hall Annex; Campanile Dormitory, later named Knapp Hall; the Athletic Shell Building; and Evansdale Library. At the Health Sciences Center, he was responsible for the Basic Science Addition in 1981 and multiple other projects.
For Dance Professor Kathryne Wiedebusch, Bennett created a second home for her and thousands of her dance students when he transformed the roof garden atop Elizabeth Moore Hall into a dance studio back in the early 1960s.
E. Moore Hall previously served as home to dance classes, but the space was not sufficient.
“We desperately needed a facility,” Wiedebusch said. “To have this finalized, that we were going to have a facility for the dance program, meant everything to us because you can’t build a program unless you have a facility.”
With land on campus already being at a premium, then University President Elvis J. Stahr Jr. wanted to avoid building from the ground up. Instead, the top of E. Moore Hall seemed the perfect place. Wiedebusch explained that the roof garden envisioned by the architects who designed and built E. Moore Hall never came to fruition because of inclement weather.
Bennett enclosed the arches into windows and added a dome ceiling, giving the program a dance floor bathed in natural light, dressing rooms, and an office. More than 40 years later, Wiedebusch still marvels over Bennett’s work. She said it stands apart from many new complexes built today.
“It’s artistic; it’s inspirational; it’s a beautiful place to work and to perform,” Wiedebusch said. “It’s a perfection as far as studios in our artistic world of dance go.”
Over in Evansdale, Bennett’s efforts helped unite a quickly developing Evansdale Campus. As that campus continued to grow in the 1970s, the need for a library there became apparent.
At the time, space for a small library was set aside in the Engineering Building. In its place, Bennett designed a three-story facility with seating for 550 students and more than 300,000 volumes.
“Robert Bennett gave students a very pleasant place to study,” Evansdale Library Director Mary Strife said.
One of the attractive features of the building is that all of the nine study rooms on the top floor of the library have windows to provide sunlight and an outdoor view for studying students.
More than 25 years and a digital revolution later, Evansdale Library is now wired for electronic resources and serves thousands of students daily. Strife remains impressed that Bennett had the vision to design a timeless building.
“He didn’t give us a funky shape to work with. It isn’t something elaborate and only for that time,” Strife said. “He made something that is functional and could change to meet the change in demands.”
Changing to meet demand has been a constant at WVU. Several new buildings have going up and others have undergone facelifts since Bennett’s last projects on campus. And currently, a wave of renovations is transforming Brooks, Colson, and Olgebay halls into state-of-art facilities to better serve the University community. But as the University continues to grow and to change, Robert J. Bennett and his thumbprint on campus will remain an integral part of the history of WVU.