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Mysteries at Drake: secrets of architecture

Photos: Google Maps (above), Matt Nelson (below)

Walking around Drake’s campus, it is easy to pick out buildings and places. But what’s the meaning behind these familiar places? Who’s Fitch? And why on Earth is there a gigantic sundial sitting outside the Fine Arts Center?


It may surprise the hundreds of chemistry laboratory students who study there daily, but Harvey Ingham hall was actually named after a former editor of the “Des Moines Register.” The Gardner Cowles Foundation donated Harvey Ingham to be a science hall, and the building was constructed in 1949.

The structure was actually bombed by an activist group in the 1970s, during the Vietnam War. According to the online Global Terrorist database, the bomb caused $300,000 worth of damage, but there were no injuries.


Fitch Hall was erected around the same time. Fred W. Fitch donated the building for the study of Pharmaceutical sciences.

World-renowned Eliel Saarinen and his son Eero designed several Drake buildings during the ‘40s and ‘50s, including Fitch and Harvey Ingham. Eero Saarinen received the First Honor Award from the American Institute of Architects in 1955 for his excellent architectural work on campus.


Drake is a private non-religious-affiliated school. However, it used to be associated with the Disciples of Christ. The University built a new divinity school in 1955 and named it Medbury after one of Drake’s greatest religious leaders, Charles S. Medbury, who acted as chairman of the Bible College, and eventually took the position of university chaplain as well as university Christian church minister and Board of Trustees member.

A small, circular and somewhat eerie chapel is connected to Medbury Hall. It is named for Oreon E. Scott, a man of faith and a member of the Board of Trustees.

Though the divinity school no longer exists, many students continue to use the chapel for meetings, religious purposes, or to simply sit and think.


Renovations for what was then called “Hubbell Field,” began in 2001, and worked to transform the area into an open, scenic gathering place for students. According to a Drake news release, Robert Helmick named the field in honor of his parents Paul and Dorothy who were students and educators at Drake.

Helmick received three separate degrees from Drake and was a senior partner at Dorsey and Whitney Law Firm.

Director of Facilities Mark Chambers was project manager for the Helmick Commons renovation.

“We saved money by doing our own electrical,” Chambers said, “I actually designed the electric, and the staff and I installed it.”

Chambers and his staff put every six lights on a generator, so if the power were to go out the field would remain lit. The project re-landscaped the area and redesigned the layout of sidewalks.

In a bittersweet turn of events, Helmick died only 11 days before the field’s dedication.


Another artistic piece seen on campus is the sundial donated by Dwight D. Opperman in Wifvat Plaza. Opperman graduated from the law school at Drake and is also the namesake for the Opperman Law Library and Dwight D. Opperman Lecture, but this particular project has evolved into a featured campus photo opportunity.

The current plaza was created by the university to connect the Knapp Center to Old Main. The space was once 26th street, but Drake purchased the road and the sundial located there, adapting it to fit campus as it does now.

Its location was once 26th Street, but the university bought it and used Wifvat Plaza to connect the Knapp Center to Old Main.

“It was intended to anchor Wifvat Plaza,” said John Edwards, director of the Law Library.

They chose the sundial for its aesthetics.

“It was a focal point where students would be able to gather,” Edwards said.


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