Under Kenyon’s Master Plan, historic Sunset Cottage will likely be demolished. With it follows over 150 years of history as a faculty house, class space and home to the English department.
The History of Sunset
Francis Wharton, the College’s first English professor, built Sunset Cottage in 1856, naming it after the scenic westward view of the sun sinking each evening. It was in the living room of Sunset that Wharton helped found Kenyon’s chapter of academic honor society Phi Beta Kappa in 1858, according to College Historian and Keeper of Kenyoniana Tom Stamp ’73. Wharton did so with the help of professors Hamilton Smith and Thomas Mather Smith, as well as College trustee John Andrews. During this period, the house became a locus of social life and intellectual discourse on campus.
When Wharton traded Gambier for Brookline, Mass. in 1863 to become the rector of St. Paul’s Church, he gave Sunset to the College, after which it became faculty housing. Stamp doesn’t know who lived in the building during the remainder of the 19th century, but Raymond D. Cahall, a professor of history, lived in Sunset with his family beginning in the 1920s. During the 1930s, according to departmental correspondence from Thomas B. Greenslade to Philip H. Jordan, Jr., sixteenth president of Kenyon, Cahall began an arrangement with the College to “enlarge and improve” the building at Cahall’s own expense. He and his family lived there until his death in 1964.
Stamp said there have been two additions to the building since its inception: the north and south wings. Though the wings were added after the central brick portion was built, they are still old enough to be considered historic. He was unsure when they were added.
Edward Harvey, a French professor, lived in Sunset with his family after Cahall. In 1978, the English department moved its offices from Nu Pi Kappa on the third floor of Ascension Hall to Sunset. The Sutcliffe Collection, a collection of books that once belonged to Professor of English Denham Sutcliffe, is now located in Sutcliffe Seminar Room in Sunset, but was also previously located in Ascension.
Professor Emeritus of English Perry Lentz ’64 remembered when the English department was still situated in Ascension: The building was covered in ivy, the offices were small and they were divided by beaverboard partitions — a type of wooden sheet used as building material.
“There were I think two to three telephones on that floor, so if I got a phone call, I would have to go down to [Professor of English] Bob Daniel’s office and talk on the phone,” he said. “If you had a machine on your desk, it would be a typewriter.”
In an article published in the Sept. 21, 1978 edition of the Collegian, “Sun sets on English offices,” Gerald Duff, the department chair at the time, was quoted saying, “The new house gives the English department a sense of coherence that was not there in the Nu Pi Kappa Hall.”
The Kenyon Review was also housed in Sunset beginning in 1978; it moved to Walton House (which has since been demolished) in the early part of the 20th century, and then to Finn House in 2009.
Looking to the Future
Sunset will likely be demolished and two new English buildings will be constructed according to Associate Professor of English Sarah Heidt. There is no current timeline and, as far as Heidt knows, there is no funding, as the project has not yet been approved by the Board of Trustees. But as part of the future reconfiguring of that part of campus, including the potential underground parking lot, Sunset cannot be in that location. This area, referred to as West Quad in the Master Plan, would hold space for the dance, drama and film departments and office administrators, and it would include the new English buildings.
“I know that there’s been frustration about [Sunset being demolished], at least among some parts of the alumni community, some parts of the student body, and to that the only thing that I can say is we are really trying to think out what is best for Kenyon students going forward,” Heidt said. She added this was especially important for students who cannot get up the flights of stairs and whose wheelchairs cannot fit in the hallway.
Stamp felt that, while the original plan to move the building would be fine, destroying it would be a significant loss for the College.
“I think tearing it down would be a tragedy and a travesty,” he said. “If we’re committed to our heritage, we can’t just dispose of historic buildings like that that really do help to make up the fabric of the place.”
NEH Distinguished Teaching Professor of English Sergei Lobanov-Rostovsky agreed that destroying Sunset would be a loss, but pointed out that Sunset is not accessible to students with mobility issues — particularly if their professor’s office is on the second floor.
“It’s a longstanding place where English majors have had lots and lots of great experiences and it would be sad to see it go away,” he said. “On the other hand, there is a sense of the need to do things for the students of the future.”
Lobanov-Rostovsky said the smaller houses on campus, such as Sunset, have “a sense of community and intimacy.” He added that he has powerful memories of teaching in Sunset, just as he’s sure students have many such memories learning there.
He recalled a story of a particular English honors seminar he taught that met in Sunset’s seminar room. This group of students was slightly mischievous, as he described them. When the weekend arrived to determine the level of honors each student would receive, he attended a meeting in that room after students’ oral and written exams.
“We came in there to sit down and have our lunch meeting, and discovered that they had replaced all the photographs of famous Kenyon writers with their own photographs,” he said. “Which was fantastic, you know. It’s little things like that — the ways in which students have used the space creatively.”
While Lentz never felt as though Sunset necessarily embodied the English department, he understands why that is the case for so many. “I know it [is] in the memory of many people, and this makes a lot of sense to me,” he said. “It’s a place redolent with wonderful memories, because it sort of stands for the English department.”