Under new plans, Morehouse Hall will become a “student life center” featuring space for multicultural organizations and other campus groups.
According to Assistant Dean of Students Lynne Cornelius, in the current plans, the ground floor will host the lobby and an intercultural center. The first floor will host Residence Life offices and study spaces. The second floor will host lounges, a Capstone locker area, workspaces and offices–including the Director of Student Life, a coordinator for fraternity and sorority life, Adam’s Leadership Institute, Student Activities Board and Student Senate. The third floor will have a boardroom space.
The center’s current blueprints also include lounge space, a kitchen, meeting space and a wellness room that can be used for meditation. Student organizations will be free to use the wall space however they desire, including commissioning murals or using tack boards to advertise multicultural events.
“With Morehouse serving as a residence and gathering space for nearly 100 years, there was strong consensus that it is the natural location – by history and proximity – to serve as the home for the Student Life Center at Drake University,” said John Smith, vice president of Drake University.
Morehouse will also be made ADA accessible and have gender neutral bathrooms. The front entrance would open to the lobby, from which the ballroom would be visible. Cornelius said Morehouse’s ballroom would be used to host large events, with priority given to multicultural organizations.
“Having our own official storage space would be really useful because right now we’re using our members’ dorms, which isn’t a sustainable or really great option,” said Rachel Kaiser, the Unity Roundtable representative for the Middle East Peace and Prosperity Alliance. “Also, it would be really great to have a more reliable space where we can meet.”
Kaiser mentioned an instance in which MEPPA had to change its regular meeting space due to admitted students’ day.
The small public safety lot near Morehouse would be turned into a plaza with grills and seating that can be cleared out for meetings, inspired by the multicultural organizations’ current use of outdoor space near the houses. The plaza will also have a recognition for Divine 9, the historically Black fraternities and sororities. The exterior of the building would be preserved, with historically accurate windows and other design elements. The ballroom, according to Facilities Planning and Design Manager Michelle Huggins: will be preserved as it is, with the only currently planned change being to make it ADA accessible.
The intercultural center and plaza will be named after Sammons Financial Group, which donated $1.75 million to the Morehouse renovations. Funding will also come from Drake University’s “The Ones Campaign.”
Though there will be one less dorm on campus, this shouldn’t be an issue, Director of Residence Life Lorissa Snowden said. If it is, the university will examine additional housing options.
According to Cornelius, Morehouse is high on the priority list of construction projects and would be followed by the renovation of Olmsted Center. If necessary funding is acquired, construction will begin in the summer. Its proximity to Olmsted was one factor in the choice to turn it into the Student Life Center.
Drake does not currently have a dedicated space for an intercultural center. Organizations currently utilize the cultural houses or reserve campus locations for meetings and events and store materials in the Student Life Center.
Initially, the university planned to replace the cultural houses with the center. Following student criticism, administration decided to preserve the houses and use the intercultural center’s spaces for organizations that don’t currently have a dedicated space, such as Hillel and MEPPA.
“We were under this new stress that we might lose the very important multicultural houses,” Kaiser said. “So I feel like there could have been a better way to initiate that dialogue earlier in the semester.”
Graciela Breton-Solano, co-president of Unity Roundtable, said that while administration’s current focus is on building the intercultural center, it also plans to preserve “a space off-campus – or a couple spaces off-campus, like the houses – for future generations,” despite the costs involved in the upkeep of the houses.
Security for the intercultural center has been a concern. Unlike the cultural houses, Morehouse is at the center of campus, and some Unity Roundtable members expressed worry that this would lead to the center being a target for hate crimes. The projected security right now is a camera at the entrance to track who enters and possibly key card restriction.
Designs for Morehouse changed as the architects received feedback and criticism from students, notably about the corporate feeling of the center. Huggins encouraged organization members to send pictures of spaces they felt comfortable in, so the design team could use elements from them in the space.
“They really took into consideration that we want this space to feel more of a lounge space than a meeting or corporate space,” Breton-Solano said.
Some students criticized the renovation or wondered if it was necessary.
“I understand and agree with the fact that [Morehouse] needs to be renovated, even though I personally wish it could stay as a dorm,” said Paige Lambert, vice president of Hillel and a resident of Morehouse. “It’s not ADA accessible at all. There’s no elevator, and[in] many of the buildings here, there’s mold. In the room I’m in now, there’s a crack on the wall.”
April Pupp, a first-year at Drake and resident of Morehouse, started a petition – which received over 50 signatures – to keep Morehouse a residence hall. However, she and other students were under the impression that the hall would become strictly offices.
“When we were doing the petition, people expressed how they like the calm and quiet atmosphere of Morehouse,” Pupp said. She said part of the reason she loved Morehouse was because of how she and her floormates bonded over being “outcasts” from the Quads, where most first-year students are housed.
Lambert wondered if the money would be better spent elsewhere, such as “paying the Sodexo workers more, [or]renovating the existing spaces, for example, academic buildings.” Pupp added that while she liked the idea of an intercultural center, she wondered if there was another building that could house it.
These are not the first plans to renovate the building. In February 1985, the administration made plans to turn the first floor of Morehouse into office space. The decision led to an outcry, a widely-shared petition, and a letter of protest discussing the lack of security between the offices and residence halls.
“To modernize would take away part of the Drake tradition,” said Patty Kueter, a former floor president, in a 1985 interview with The Times-Delphic, advocating for the building to remain an all women’s dorm. Less than a month later, the administration dropped the plans to renovate the floor.
Many of the plans are currently still in flux, from blueprints to designs of the space. The logistics of the plaza and its use have not been decided. Even after its opening, Morehouse will not be finished because, after 60 days of use, Huggins will review responses from students and make any necessary changes to the setups of the rooms.
“I know the conversation’s been happening since last fall, but they’re still very early in the process,” Cornelius said. “We’re meeting pretty regularly with the design team and the architects to make sure the space is functional [and] that it meets Drake’s expectations.”