Charles Medbury Hall and Oreon E. Scott Memorial Chapel

Added by , last update: October 14, 2011, 8:02 pm

Charles Medbury Hall and Oreon E. Scott Memorial Chapel
2501 University Avenue
Des Moines, IA 50311
United States
46° 56' 3.3396" N, 69° 22' 51.1032" W
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Identity of Building / Site
Primary classification: Education (EDC)
Secondary classification:
Federal, State, or Local Designation(s) and Date(s):
History of Building/Site
Original Brief:

In 1945, Drake University President Henry Dodd Harmon hired the firm Saarinen, Swanson and Saarinen to complete a campus master plan that eventually include, among other buildings, three new dormitories, two new science buildings and a dining hall. The firm worked on construction of the buildings from 1947 to 1955. The final two buildings constructed were Charles Medbury Hall and Oreon E. Scott Memorial Chapel. Medbury Hall was used to house classrooms, faculty offices and a library for the Drake University Divinity School. The adjoining Scott Chapel was used in conjunction with the purpose of the Divinity School, but also was intended to serve the religious needs for the entire student body.

Dates: Commission / Completion:Commissioned: 1946 / Construction: April 1954 / Completion: February 1955
Architectural and other Designer(s): Eero Saarinen, Architect
Others associated with Building/Site: Paul S. Calkins, Structural Engineer; Hyde and Bobbio, Mechanical Engineers; Fane F. Vawter and Co., General Contractor
Significant Alteration(s) with Date(s): Medbury Hall - 1997, curtain wall replacement on both north and south sides of the building. While the original curtain wall was constructed with insulated porcelain metal panels, the replacement now matches the bronzed mullion curtain wall replacement of Saarinen’s Fitch Hall of Pharmacy, just north of Medbury Hall. During the curtain wall replacement, the two wooden entrance doors were also replaced with aluminum and glass doors. Scott Chapel underwent a restoration in 2006 to repair the structural integrity of the building and replace finishes both exterior and interior that had been damaged or removed during the buildings 50-year history. The restoration project received both an Excellence in Historic Preservation Award from the city of Des Moines, as well as the American Institute of Architects Iowa Chapter Honor Award for Restoration in 2007. “Exquisite restoration of a truly great piece of modern architecture. Lovingly done”(1).
Current Use: "Because the Divinity School closed in 1968, Medbury Hall now houses the religion and philosophy department and the headquarters of the Honors Program” (2). While the Disciples of Christ founded Drake University in 1881, the University quickly separated from the church. Scott Chapel, however, retains its same use as a quiet contemplative space for students of all faiths.
Current Condition: Recent curtain wall replacement on the north and south facades of Medbury Hall and 2006 restoration of Oreon E. Scott Memorial Chapel have left these two buildings in remarkable condition to date.
General Description:

Charles Medbury Hall is a two-story rectangular building with a reinforced concrete frame. The main entrance is on the south side of the building, with another small entry door on the second floor of the west side, accessed by a floating stair above the retaining wall, which helps separate the space of Medbury Hall and Scott Chapel with the surrounding buildings on campus. East and west facades are covered in red brick, while north and south facades are curtain walls. The main entry is off center, making the building asymmetrical both inside and out.
Scott Chapel has one entrance, directly across the entrance to Medbury Hall. The two entrances are joined by a slate walkway with a metal canopy above. Scott Chapel compliments Medbury Hall, as it is a perfectly symmetrical, circular building. The exterior is finished in red brick pattern, while the interior walls are furnishings are oak. A central skylight brings the only light into the space and lights up the altar below, a simple circular marble slab.

Construction Period:
Original Physical Context:

Medbury Hall and Scott Chapel sit approximately in the center of campus, signifying the role that religion played in the lives of students in the early 1950s. hile Medbury Hall’s use has changed to become the home to other academic programs, the layout of the two buildings serve to anchor the university’s commitment to provide a well rounded education both academically and spiritually.

Technical Evaluation:

The Saarinen firm chose red brick exteriors for all of the buildings built under their master plan. This choice gives these modern structures a similar color to the existing buildings on campus, making them all feel integrated, but each building with their own unique style, especially with regard to the landscape. The choice of materials for Medbury Hall and Scott Chapel have held up well given the intense winters of the Midwest and mostly maintenance is required for their continued success on campus.


Since the closure of the Divinity School in 1968, the university has sought to establish itself in a more secularized educational setting. The slight change in uses for both buildings reflects this drive. While Medbury Hall still houses the religion department, it also houses the philosophy and Honors departments, making it a space for research and contemplation of many disciplines, not simply a religious institution with a specific affiliation. In much the same way, Scott Chapel is now a space for students of all faiths to gather and use the space to suit their needs. Scott Chapel epitomizes Saarinen’s vision for all of the buildings in his master plan. Each unifies the simplicity of space with industrial qualities.

Cultural & Aesthetic:
A growing and more diverse student body reflects the current use of both buildings, particularly Scott Chapel. Although the crosses remain on the top of the high back chairs inside the chapel, an indication of the school’s early affiliation with a religious institution, the chapel has always reflected the changing ideas of what a worship space should look like, deviating from a traditional cruciform or basilica layout to a space that is suited towards a large variety of functions. Those who enter are able to interpret the use of the space as they see fit.

The 1945 Drake University campus plan originally intended the design of classical buildings much like the University of Virginia, by Thomas Jefferson. Drake’s Board of Trustees, however, challenged this notion of what a University should look like. The University wanted to appear established, but trustees believed that with the vision a modern architect, the same effect could be achieved, and it would also show that the university was looking towards the future.

General Assessment:
Saarinen’s campus plan intended to unify the new additions of university buildings by creating modern buildings with an industrial aesthetic. It sought both simplicity and harmony with the natural surroundings. Both Medbury Hall and Scott Chapel reflect these notions of simplicity.
Text references:

(1)Strassburg, Steve. "Iowa's Ten Best Buildings." Iowa Architect. 217 (1996): 14-17.
(2)Building a Modern Campus.

Stankard, Mark. "Circle in the Circle in the Square: Orean E. Scott Chapel at Charles Medbury Hall, Drake University, Eero Saarinen & Associates." Iowa Architect. 215 (1996): 24-27.
"Theological School and Chapel, Drake University, Des Moines, Iowa." Progressive Architecture. 38. (1957): 148-152.
"Dormitories and Dining Hall, Des Moines, Iowa." Progressive Architecture. 36 (1955): 96-105.
Schroeder, Tim. "2007 State and Region Design Awards." Iowa Architect. 262 (2007): 7.
"Women's Dining Hall and Dormitories, Drake University." Architectural Record. (1955): 11.
Strassburg, Steve. "Iowa's Ten Best Buildings." Iowa Architect. 217 (1996): 14-17.
"A University Campus Plan Under Way for Drake University, Des Moines, Iowa: Saarinen, Swanson and Saarinen, Architects." Architectural Record. 102 (1947): 70-87.
"Science and Pharmacy Buildings for Drake University, Des Moines, Iowa." Progressive Architecture. 31 (1950): 65-89.
Ritchey, Charles. Drake University through 75 Years, 1881 – 1956. Des Moines: Drake University, 1956.
Roman, Antonio. Eero Saarinen: An Architecture of Multiplicity. New York: Princeton University Press, 2003.

Recorder/Date: Reba Ashby / March 3, 2010
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Charles Medbury Hall and Oreon E. Scott Memorial Chapel
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