Albion Interactive History / Webster Hall

Albion Interactive History

Albion Interactive History / Buildings / Starr Commonwealth

Webster Hall, 1934

As Starr surveyed the institution at the turn of the 1930s, during time of economic depression, he came to a ridiculous conclusion: he needed not one but three additional structures on campus. Perhaps atop his list was a manual arts department, but he had other candidates. The boys had their own priority. According to one springtime headline in theAlbion Evening Recorder, “Starr Boys are Eager for a New Gymnasium. “It’s baseball time at the Commonwealthnow,” the article began, “and the waters of Montcalm Lake glint a cool seductive welcome to young swimmers, but a new gym would take care of long indoor hours come winter.”

Finally, everyone agreed that the school could well use an auditorium for the increasing number of programs on campus, for chapel services, and for student productions. A steadily mounting boy population already strained to the limit the makeshift facilities of the Emily Jewel Clark Building. The fifty or so students of the mid-20s haddoubled over the succeeding decade, and there was every indication the trend would continue.

If the need for a multiple-use building was clear, how to build it was not. With no promise of substantial gifs from friends and no endowment from which to draw, prospects seemed bleak indeed. Starr himself offered no panacea. “Unless we can find a way to put up this building at no expense to the Commonwealth,” he warned, “I see no hope for it. In times like these, I certainly have no desire to go thousands of dollars intodebt.”

Ultimately it was the corps of field secretaries who designed the final strategy. As they analyzed the project, realization of a new facility would entail comprehensive architectural plans for the building, acquisition of construction materials, specialized labor skills in such areas as brick-laying and plumbing as well as a forbidding list of expensive tools and machines for shop courses.

Because Detroit and its environs held so many components vital to such a project, that city soon became the focus for a campaign which stressed materials and services instead of pledges and contributions. For the field agent in Wayne county at that time this was a novel experience. Miss Elta Arber had come to the Commonwealth from Albion College on the recommendation of Dr. Frank Carlton, Starr’s mentor in sociology. Described by Detroit FreePress writer Helen Bower as “a slender, dimple-cheeked young woman… who must also be a charm girl graduate,” MissArber took upon herself the task of securing literally everything needed for this major addition to the campus. For a young lady but four years out of the classroom, a $60,000 multipurpose building must have been an awesome challenge.

Fortunately, Miss Arber had many years of Starr friendships from which to draw. After first securing tentative blueprints from Detroit architect Marcus R. Burrowes, she began her campaign to procure structural materials literally from theground up. To the delight of Uncle Floyd and the boys, her hard work soon showed solid results. By the late fall of 1934 the basement walls and first floor slabs werepoured, and by the following spring the remaining materials were either at hand or under commitment. For everyone involved, it was a dramatic demonstration of public faith in the Starr Commonwealth and a gratifying testimonial to its principles.

Miss Arber was especially pleased with the progress of the project. “Here is what ourfriends have done to date,” she reported that same spring over radio station WJBK Detroit. “One man said he would contribute every nail required inthe building. A second pledged to donate all the tiling, and a third agreed to install the plumbing. Three big Detroit brick companies are contributing the necessary bricks. There is also a pledge for the shingles and the cement has been given to us too.” There were other items of course including “miscellaneous steel” from the Union Steel Products company of Albion.

As milder weather approached, Miss Arber tackled the final item on her agenda – labor.”Government aid could not be obtained,” she explained to one interviewer, “because the Commonwealth isnot controlled by a unit of the state government. The labor costs were estimated to be between $15,000 and $20,000, and we wondered what good our materials would be if no way be found to use them.”

Happily for the enterprise, the resourceful Miss Arber again was equal to the situation. In the words of reporter Helen Bower, “Not only has she obtained raw materials for the building, but she has solved the problem of labor costs.” Only some twenty miles to the east lay the Southern Michigan State Prison outside Jackson. Within its walls, she had discovered earlier on a college field trip, “there are skilled laborers of every description.”

To think was to act with that young lady. With Starr’s blessing, Miss Arber appealed to warden Peter F. Gray, only to learn he needed the consent of thePrison Board. Undaunted, she first obtained written approvals from all the labor leaders who might object to her proposal, then she presented a comprehensiveportfolio to the Board. It not only approved the plan in principle but described how it should be implemented. “Each day the superintendent would tell the warden the number of men he would need for certain work and the prison truck would bring the men to and from Jackson.”

For some of the trusties, their labors at the Commonwealth became more than an opportunity to earn a few dollars at the minimal prisoner rate. “They started to work with a most uncooperative attitude,” noted Miss Arber, “having the typical embittered outlook on society.” As time passed and they becameacquainted with the boys and the school, she observed a vast change in their attitudes. In fact, she reported later, “One day one of the men said to me that if he had had the opportunities these kids at the Commonwealth were having, he would never be behind the walls himself.” In all likelihood the presence of the prisoners on campus also exercised a salutary effect on some of the older Starr boys.

With the building within their grasp, however, Starr and Miss Arber realized that their laborswere unfinished. Before them lay the task of raising between $10,000 and $15,000 for furnishings. Back to Detroit went Miss Arber, this time to meet with the ladies of the Starrauxiliaries which flourished at that time and with the men of such organizations as the Intercollegiate Alumni Club.

Under her direction these groups sponsored two programs in the late winter of 1934 which added both dollars to Commonwealth coffers and friends to the cause. In March “approximately 400 women crowded into the auditorium of the Women’sCity Club of Detroit to play bridge for charity’s sake.” Only a month later the University of Michigan band presented a “Benefit Concert for Starr Commonwealth” at the Naval Armory in Detroit. Ticket sales were understandably brisk at fifty cents for general admission and one dollar for a reserved seat.

Early the next year “a long list of fashionables” headed by the Edsel Fords attended “a Charity Polo Match for theBenefit of Starr Commonwealth for Boys.” The gala evening event was held in the Coliseum ofthe State Fair Grounds, where the Detroit Cavaliers of Grosse Pointe outclassed the Harvard Freebooters to win by a score of 22 1.2 to 11. According to one source, the school netted only $1,000 from the contest, but again the general admission tickets were priced at a “low fifty cents.”

Evidently a modest deficit remained, for the horse racing season at the State Fair Groundsclosed that September with a “charity day.” By executive decree Governor Frank Fitzgerald proclaimed that “the entire proceeds will be devoted to the benefit of the Starr Commonwealth for Boys in Albion.” Miss Arber also must have been especiallypersuasive at the track, for winners of the race prizes and the track employees agreed to turn over half their winnings and earnings to the cause.”

Although the vocational arts building was completed on schedule in late 1935 by theRenniger Construction company of Grand Rapids, it was not fully adapted for its original purposes until muchlater. On January 8, 1936 a fire occurred in the EmilyJewel Clark education building. Starr and the boys were able to salvage some furnishings, records, and other items, but unable to save the building. With as little interruption as possible classes were resumed in the newlycompleted, but still undedicated manual arts building.

Source: Keith Fennimore. Faith Made Visible: The History of Floyd Starr and His School. Albion, Michigan: Starr Commonwealth. 1988.

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