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The Womb Room

February 7, 2010

On the second floor of List Art Center, opposite the curved stairwell, there is a hidden gem of architectural history.  It is seriously  hidden, behind ominous coded keylocks.  Access is restricted.

Behind those locks, I believe, lies an octagonal space originally designed to foster the emerging medium of “multi-media.”  There were floor-to-ceiling projections screens on each of its eight walls.  Near the ceiling opposite each screen was a projection window intended to accommodate slide or film projectors.  Behind the windows were two tech booths wired to accommodate control equipment, including surround-sound (“quad” in the day).

The floor of this Room was carpeted in deep orange.  No seating.  Dim-able lighting.  There was only one possible name for it but, unlike the Red Pit, it has not been enshrined by officialdom.

It’s most likely that this space was the brainchild of Ben Thompson, Kirkland’s architect.  In Limited Engagement, Sam Babbitt describes a presentation prepared for the Trustees at a meeting at Ben Thompson Associates in Cambridge, MA, before Kirkland’s design had been approved:

… a large horizontal screen and three automated slide projectors, programmed to flash images in studiedly random order, now left, now right, now middle and every possible combination in between, and all of this was accompanied by a recording of some current ’60s music (the Beatles, Dylan, etc.) at the highest possible decibel setting.  (p.91)

As Sam recalls, the Trustees were… nonplussed.  Nonetheless,the Room came into being.   To this writer’s knowledge, Jesse Zellner was the first to take advantage of the facility, when he presented a multi-image slide show of images captured in Washington D.C. at a major Vietnam War protest rally in the spring of 1970.

That show made a deep impression upon me.  I spent the next year in D.C., working and studying at the Corcoran School of Art, and when I returned to Kirkland to complete my degree, I knew I needed to incorporate the Womb Room in my senior thesis exhibition.

These photos are the only record I have of the project (which included an audio track produced in the Electronic Music Studio, and film created in one of Nat Boxer’s classes).  They don’t show much architectural detail, but do convey a little bit of the Room’s atmosphere.

A '72 Senior Project exhibit

A year after graduation, I found myself in Cambridge, MA working for a firm that had emerged from an art collective specializing in new technologies.  Within ten years, multi-screen slide shows had become a staple at corporate events, and supported an entire industry.

That industry was overtaken by digital media in the ’90s.  But Hamilton College possesses a remarkable piece of its history.

Now, hidden behind digital locks.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Connie Halporn permalink
    March 18, 2010 3:30 pm

    Its so amazing to me that I used the same room for my multimedia Senior Project..
    The space was very inspiring.

    But, the room was also the Dojo for the Kirkland College Judo club. We would pull the mats from one of the closets behind, and try not to fall into the walls. It made you play very carefully.

  2. mcintosh301 permalink*
    March 19, 2010 9:23 am

    Connie, would you want to write about the KC judo club? We’d like to develop an article about sports at Kirkland, and this could be a page for it.


  3. Chelsea Wahl permalink
    March 8, 2011 2:39 pm

    Hi, Jen!

    I’m a current student at Hamilton and I thought I’d poke around a bit to find this room. Reading your description, I was reminded of a room I’d been in last semester with a student who was composing a cello piece for my quartet, but I wasn’t sure. I asked Kim Carroll, the music department secretary, and she opened the room for me.

    The Womb Room is now the music department’s electronic media room. There are five or six work stations in a circle, with macs, keyboards, and other fancy musical recording and composing equipment. Kim told me Prof. Sam Pellman uses it with his students, and those students are the only ones who have access to the room due to the nature of the equipment. The tech booths you mentioned are used by Prof. Pellman for storage. As far as I can tell, the projection screens aren’t used for anything. Also, sadly, the room is no longer orange. The carpet is more of a teal color. I’m not sure when this change occurred but I assume it was shortly after Hamilton assumed Kirkland’s buildings.

    The room is definitely under-appreciated for its architectural history (even Kim didn’t know anything about it) but at least it’s being used for something.

    — Chelsea

    • March 8, 2011 9:45 pm

      Thanks for checking it out, Chelsea! It’s great to know students read this site too.
      In fact, I was on campus some months ago, and ran into Prof. Pellman who was kind enough to open it for me as well. So I grabbed a photo but my flash failed and the exposure was pretty awful – but you encourage me to show it anyway. Prof. Pellman seems like a great guy – maybe when the new arts building goes up we can persuade him to restore this space for performance.

      New tech in the old room

  4. January 10, 2022 11:56 pm

    I just came across this again, in the course of updating some site links, and was reminded of Prof. Sam Pellman. His death in 2017 was shocking and tragic, even for someone who only knew him briefly. {} I think he had a kind of Kirkland spirit, and that really shows up in another site I just stumbled on: Rest in peace.

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