In its 150 years Oregon State University has benefited from the influence of individuals too numerous to count. Engineers, astronauts, war heroes and business leaders. Athletes and artists. Politicians and Pulitzer winners. And a scientist who won a pair of Nobel Prizes.
But perhaps no one among the university’s distinguished alums, faculty and other contributors has affected the look of the campus the way John Virginius Bennes has.
The prolific Chicago-bred architect (1867-1943) designed more than 35 buildings at OSU and worked on remodels or additions of 10 more. Twenty-four of his buildings are in the university’s National Historic District. Working mostly in the Classic Revival mode, with brick and terra cotta his most emphatic materials, Bennes essentially created an OSU design style which continues to this day.
Collaborator A.D. Taylor, who worked on the university’s 1926 master plan, praised Bennes for “a unity of design which is exceptional. I have come in contact with no college campus where buildings over a considerable area and during a considerable period of time have been designed and located with so much uniformity.”
But uniformity doesn’t mean boring cookie-cutter structures or a wearying sameness that leaves students and faculty entering the wrong building because they are all clones.
“Unity and sameness are indeed different concepts,” said Larry Landis, director of OSU’s Special Collections & Archives Research Center and a Bennes admirer and expert. “Sameness would result in a boring-looking campus. Unity of design results in similarities but not to the point of eliminating individuality or uniqueness among buildings. I feel that Bennes excelled at that.”
Take Weatherford Hall, Kidder Hall and McAlexander Fieldhouse. Or the Women’s Building, Langton Hall and Strand Agricultural Hall. And six barns, although just one remains, the 1930 Veterinary Medicine Dairy Barn on Southwest Washington Way beyond 30th Street.
From 1907 to 1940, along with collaborators such as campus planners Taylor and John C. Olmstead, president William Jasper Kerr and fellow architect Harry A. Herzog, Bennes essentially built the university and created an enduring architectural and aesthetic legacy.
There were giants in those days.
And as breathtaking as his Oregon State University work was, Bennes turned in similarly excellent creative efforts elsewhere in Corvallis — and throughout Oregon.
He collaborated on the glittering, striking First Presbyterian Church at Eighth Street and Monroe and at least five Greek houses to the north of campus. Two of his campus buildings, the Incubator House and the Poultry Building were saved, moved and restored on Southwest Washington Way just east of the campus.
Elsewhere in Oregon? The Hollywood Theatre and residences in the Frank Lloyd Wright “prairie school” style in Portland. More university work at Eastern Oregon, Southern Oregon and Western Oregon. Projects in Astoria, Baker City, The Dalles, Salem, Prineville and Heppner.
“I have documented more than 200 design projects completed by Bennes and his partners and staff between 1900 (when he came to Oregon) and his retirement in the early 1940s,” Landis said. “And I suspect there are many more. These include residences in a wide variety of architectural styles, commercial and retail buildings, apartment buildings, resorts, hotels, churches, theaters, warehouses and more.
“This is an amazing accomplishment. I feel he is as important as any architect who practiced in this state before 1950.”
And that’s with a documented record that remains incomplete. Landis noted that "there still is much, much more to learn" about Bennes as well as a series of “rabbit holes” that he has gone down in his effort to dig up more of the Bennes story. He has seen mentions of seven Greek houses … but can only find five of them.
Bennes grew up in Chicago right after the historic 1871 fire that destroyed thousands of buildings and killed more than 300 people. Did the rebuilding of the city affect his career path? There is only speculation.
Bennes’ work on the Hot Lake Resort in Union County about an hour outside of Baker City likely put him in touch with one of the resort’s owners, future Governor Walter P. Pierce. Did Pierce influence Bennes’ move from Eastern Oregon to Portland? Landis is intrigued by the notion, but the historical record isn’t there.
More than a dozen of Bennes’ OSU buildings no longer exist because they were either torn down or burned down. Landis has found plans for a Logging Engineering Building that never was built. And many projects that Kerr and Bennes were planning for the 1930s remained just drawings because of the economic downturn fueled by the Depression.
Landis noted that the original concept for Weatherford, perhaps Bennes’ most iconic OSU design, included four such dormitory buildings.
“That would have been absolutely incredible,” Landis said. “But then the Depression came. Maybe with just one it keeps it special.”
His work methods and business structure also remain unknown. At a Jan. 25 “preservation pub” presentation at the Old World Deli, Landis was asked by former OSU Professor William Robbins about the assistance Bennes must have received. “How large of a staff did he have? Did they do some of the work?” Robbins asked.
“Absolutely,” Landis said. “But I don’t know how many. There had to be a good cadre of architects and drafts people. He had to be in some pretty substantial firms given the number of projects he did.”
It also isn’t clear what sort of official relationship Bennes and his various partners had with the university.
“I don’t know if Bennes had a formal contract. I’ve not run across a contract document.” Landis said. “But he was certainly referred to as the ‘college architect’ in newspaper articles and other sources. Given that only a handful of buildings built between 1907 and 1941 were not Bennes designed, my guess is that most design projects … automatically went to Bennes.”
Shepard Hall, Landis notes, was built in 1908, but at the time it housed the YMCA/YWCA and not an OSU building. The Memorial Union was designed by Lee Thomas, a 1907 OAC graduate, but Landis said “I would guess, though, that the plans for the MU were shared with Bennes for his input, perhaps informally.”
Landis’ research also shows that when fire destroyed the Stock Judging Pavilion in October 1912, less than a year after it was completed, its replacement was designed by another architect. And when the university was planning the Women’s Building, which turned out to be another of Bennes’ gems, Landis discovered that 13 other architects were in the running for the commission.
The Women's Building, which was made from stone quarried in Monroe and South Corvallis was called “well-planned, substantial and, in its simplicity, beautiful” by the university’s alumni magazine. Landis, though, wishes he could find the designs of the other architects.
Bennes also easily retains his luster, Landis asserts, because of what came after him.
“The 1950s and 1960s were the dark period of OSU architecture history. They weren’t bad," he said of the buildings. "They were just there. I wouldn’t be sad if some of those buildings went away.”
A west wing was added in the 1950s to Bennes’ Home Economics Building, which became Milam Hall. “Incongruent” was Landis’ critique. He also shook his head over the 1996 annex to the Pharmacy Building.
Landis remains puzzled that Bennes’ work is not more celebrated. He theorizes that by limiting most of his work to Oregon “he did not gain national or international acclaim like Pietro Belluschi,” who designed the original section of the Corvallis-Benton County Public Library or Albert E. Doyle, who created the Meier & Frank department store building in Portland.
“Part of my goal has been to reacquaint Oregon with Bennes as a means of getting the recognition that I think he deserves,” said Landis, who first began giving lectures on the architect 13 years ago. “I would love to see him duly honored by OSU … perhaps with a building named for him.”