A sk any student, alumnus or visitor to the Oregon State University campus to name OSU’s most beautiful building and more than likely they’ll say, “The Women’s Building.” With its generous spaces, the flow of daylight through its arched windows, its pleasing sense of proportion and countless decorative details, the building exhibits grace, grandeur and a distinct sense of history and place.
Oregon State University architect John V. Bennes designed The Women’s Building, built in 1926-27 as the women’s gymnasium. That original purpose is still intact as the building boasts a large gymnasium on its main floor; two large rooms used primarily for dance instruction; other rooms used for yoga, pilates, back conditioning and more; and a pool
in its lower level, which is still used today.
Since 1909, more than a dozen campus buildings were created by Bennes, including:
The Women’s Building was Bennes’ only campus commission as a result of an open competition. Out of 14 entries for a women’s gymnasium, the John V. Bennes design was selected by the Board of Regents because of its masterful simplicity. It is the only Bennes building on campus exhibiting such extraordinary detail, and the design of the structure itself is well suited for its purpose.
A lma Mater, the nurturing spirit of academia, holds the torch of learning and presides over the entry portal of the building, below, with a major central core and symmetrical wings. Greek and Roman echoes, which architects in the Western world have favored for major public buildings for centuries, can also be seen in the colonnaded entry porch with statuary alcoves, arches and vaulted ceiling.
The glazed ceramic trim on the high exterior of the building also derives from classical architectural designs, which Bennes favored on most of his campus buildings. They are also functional, as they keep the dripping rain off the brick walls along the roof line. Bennes ordered glazed ceramic panels of low relief with seated female figures symbolizing the activities of the building: academic learning, sports, music and dance.
A large triangular panel sits over the entry, and several square panels are inset along the sides of the buildings. Where the classical influence is immediately seen The tall front doors open into the elegant entry. Up to a height of 7 feet, the walls are covered with red Verona marble. Two stately oak stairways ascend to the main floor past walnut paneling with statuary alcoves. The ceiling is a series of vaulted spaces. The lobby’s classical proportions are rendered by the arches of the interior balcony and the design of the walls’ black walnut paneling. The fireplace, of carved Cretan stone, displays Greek and Roman motifs in the architectural trim details – the swags of greenery and fruits, and the two sphinxes at the corner.