Memories of Place Should Be Preserved Through Campus Renovations

WOBC, a radio station that has been broadcasting since 1961, never managed to get on air last semester because they were on alert to be asked to move out of their old office in Wilder Hall at a moment’s notice. With some essential broadcast equipment already moved to a different location and the rest prepared to be relocated within 24 hours, the station existed in limbo for several months. The official notice didn’t actually come until finals week last semester, and WOBC lost four months of broadcast time for no real discernable  reason.   

The west side of Wilder Hall is undergoing construction as of the start of this semester. This means many rooms serving as offices, study spaces, and headquarters for student-run organizations have been relocated or closed to make space for maintenance. There is a sense of displacement throughout Wilder Hall: parts are sectioned off with plywood, making entire wings of the building inaccessible. The College has several renovation plans in place for the coming months and years, and while this is overdue, we cannot forget the history and value of familiar physical spaces. At the cusp of this onslaught of changes, we wish to take a hard look at the importance of institutional memory and the effect such modifications have on the student environment. 

Study rooms that people used to frequent are no longer open. For some, those spaces served instrumental roles in the process of self-discovery and cultivation of personal interests, but now they no longer exist in their original form. Even when construction ends, it will be different than it was before. That is jarring. Traditions will continue, but they will be altered. There won’t be drawings on the walls from years ago, or little notes left by people who have since graduated. Parts of the history of the space are lost in this transition. The process of rebuilding can bring discomfort and distress because of the sentimental value the space held. Wilder Hall is a prime example of the cultural significance of institutional spaces. 

During the 2020–2021 school year, Wilder Hall was one of the few communal spaces students could access, as Stevenson Dining Hall only offered food to go and the libraries were shuttered, with books available for pickup only. Wilder became a hub for students, one of the only places where they could study, eat, and just hang out as the cold Oberlin winter made spending time outdoors unpleasant. As such, many of us who were at Oberlin during this time developed a close attachment to the building — popping radiators, creaking floors, peeling paint, and all. Call it Stockholm syndrome, but the loss of Wilder as a communal space on campus is deeply felt by those of us who once relied on it as a backbone of our daily routines. 

Institutional spaces are imbued with memories and have unquantifiable value to so many different people. It is essential to remember and highlight these spaces, because in doing so, we also highlight the people who have passed down the traditions of the space to us. With its distinctive character built over decades of students passing through its rooms, Wilder Hall serves as a way to study and interpret the evolution of Oberlin’s culture. Even if, after construction, Wilder Hall looks the same, it won’t feel quite the same because so many little pieces of its heritage will have been built over. 

It is not simply the existence and utilization of spaces that fosters an emotional connection. Rather, it is the way that we mold the spaces to reflect the time we have spent in them. Photos and quotes on the walls and collections of old work give spaces a personal feeling, making them that much more difficult to leave when the time comes. Take the Oberlin Review office in the basement of Burton Hall, where student journalists have produced articles on a weekly basis for multiple generations. Pasted on the walls of our office are photos, articles, and quotes from decades of Obies who have come through this place. We may not remember every detail of their stories and experiences in this office, but we find clues in every corner of the room. Even our main door handle, activated only by code and temperamental in its willingness to open, is a beloved annoyance. One could argue for certain kinds of renovation in the Review office, but not at the cost of what makes its character instantly recognizable to the people who have come through it.  

While it is true that renovations to Wilder Hall can feel abrupt and difficult to reckon with, particularly for older students at the College, we can also look at this change as a movement toward reimagining how Oberlin should interact with the world. The construction in Wilder Hall does make the campus seem different, but Oberlin is an institution known for being ahead of the curve, ideologically and otherwise. Rather than mourn the shift in spaces, we can recognize what made these spaces so special: shared values of intellectual curiosity and creativity that students hold so close to their hearts. Each generation of Oberlin students coming into the College factors into an ever-shifting culture. It is up to the current students, faculty, and administration to decide what legacy Oberlin wants to leave and what legacy it is in the process of creating.