Purdue’s Place in the Belle Époque, by  Justin Couetil

Purdue’s Place in the Belle Époque, by Justin Couetil

Blog Entry One     //     Blog Entry Two     //     Blog Entry Three
To view a working bibliography for this project, click here.

Blog Entry One, March 11th 2016
A Drawing from the 1900s


The object, an ink drawing by Henry William Merkel, is centered within the rectangular pages of the 1904 Debris. The ink is a dark blue. Perhaps black, but faded by time. Separated into three major and minor sections, each is distinct from the last. From right to left, the first section contains an owl, skeletons, and a striation of light. The bottom of all three “windows” is a barren landscape with shallow peaks lightly shaded. Continuing across the blank mullion into the twofold larger middle pane, we find a cloaked figure, altar, owl, skull, and bright celestial figure. The final panel features a bat, once again the striations of light, and a brazier, the apparent source of skeletons. Small, dark, semi-rounded “headstones” preside over each window and spell “Fraternities” in pale gray letters. The middle, and largest, headstone is backed by a shrouded skeleton with outstretched arms. Iconography of the death motif are found throughout the drawing. The brazier and altar suggest a religious setting. Heavy lines and liberal shading provide separation from stark whites. The geometric figures of the altar and brazier are surrounded by formless shapes. As an ink illustration, it has no inherent texture; however, the aforementioned shading gives the barren landscape a dulled rocky appearance- reminiscent of scorched earth weathered by time.

Initial Thoughts

I’ve chosen to analyze an ink drawing by a student, Henry William Merkel, reproduced in the pages of his 1904 senior yearbook. If we consider the drawing form the major art and culture movements of the time, it seems out of place. Artists in 1904 rejected the religious, doom and gloom ideals of Romanticism. The prominent styles relied on every-day subjects, distinct brushstrokes, and the play of light. Lyla Harcoff, a fellow student and a colleague of Merkel’s on the Debris art staff, would follow these trends and go on to be a Fauvist painter in California.

Merkel’s drawing is not indicative of the times given the religious iconography, serious subject matter, and liberal shading. As I look at Merkel’s drawing, I try to find the reason he emulated the fading Romantic Era. There was a train wreck earlier that academic year which killed many. Perhaps he remained somber to pay his respects? Distance could have muffled the art and culture movements: there is a lot of grass and trees between little Purdue and the metropolitan centers of the world.

Personal Connection

Henry Merkel was deeply entrenched in the STEM field. His senior thesis was on fuel injection efficiency, so I was surprised to see him as a staff artist for the yearbook. Typically, majors are viewed as concrete borders which define personality. I was refreshed by Merkel’s investment in both the artistic and scientific studies of the world. I’ve tried to respect both sides of the academic spectrum throughout my life.

Next Steps

The quantity of information in the Purdue Archives is dizzying. In order to understand Merkel’s drawing, I will have to break down mountains of information into useful nuggets. I plan to consult the literary societies of Purdue which provide insight into the role of art and culture on campus. I will record data on senior biographies, art appraisals, trustee minutes, literary society minutes, and other sources spanning multiple years. With these data points, I could determine if there is a statistically significant increase in liberal arts interest at Purdue during the turn of the century. A quantitative approach to the qualitative seems contrary to the nature of art and culture. I prefer to accept the fluidity and focus on art history and its reflections on Purdue within the aforementioned resources.

Blog Entry Two, April 23rd 2016
Practical and Aesthetic Arts

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Illustration of a train from the 1904 Debris

The great hurdle of archival research is knowing where and when to look. After that, the concern is staying afloat. The sea of information floods the mind, leaves you gasping. You rifle through clippings, pictures, and programs; desperate for anything moderately useful. Often you don’t find anything- my argument lies in that vacuum.

