Historical concert hall a ‘treasure’ on campus

Shalyn Marsh

During the holiday season, the Elliot White Concert Hall is one of the busiest places on campus because it is booked for multiple campus and community concerts.

Although the hall holds a permanent place of importance for current Washburn students, it’s not a luxury that Washburn has always been able to enjoy. Before White Concert Hall opened in 1968, the university used a variety of venues, none of which had the desired sound quality or space for the audience. The concert hall was first proposed in 1962 as part of the plan for an entire building devoted to the fine arts. As Washburn approached its 100th year as an institution, the newly created “Centennial Fund” raised money for what the alumni newsletter called “the landmark of 2nd century Washburn.”

An October 1968 issue of the Washburn Review reported the lengths the university went to in order to have a symphony quality concert hall. Washburn officials traveled to California to find the best sound possible. Dr. Vern Knudsen, a renowned specialist in acoustics, designed White Concert Hall from his laboratory at the University of California-Los Angeles. He selected the proper building shape and construction materials to produce the best acoustics, whose auditoriums were said to have a sound quality comparable to an echo chamber.

Washburn University president John W. Henderson predicted that the White Concert Hall would be a “great asset to both Washburn and the city of Topeka as it would provide an arena for arts, music and culture to visit the community.”

Henderson’s prediction came true as the hall was booked by campus and public organizations before it even opened. The Topeka Symphony Orchestra was just one of many groups who sought use of the hall.

Despite setbacks, such as the 1966 tornado that destroyed much of campus and the stone mason’s strike that prevented work from beginning, the fine arts center continued to grow. On Oct. 20, 1968, the Elliot Hill White Concert Hall opened with an official dedication ceremony for the entire $3.3 million fine arts center.

Pianist in residence, James Rivers, remembers the concert hall crowded with people for the ceremony.

“I remember the heat. Every light in the hall, including all the spots, were on,” said Rivers. “I don’t recall any subsequent event where that has happened. Mix in a stage full of people and all 1,200 seats filled and you have a recipe for heat.”

The concert hall was named after the brother of a generous contributor to the “Centennial Fund.” Mrs. Olive White Garvey, a 1914 Washburn graduate, asked that her half million-dollar donation be used for the concert hall and requested that the hall be named after her brother, Elliot White. White graduated from Washburn in 1924 before attending the Harvard School of Business. He received a Distinguished Service Award from the Washburn Alumni Association in 1968 and served for more than 40 years as a Washburn College trustee.

Washburn theatre professor John Hunter said that before White Concert Hall opened the only other choice for musical groups in the community was the Topeka Auditorium, a converted gymnasium with notoriously bad sound.

“The Topeka Auditorium could hold more people, but the sound just wasn’t comparable,” said Hunter. “White Concert Hall was truly the main significant performing space in Topeka, and after 30 years of non-stop traffic, it needed some work.”

Because of Hunter’s connections in the theatre, music and art world, he was put in charge of fundraising for the renovation of the hall in 1998. Again, the Garvey family came through for Washburn when Ruth Garvey Fink and her sister gave a large chunk of money to start the fundraising. The Fine Arts Center was rededicated as the Garvey Fine Arts Center in 1975 in honor of Fink’s parents, Olive White Garvey and Ray Garvey. Hunter raised nearly $1 million for the only renovation the hall has undergone since opening its doors for the first time.

All of the seats in the auditorium were repaired and reupholstered, a deep velvety blue replacing the unmistakably 1960s avocado green. Some of the seats were also removed to make more room for audience members in wheelchairs. In the lobby, carpet was replaced and the entry lounge received new, stylish furniture. Advances in technology called for new stage lights that improved the audience’s view of the performers as well as the performer’s view of their music.

As pleasing as the physical changes were, most of the money went toward perfecting the hall’s acoustics. Washburn made this improvement by removing the sculptured ceiling and installing acoustical clouds above the stage. These rows of white discs hanging over the stage actually deflect the sound so the performers on stage can hear each other better while improving the audience’s experience as well. The back wall of the stage was improved with new portable acoustical shells and a sound-tuning curtain. The curtain can be pulled across the back wall if the director desires to muffle the sound or left open to increase reverberation.

“The acoustics are wonderful,” said Norman Gamboa, Washburn director of orchestra. “White Concert Hall is by far the best I’ve been in. It’s one of the finest in the whole Midwest.”

The perfection of sound in the hall is evidenced by the hall’s popularity. On average, White Concert Hall is occupied one or two times a week during every week of the year by Washburn students and faculty and the community. It’s clear that many people who are familiar with the hall feel it has fulfilled President Henderson’s prediction.

“White Concert Hall is certainly a treasure not just for Washburn University, but also for the thousands who attend events and the community organizations who use the place,” said Rivers. “It has become a cultural landmark.”