Renewing an Icon: Berry College’s Ford Auditorium

Berry College is renowned for the beauty of its expansive Northwest Georgia campus, at 27,000 acres the world's largest, but one spot holds particular allure for students and alumni with a love of music--Ford Auditorium.

For more than 90 years, this beautiful English Gothic structure-distinguished by its exterior stonework, soaring spire, and clock tower, as well as the Bible verses and woodcarvings that adorn its interior-has been the centerpiece of music education and performance on the Berry campus.

A Centerpiece of Music Education

Now work is underway that will transform the facility into a first-class recital hall combining modern acoustics with restored historic touches that will continue to awe and inspire, just as they have since the earliest days of the school.

“Our students deserve a venue that inspires their instrumental and vocal performances and enriches the experience for the listening audience,” said Berry President Steve Briggs. “This renovation achieves that goal while renewing and celebrating the features that make this such a memorable and venerable place.”

All of this would be music to the ears of the man responsible for first breathing life into the Ford Buildings in the 1920s-Henry Ford himself. Ford and his wife, Clara, were among the many noted philanthropists of their day who were captivated by Martha Berry’s vision of combining intellectual and practical skills to powerful effect in the lives of her students by offering a distinctive “head, heart and hands” education that molded graduates known for their work ethic, integrity, resourcefulness, and willingness to serve.

Champions of the School

The Fords became early champions of the school, and nearly a century later, the Ford Buildings are both a testament to their generosity and Berry’s most recognizable landmark, recently earning placement on USA Today’s list of America’s “51 most amazing college and university buildings.”

“When I came here in 1956, I was really taken aback at this gorgeous place,” recalled Ross Magoulas, a former faculty member and honorary alumnus who returns to Berry regularly to direct the school’s alumni choir. “I couldn’t imagine that I was going to be working here and living here. It’s just fantastic, all these beautiful buildings.”

The Science of Acoustics

While its beauty continues to inspire, advances in the science of acoustics have exposed challenges presented by the facility’s highly arched ceiling and open structure. This diminishes the experience for all and-in some cases-forces vocalists, instrumentalists, and small ensembles to seek out other venues on campus. In addition, the current stage is too small for large instrumental ensembles, further limiting programming potential.

Recognizing these issues, college officials reached out to Kirkegaard Associates of Chicago, one of the nation’s foremost acoustics consulting firms, to develop a plan for renewal. Highlights of this work will include installation of an all-wood ceiling, wood-carved acoustical paneling, adjustable acoustical banners, and sound reflectors; a 1,086 square-foot accessible stage with curved front; a new arched seating configuration with room for 366; a redesigned balcony with improved sightlines; and many other enhancements, including updates to adjacent music department spaces.

A ceremonial “swinging of the sledgehammer” earlier this spring signified that the curtain was rising on the $6.3 million project, funded with gifts from more than 400 alumni and friends. These donors, Briggs noted, “have banded together, each playing a part like the members of an orchestra, to accomplish something beautiful that transcends their separate contributions.”

Gifts that Honor Student Expression

Fittingly, some of the most significant gifts have honored alumnae whose lives found expression through their experiences as students in Ford Auditorium and the surrounding Ford Buildings. Those women will now be forever associated with the project through the naming of the Betty Anne Rouse Bell Recital Hall, the Margaret Weaver Faison Entrance Hall and the Ouida Word Dickey Living Room (located in the Berry Alumni Center, which is also housed in the Ford Complex).

Also notable is the M. Bobbie Bailey Performance Stage, named in memory of a generous Berry friend and longtime champion of the was christened Sisters Theatre in recognition of the bonds of love and family the two women shared.

“Great spaces inspire great performances,” said Dr. Adam Hayes, chair of Berry’s fine arts program and a talented trumpeter in his own right. “And that’s our goal with this renovation.”

Music making has long thrived on the Berry campus. The college’s music program engages as many as 200 students annually-more than 10% of the undergraduate population-in its 17 performance ensembles. Many others attend the more than 50 concerts and recitals held each year on the Ford stage.

Balancing Sounds and Maintaining Timing

The facility also provides rehearsal and performance space for the Georgia Governor’s Honors Program-a summer residential experience for more than 600 of the state’s brightest and most artistically talented high school juniors and seniors-and supports public music education by hosting other statewide events.

Once work is completed in early 2020, performers who grace the Ford stage will be able to hear themselves and each other more clearly, arts whose sister, Audrey Morgan, spearheaded earlier efforts to revive Berry’s dramatic arts facilities. When completed in 2017, the building enabling them to balance sounds, maintain timing, and work as a cohesive whole to deliver higherquality performances.

Just as importantly, the facility will enhance the cultural life of the campus and surrounding communities by providing an improved audience experience and allowing for a wider range of guest artists. Leif Atchley, a

2019 Berry graduate bound for the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, is excited to see his alma mater make such a lasting investment in its students and the arts. “I think this is a really powerful statement” he said, “that Berry believes in the power of music to change the lives of the students who come here.”

Visit for more information on the project.


About the Author
Rick Woodall is director of philanthropic communications at Berry College, his professional home since 2004. He also serves as editor of Berry magazine. The 1993 Berry graduate and former sports writer has worked in the field of higher education communications since 2001.