There is a nearly complete lack of progressive arts on the campus of 1903-04. Endless searches through Trustees minutes, Literary Society minutes, convocation programs, Exponents, various papers, and collections have proven fruitless. There is a definite disconnect between STEM and the Liberal Arts at Purdue. Each path has its distinct qualities and merits, but the duality is problematic for society. The sciences and humanities are inseparable. Take, for example, an engineer: tasked with the transport and purification of water for a remote region in Africa. If miles of pipe travel through sacred ground, the indigenous people may refuse to use and/or damage the system. To some, spirituality and culture may be much more important than famine and drought. On the other side of the spectrum, there’s the Notre Dame de Paris: It’s the quintessential example of French Gothic architecture. It could not have been accomplished without the advent of flying buttresses. This pairing of the technical and aesthetic provides humanity with a cultural treasure. The practical arts are hardly so, if not applied correctly and the liberal arts cannot exist without innovation. In order to remain a paradigm in education, Purdue University must adapt to the global society and invest in cultural capital.

We can find evidence in the archives that current issues were being considered and debated at Purdue, but relatively little attention was paid to arts. At the turn of the century, Literary Societies discussed fascinating resolutions: “Should there be other voting qualifications besides those now existing?” (negated 1883) (Carlyle Literary Society). Purdue convocation programs reflected a conservative taste in music as well. Between 1870 -1920, performances consisted of recurrent classical and romantic composers. Within this period, a total of five impressionist pieces were played. Otherwise programs were larded with Rachmaninov, Handel, Beethoven, Schubert, and Tchaikovsky (Purdue University Musical Organizations). The fine arts are sparsely commented on during this time. They are relegated to tidbits within the Debris yearbook and the student run newspaper, The Exponent (Day Swan; the Debris).

Outside of Purdue, however, we see local echoes of the new Impressionist movement. In Indiana, five artists studied in France in the late 1880’s, returned to their home with new artistic ideals. They have come to be known as the Hoosier Group, known for renditions of Indiana landscapes. The group of artists would give presentations and courses at museums and schools throughout 1890-1920 (Wuerpel). One would expect a resonance at Purdue, yet the Archives suggest the first official Art Club was founded in 1912. That year’s program schedule consists of stylistic sculpture stretching from Babylonian, to Renaissance, and finally ending with Modernism (Purdue Art Club). The club was established with a larger delay than expected.

Few structures on campus are fully committed to any stylistic movements. Older buildings display wisps of classic architecture.

Matthews Hall: The Corinthian capitals of pillars, piers, and intricate moldings (cornice) are distinctly classical, but the unfluted and unornamented shafts and bases are the simpler Tuscan style. Even more strange are the gothic lanterns which anoint the sides of the entryway. These diminutive structures are dominated by the surrounding red bricks.

Photograph of Matthews Hall East entrance by Justin Couetil

Purdue Memorial Union (1922-1924) displays similar aspects: classical archivolts (underside of an arch), patterned windows, Art-Nouveau reinforced concrete ornamenting, Art-Deco bas-relief (sculpture of man and woman), and the ubiquitous red brick.

Photograph of Purdue Memorial Union, South Tower, by Justin Couetil

On the other side of the spectrum, we have more modern buildings on campus.

Photograph of Burton Morgan Center for Entrepreneurship and Mann Hall by Justin Couetil

Discovery Park: These new buildings are made primarily made of steel, glass, concrete, and, of course, red brick. In my opinion, these structures are reminiscent of the chrome and glass sketches from a 1960’s architect. They are undeniably impressive, but do not polarize opinion with architectural statements. The only truly modern building inside and out being Birck Nanotechnology. Otherwise, Discovery Park exhibits restraint through architecture which is agreeable to every viewer.

Photograph of Birck Nanotechnology Center by Justin Couetil

Tradition at Purdue has both pushed and damaged the University. The concentration of funding and personnel in STEM have fostered world-class innovations, while neglecting other fields. The “stick to your guns” approach has been very important for Purdue in the early years, but I think it’s time to experiment with teaching styles, curricula, and prioritize student welfare. Make classes smaller, facilitate varied course loads, and tackle the harmful aspects of student life.

Blog Entry Three, May 7th 2016
Final Thoughts

At first glance, Purdue has rich architecture, but closer looks at the classical collegiate gothic and contemporary buildings of campus reveal conservative forays into architectural style. The buildings are almost insincere in nature; merely suggestive of artistic movements. A smattering of Corinthian crowns could detail a revival of decadent Roman architecture, but intricacies and florets do not persist. Steep faces of red brick and reinforced concrete could be Brutalist, but they only serve to mute and dilute flourishes. Collegiate gothic buildings, international style, and green building only scratch the surface of their potentials, save just a few structures (Pfendler Hall, Cary Quad exterior, Corec, Birck).  What we have in terms of our architectural style is moderation: a papier mâché and practical approach to architecture.

