In 1998, when Fairfield-born, Chicago-based architect Martha Bell volunteered her time to help develop the proposed arts and civic center, she brought with her many years of architectural experience. Her efforts transformed the many suggestions from the community into a preliminary “architectural program.” Martha was even able to come up with a basic cost estimate for the project: $7 million.
Martha’s impact was “game-changing,” says Sally Denney, who, along with Suzan Kessel, gave birth to the idea of a town arts center in 1989. For the first time, the board got a glimpse of how their plans would translate into a physical structure. It was a liberating experience. At the same time, seeing the price tag for the proposed structure induced sticker shock—and a discouraged board was almost ready to give up and do a “metal Morton-type building.”
It was a time to pause and reflect—can we really do this after all? What have we gotten ourselves into? Is this the responsible thing to do? But after the initial shock passed, the unchanging sun of optimism emerged from the clouds. Okay, they decided, what will it take to make this happen?
Once again, fortuitous circumstances came to the rescue. One weekend, board member Coralee Dey had been catching up with young Kelsey Mullen, then an architecture student at Iowa State University. Coralee, a long-standing friend of the Mullen family, had known Kelsey since he was two-years old. Coralee had heard about Kelsey’s activities and achievements and mentioned that she was involved with architectural planning for a proposed Jefferson County civic center. She was hoping that Kelsey could help them in some way.
Kelsey agreed to talk with board members to consider how he could help. At the end of June 1998, Kelsey met with Sally, Suzan, and Ken Norton at the Off-Broadway Grill. As a result of the meeting, Kelsey decided to make the civic center project the subject of his senior thesis.
Kelsey had heard that they had been working with Martha, but that the board was willing to sit down and talk about the project. In addition to reducing the price tag to a maximum of $4.9 million, the Board also needed to consider site location. Would the new center be east of town, on land available adjacent to Bovard Studio? Or would it be west of town, on land that the Fair Board was willing to donate? Or would the best option be remodeling the old Armory building?
Kelsey thought he could be a significant help. He would work full time on the project, for no charge, since this would be his student senior thesis.
Kelsey Mullen (top right, with his family) did his senior thesis on the civic center project.
The meeting with Kelsey was reported to the entire board. Again, the board was at a crossroads. Martha had wholeheartedly given her time to the project as a labor of love, but the board recognized that hiring her successful Chicago-based firm would further increase their costs. They also saw that Kelsey’s offer was exactly what they needed—and his work would come to them with a zero price tag. Martha had launched them into the domain of architectural considerations; now, the board realized, they needed to branch out on their own, accept Kelsey’s offer, and express both their deep thanks and deep regrets to Martha. It was a trying moment for all.
Kelsey’s senior project turned out to be an experiment in design and placement, but not necessarily the right design for Fairfield or for the project. However, it got Kelsey thinking about the design, and it would be a whole year before they started getting serious about hiring Kelsey to work with them full time.
During that year, after graduation, Kelsey went to work with Architectural Workshop, an innovative architectural firm in Denver. He got some good experience under his belt. The board continued their explorations as well, sending out delegations to other towns, looking for ways to make the project happen.
The critical element that now needed to be addressed was financing. In February 1999, the board met with Gary Vance, a second-generation professional fundraiser out of Panora, Iowa. He had gotten to know Fairfield very well when he helped fund raise for the beautiful new Fairfield Public Library. He proposed a pre-campaign feasibility study to determine if the civic center project was suitable for the community and if it would be supported.
The feasibility study was a breakpoint. If the study returned a positive response from the community, the board would feel empowered to move forward. However, if it showed insufficient support, then it was, quite simply, the end of the line.