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Restoring Memories: Renovating a Campus Icon

Posted on Thursday, January 14

Brown Chapel is the symbol of the Lyon College campus, an iconic structure resonating with scores of Arkansas College and Lyon College alumni alike. As the only campus building that every single student over the past 55 years or so has set foot in at least once, it plays a part in memories of first dates, required convocations, performances, and adventures—who knows how many students have accepted a challenge to climb up into the steeple!

And then there are the legends. Despite the historical reality that no children were ever buried on the property, the story persists that the chapel is haunted by the ghosts of children from the Masonic orphanage that formerly occupied the bluff who died and were buried where Brown Chapel now stands. Their ghosts are seen in the shadows on the illuminated steeple each night, and their play has disrupted theatrical and choral rehearsals. The most mischievous of these little ghosts is Billy, who at least once rolled a ball out of the wings and onto the stage. The rehearsing students and their director, then-theatre-professor Jay Summers, stopped work “to play with Billy,” said Gina (Block) Garrett, ’93, one of those students and now Lyon’s Executive Director of Institutional Advancement.

Or there’s the ghost who occupies Bevens Music Room, brought there along with the tapestry that hangs on the north wall. Dancing with her groom after their wedding, a beautiful young bride dropped down onto the tapestry and died. Now she walks at night, searching for her groom. Folklorists could explain these legends as signs that students have felt they were in danger of “losing their lives” from all the academic demands coming at them from every direction and eased their fears through passing along these stories—after all, the children seem to be happy and still living as they dance around the steeple every night.

The real story is that Brown Chapel and Fine Arts Building was constructed in 1958 and named for W. C. Brown, Sr., of Stamps, Arkansas, a College trustee from 1910 to 1915, and two of his children, Allan (also a trustee from 1929 to 1937) and Josephine Brown. The senior Brown was one of the owners of the Bodcaw Lumber Company, at that time operating one of the largest sawmills in the South. Donors of the lead gift, which secured naming rights, were his other two children, W. C. Brown, Jr., and Jean Brown, whose names are modestly listed in alphabetical order on a large brass plaque in the lobby among all the many donors.

The four siblings, who were known for their charitable work and their modest desire for anonymity, lived together for many years, unmarried, in an imposing mansion on Central Avenue in Hot Springs. Both Allan and W. C. Brown, Jr., attended Arkansas College, from which W. C. graduated in 1915. He later attended the New England Conservatory, where he studied music, and went on to study with a mentor of Caruso. Returning home, he sang with the Hot Springs Choral Club and for ten years sang on Sunday afternoons on radio station KTHS, accompanied by his sister Jean. This strong interest in music no doubt played a role in the Browns’ decision to support construction of the Brown Chapel and Fine Arts Building. 

That construction began under the leadership of Dr. Paul C. McCain, president of Arkansas College from 1952 until 1969. It was a key element in his vision for a college campus on the bluff, at the site of the then-closed Masonic Home for Orphans.

Brown Chapel not only was placed at the front of the campus, facing 22nd Street and aligned with Maple Street, but was also intended to be the symbol of the College, with graceful columns and an imposing steeple. Because it was the first modern academic building constructed at this third location of the College, it was designed to serve several functions. Its auditorium would be used, variously, for convocations, assemblies, chapel services, musical performances, theatre productions, and formal academic events. The Bevens Music Room would be a recital hall and also a place for receptions, weddings, and other special events. The building also featured a small chapel, art studio, offices, choir room, practice rooms, storage areas, set and costume storage, make-up and dressing areas, sound system, stage lighting, and restrooms.

In addition, on many occasions since its construction, the auditorium of Brown Chapel has served as a civic venue for the Batesville community, accommodating community theatre, public lectures and performances, large funerals and weddings, and many other important events.

In April 1973, the Chapel, along with the orphanage buildings, was severely damaged by a tornado, which took down two columns in the portico, the entire steeple, and parts of the roof. Repairs took months. The Celtic cross atop the steeple was rescued by the late Dr. Fitzhugh Spragins, a Lyon religion professor and alumnus, and now stands in the courtyard of the Mabee- Simpson Library, a testament to the resilience of Lyon College.

Over the more than 58 years since its construction, the Brown Chapel and Fine Arts Building has been altered, refurbished, and adapted many times. It has been used as a general classroom area when other buildings on campus were being constructed or remodeled but has served as the primary academic space for music studies since its construction.

The beautiful Bevens Music Room was refurbished in 1989 by Mrs. Marion Lyon and again in 2013 by the First Ladies’ Auxiliary, led by Mrs. Lynn Weatherman. Graced by the striking tapestry which inspired the legend of the dancing bride, in recent years it has also come to feature a handsome collection of portraits of previous presidents and deans.

The auditorium, last refurbished in 1985, still contains the original seating and curtains. A wonderful mechanical (tracker) organ was custom-built by the Holtkamp Organ Company of Cleveland, Ohio, and installed in 1980 as the gift of Mr. and Mrs. John W. Edwards of Batesville. A grand piano graces the north end of the stage. This space is currently used for convocations (including the opening of each academic year) and baccalaureate, weekly worship services, lectures, dance recitals, and performances by the College’s choral and instrumental groups.

But Brown Chapel is now suffering from decades of deferred maintenance. What must be undertaken, with urgency, is a full interior restoration. Built nearly 60 years ago, it is the top campus priority for renovation and restoration, with an expected price tag of $1.5 million. What must be done?

Work will begin with the first-floor office suite. From a cramped series of tiny offices and practice/storage rooms, a new suite of offices,greenroom/lounge, and unisex restroom will emerge. This initial project will cost $176,000, of which $46,000 already has been pledged or received. The first segment, costing $60,000, will begin as soon as another $14,000 is in hand.

Next, the stage in the main auditorium must be modified. Originally designed for both theatre performances and concerts, the stage now primarily serves choral and instrumental music performances. Necessary changes include construction of a three-sided shell and dropped ceiling to improve acoustics, a new sound system, electrical lighting improvements, refinished stage floor, and new storage spaces, as well as painting and refinishing of walls, doors, and fixtures. The cost of this project will be approximately $562,000.

The next major phase of work will continue in the auditorium, where the seating must be replaced, shades installed when the aging drapes are removed, asbestos-laden floor tiles replaced, and walls, trim, and ceilings repainted. Acoustical diffusers on the back wall and upgraded house lighting must also be added. In addition, the HVAC system, fire alarm system, and egress lighting need to be updated. These improvements will cost about $716,000.

Current and former students, Batesville citizens, and college friends who have long enjoyed and benefited from this beautiful, remarkable structure know its importance and appreciate the need. The Brown Chapel and Fine Arts Building must continue to fulfill in every way its historic and important functions. 

Posted by Eric Bork at 3:18 PM