This pragmatism leaves little room for flawed, individual expression. True art makes and elicits statements, forcing you to agree, disagree, and critique. You might say, “Purdue doesn’t have the money for this; we’re a land grant institution!” or “Even if we do, how do you expect to attract donors if you polarize opinion?” Before I assuage your fears, see my last blog post for a brief architectural study.

The endowment reporting listed in the 1889 Debris is cited at $340,000 [1]. A 2015 inflation calculator based on the Historical Statistics of the United States and annual Statistical Abstracts of the United States equates this sum to $9,046,047 [2]. It should be stated that inflation calculators are not perfectly accurate, and Purdue’s needs and fiscal strains have undoubtedly increased significantly. To the same effect, our endowment has increased significantly: $2.398 Billion as of 2015 [3]. Even with the proportionally tiny investment, Purdue was still creating powerfully stylistic buildings.

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Exterior Photograph of Eliza Fowler Hall, 1929. Purdue Buildings and Campus Scenes. Created 1929. ID: PPBUC00385. Purdue University Libraries, Karnes Archives and Special Collections. Digitized 11/3/2006.

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Exterior Photograph of Eliza Fowler Hall, 1929. Purdue Buildings and Campus Scenes. Created 1929. ID: PPBUC00386. Purdue University Libraries, Karnes Archives and Special Collections. Digitized 11/3/2006.

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University Hall Library – interior, Thursday, Oct 21, 1899 or 1905. Purdue Buildings and Campus Scenes. Purdue University, Karnes Archives and Special Collections. ID: PPBUC2386. Digitized 10/13/2008.

Donors reflect on and directly affect Purdue’s values. I would use members of congress and the senate as analogies. These principles hence are transferred to the administration, faculty, and students. With a Renaissance at Purdue, it’s quite possible to attract a new flock of investors. And who’s to say this will kick the old money out? The arts and sciences are not mutually exclusive: Purdue will still be the paradigm in STEM education. The University’s history is also a direct precursor to current policy.

To explain this muting of new modes in art, we have to look at the mentalité of the university. The new “Purdue Priorities” issues by the office of our current president are as follows: “The four pillars of Purdue Moves — affordability and accessibility, transformative education, world-changing research, and STEM leadership — leverage Purdue’s historic strengths and promote investment in new ideas, guiding the university in its mission to deliver higher education at the highest proven value.” [4] It should be said, that neither John Purdue nor Mitchell Daniels are wrong. Purdue has made the world a better place with its pioneering studies, eminent faculty, and dedicated students. Purdue’s current president mirrored the founder. John Purdue was, if nothing else, a pragmatist. He saw engineering and agriculture as the sources of success [5]. Both Purdue presidents have an omission of the arts.

Purdue reticence towards less concrete areas of pedagogy and research is unreasonable. No duality exists between STEM and the Fine Arts. Way back in 1904, Henry Merkel was both a mechanical engineer and active member of the Debris art staff. I’m a Biochem major and I’m writing this paper. The neglect and oversight is detrimental to the university’s image, student body, and future success.


[1] 1889 Purdue Debris. Historical Sketch of Purdue. Pg 13. Virginia Kelly Karnes Archives and Special Collections. Purdue University.

[2] Friedman, Morgan. The Inflation Calculator. 2015. Web. http://www.westegg.com/inflation/. Accessed 2016.

[3] National Association of College and University Business Officers and Commonfund Institute. U.S. and Canadian Institutions Listed by Fiscal Year (FY) 2015 endowment Market Value and Change in Endowment Market Value from FY2014 TO FY2015. Copyright 2016.

[4] Office of the President. Mitchell E. Daniels Jr. Biography, Purdue Priorities. Purdue University, 2016.

[5] Interview with Jean-Pierre Hérubel. Jean-Pierre Herubel (Professor of Anthropology, Art and Design, Culture of Science….) Discussion of Purdue history, pedagogy, and research, April 2016


To view a working bibliography for this project, click here.

About the Authors

To find out more about all of the student researchers, click here!