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Shin: Former Roycemore building should be Art Department’s permanent home

Heiwon Shin, Columnist

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It’s like a little English cottage. OK, scratch the little. It’s large enough for you to get lost in. Surprisingly though, the four sections of this building are all connected. Touring inside it is like discovering new paths in a maze. But rather than feeling trapped inside, it’s pure joy to unravel a different part of this lovely home.

Walk west past Elder Hall and you will find 640 Lincoln St., which was home to Roycemore School since its founding in 1915 until two years ago. Now, it’s the new home to Northwestern’s Art Theory and Practice Department. Technically it has always been a school, but nothing about it feels like a school. Fifteen exterior doors lead to the green gardens surrounding the building. As described in the building’s written nomination to the National Register of Historic Places, “everywhere there is an abundance of light.”

“Family like, home like. Warm and welcoming. A contrast to some of the more modern glass and steel construction,describes Joseph Becker, the former headmaster who had been with the school for 44 years.

The building on Lincoln Street should be the art department’s permanent, not temporary, home because the combination is simply meant to be.

You may not have heard about Roycemore. You may not be an art major or care where the art department moves. But you should care. And here are a few reasons why.

The building is closely intertwined with NU and Evanston’s history. When Frances Willard’s school was incorporated into NU, Evanston residents needed a new women’s school as a replacement, leading to the founding of Roycemore. It was one of nine private girls’ schools in the Chicago area in 1915, and it’s the only one that still exists today. Registered both as a National Historic Place and an Evanston landmark, the building was described in its nomination form as “a unique specimen, in terms of function, symbol and style, of early twentieth-century educational architecture in America.” You may go downtown to check out cool Chicago architecture, but there is a nationally important architecture here on campus, and there is something you can actually do about it.

Because of its rich architectural history, 640 Lincoln St. gives the community the opportunity to come together to envision something larger than any one art project. Figuring out how to use old classrooms and spaces to fit a new purpose can be an intriguing design challenge that can involve not just the art department but also the school and even beyond that, Evanston too.

Already, the art department is starting a renaissance of Roycemore. What used to be the library is now the drawing studio where the light that shines through the open ceiling creates almost a halo-like glow inside the circle of easels. The old gymnasium is used as a movie theater on the weekends. A sculpture class is held backstage.

Have I seen the plans for the new Kresge Hall renovation? Nope. Am I biased? Yes. I have unconditionally fallen in love with 640 Lincoln St. I am not saying the new renovation at Kresge will be bad. In fact, I’m sure it will be a lovely transformation, just as the recent Henry Crown Sports Pavilion renovation has been.

But what the art department needs is not a sleek and shiny new facility. It needs a space to breathe. It needs a challenge, such as the rich potential of 640 Lincoln St.

For sports centers like the Crown Sports Pavilion, new equals good. Not that Crown Sports Pavilion was in terrible need of renovation, but given a choice between a sweat-filled locker room and worn out floors, and a brand new facility, I’d definitely go for the new one. No hesitations.

But for art, that does not necessarily hold true. If anything, I would err more on the side of history. What’s been “used” by others may seem like degradation of value for most commodities, like used textbooks: The more hands it passes by, the cheaper and less desirable it gets. But unique and special buildings and homes like 640 Lincoln St. are a different story. It’s like a rare musical instrument, like an old and well-kept Stradivarius violin: It only gets better with age. It’s like having a whole new dimension of art supplies. The building itself is an art inspiration, art supply and art gallery. How can 640 Lincoln St. not be an irresistible permanent home to the art department?

Whatever the Roycemore building houses once the art department moves to the newly renovated Kresge, I’m sure it will remain one pretty and remarkable building. But whatever it may become – be it an office or a residence or a collection of classrooms for other departments – it will not be the same as now, with the art department housed there.

“Just from a nostalgic point of view,” Becker said, “I would love to see that building filled with students, rather than offices.”

Offices or dorms would not be as inviting of others. With art, there’s potential and probability of inclusion. If it becomes part gallery, for instance, the 640 Lincoln St. could welcome our Evanston neighbors. It’s been a year since I came to NU and I believe there’s room for inter-community relationships beyond the NU bubble.  Maybe we can open up the gymnasium movie night to Evanston residents, including Roycemore alums. The possibilities are endless – but only if 640 Lincoln St. becomes the art department’s permanent home.

Heiwon Shin is a Medill sophomore. She can be contacted at heiwonshin2017@u.northwestern.edu. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to opinion@dailynorthwestern.com.

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