By Linda J. Mack, trustee
Wheeler Hall’s solid—even stolid—exterior speaks to its status as the oldest building on campus, Northland’s “Old Main.” But when I stepped inside, I found a fresh feel and unexpected layout with a central atrium on each floor acting as welcome social space for classrooms and faculty offices.
I found out why when I took a tour in July with Don Chase, a 1962 Northland graduate and longtime staff member, now retired, and board member. Wheeler Hall is, indeed, the campus’ first building—completed in 1893 for North Wisconsin Academy, the private high school that became Northland College in 1906.
The academy was built of locally quarried brownstone, in the style of the time. The original entrance faced north and, without the present dense growth of trees, there was a view of Chequamegon Bay. There were living quarters on the first floor, classrooms, a library, and chapel on the second, and the third floor acted as a gymnasium.
Reverend E.P. Wheeler, the pastor of the Ashland Congregational Church, which had founded the North Wisconsin Academy, became the College’s first president. His parents, Reverend Leonard Wheeler and his wife, Harriet, were missionaries to the Ojibwe on Madeline Island and at Odanah.
Harriet was involved in the College from the start. She even attended the 1892 ceremony when the building cornerstone was laid at a gathering of Congregationalists honoring the work of the early Protestant missions on Madeline Island.
In 1907 the building was named for the Wheeler family, in honor of the Wheeler family’s service to the region and to the Institution.
Just eight years later, a fire gutted the building. With the help of student and faculty contributions, it was rebuilt in five months, in time for school in the fall! But, with four stories rather than three.
In ensuing years, the chapel moved elsewhere and the third floor was remodeled to enlarge the Music Department, adding a concert hall and more practice rooms. Wheeler has also housed a print shop, administrative offices, reserve reading library, computer labs, and lounges.
In 1977, the State of Wisconsin named Wheeler Hall to the National Registry of Historic Places.
By the early 1990s, Wheeler Hall had become structurally unsound and, “we wondered what we would do with it,” said Chase, who was then vice-president of institutional advancement. President Robert Rue Parsonage felt strongly it should remain a campus icon and architects HGA and LHB devised a plan to build a new structure within its walls—a process which took only a year.
As it did for much of its life, Wheeler now serves as a pleasant setting for classes and faculty offices. The atrium grounds the building in its locale—with granite, a Native American medicine wheel in the floor, and the North Pole and South Pole represented in the ceiling.
And Wheeler Hall continues to serve the College as it has for 124 years. The north entry stairs are still a favored site of many group photos, and the tradition of carving each graduating class into the brick of building façade continues.
“I can’t think of anything that hasn’t been in there!” said Ori-Anne Pagel, a 1969 graduate and Northland’s passionate archivist. “It’s just the cornerstone.”
Linda Mack, former architecture critic for the Star Tribune, writes about architecture and design for regional and national publications including Architecture Minnesota and Artful Living.