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Nunemaker Place: Home of the Honors Program

 

Current home to the Honors program and its 130 Westminster College students, Nunemaker Place was constructed in 1977 as a space for quiet meditation and the hosting of cultural events. Built for $300,000, the structure was unique enough to be named a winner in a design contest administered that year by the Western Mountain Regional Conference of Architects. In 2002, the Utah chapter of the American Institute of Architects gave the building an award for structures that are older than a quarter century and still significant architecturally. Over the years Nunemaker has hosted weddings, held small classes, provided the setting for poetry readings, and served as an intimate space for chamber concerts, given the building’s excellent acoustics.   The 2,700 square foot building was made possible by a gift from Irene Nunemaker, a longtime executive with Avon cosmetics, who originally hailed from Kansas but lived for a time in Salt Lake City. A devoted Presbyterian, Nunemaker was connected to Westminster, a former Presbyterian mission school, through college trustee Rev. A. Walton Roth, also a Kansas native. Known also for her interest in the cultural and artistic scenes, and philanthropic work, Miss Nunemaker provided funds for similar buildings at a number of college campuses across the country, including the Honors building at the University of Kansas, which is named Nunemaker Center.

Carole Chapel, currently located on Washburn University’s campus in Topeka, was originally named Irene Nunemaker Chapel in honor of her generous gift that funded the initial construction. The chapel’s use at Washburn resembles that of both Nunemaker Place and Nunemaker Center: a meeting place for student and campus organizations, lectures, seminars, and special events. Irene Nunemaker’s donations have also funded a youth camp for developmentally disabled youth in New York, as well as many buildings in Kansas, including nursing homes, a YWCA building to aid battered women, and the Nunemaker Dance Studio at the Topeka Performing Arts Center. Two Irene Nunemaker Scholarships of Excellence are given in her honor by the Topeka Community Foundation to deserving high school students. Nunemaker’s prowess in business and history of generous donations to community causes earned her respect and recognition throughout her life, including the 1986 Kansan of the Year award. In 1977, she was awarded an honorary doctorate of Humanities from Westminster College. Irene Nunemaker died on July 5, 1996.

The building at Westminster College was designed by Salt Lake City architects Martin Brixen and James Christopher, who first took Irene Nunemaker on a tour of buildings they had recently constructed at the Snowbird ski area in Little Cottonwood Canyon. Visitors familiar with those Snowbird structures will immediately recognize some similarities in the approach to design that was very characteristic of the 1970s: a heavy use of concrete, experimental use of indirect and natural lighting—especially through large windows—horizontal cedar on the walls, and a deconstruction of space through non-traditional angled walls and facades. Nunemaker Place was built by Culp Construction, which employed Weber River bottom rock and Geneva concrete to create the unique exposed aggregate that makes up the walls of the building. Richard “Goose” Curtis, superintendent on the construction project, was not surprised to learn that some believe the structure is haunted, for he remarked that “Mrs. Nunemaker watches over her buildings.”

Outlining Irene Nunemaker’s sole requirement for the construction of the building, Salt Lake City architect James Christopher told the Salt Lake Tribune in 2003, “She wanted a space that could be used for any number of things, including just to ‘be’ in. She wanted the building to provide a sense of quiet and reflection and contemplation.” The philanthropist’s vision for the space has been fulfilled as the Honors program has made the building its home since the summer of 2004, with students lounging, studying, reading, and engaging in discussions of their latest challenging Honors texts.