To those who might remember the octagonal structure situated in the middle of the Wilmington College campus, they will know it as Whittier Court.
That, however, was not its original name — that was the “tabernacle”, and in the local newspaper it was referred to as a wigwam.
It was called a tabernacle because it was first built as a meeting place for the annual meeting of the Wilmington Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends, or Quakers, which was headquartered on the local campus.
The term wigwam was only used twice in the newspaper and does not appear elsewhere. The structure was built in 1896 to replace a tent which proved inadequate for the numbers that came and the weather that occasionally failed to cooperate.
The designation of the local yearly meeting took place in 1892 and the first meeting was held in the new structure in 1897.
According to an article in April, 1896, “The building will be 112 x 70 feet, octagonal at the ends … There will be room for over two-thousand chairs within the enclosure. The sides will be made of large doors, hinged at the top which swinging upward and outward will form an awning entirely around the building, while also permitting thousands to stand about and see and hear.”
It was estimated that 10,000 people would come at this first meeting: “Riding in carts, buggies, and carriages, they came, making the occasion their summer outing.”
The extant photos certainly suggest that there were thousands in attendance.
The floor was filled with sawdust and there were complaints about the persistent fleas. In 1920 there was need for more space and the auditorium was turned into an all-year building.
In a speech by Clayton Terrill during the final meeting of the yearly meeting in the tabernacle, he describes the alterations to the building that took place that year: “The swinging doors were removed and replaced by an attractive brick wall that would shut out the cold wintertime. A heating system was provided, shower and locker rooms added. Hardwood flooring throughout the building did discourage the active biological life that had frequented the sawdust. So, the old meetinghouse was to become the center of indispensable daily service to the college.”
It soon came to be referred to as Whittier Place and was open to the community as well as the college. Terrell went on saying it served “Chautauqua programs, artist series, folk festivals, high school tournaments, college athletics, residents of Governors’ Mansions, the Supreme Court Bench, the White House, scholars of differing philosophies of life – all to challenge the thinking of the listeners, ‘with malice toward none’.”
Closing his talk on that day in 1966 he concluded, “And now we are met here to pay tribute to this old building that has served its day and generation. We bid her a nostalgic good night as we hail a glorious good morning to her successor.”
Whittier Court was replaced by Hermann Court, which was dedicated December 1966.
Neil Snarr is Professor Emeritus of Wilmington College.