The Harris Fine Arts Center: A legacy that won’t be forgotten

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The A Cappella Choir practices in the Madsen Recital Hall under the direction of Dr. Ralph Woodward. BYU choirs still practice in the same room today. (Photo courtesy of BYU Special Collections)

Art in everything

The fine arts can be found in every corner of Brigham Young University. Hymns precede the weekly devotionals. Sporting events are filled with fans singing the Cougar Fight Song after every BYU touchdown. Art lines the halls of campus buildings. While the fine arts can be found everywhere on the BYU grounds, the Harris Fine Arts Center has served as the heart for fine arts for more than half a century. 

In 1925 BYU established the first college of fine arts west of the Mississippi, cementing its dedication to the study of the arts. However, it wasn’t until 1964 that the arts had a dedicated home on the campus of BYU. 

At the time of its construction, the Harris Fine Arts Center was the largest building on campus, with five performance spaces, two art galleries, and many classrooms and practice rooms. The building today hosts more than 300 performances and exhibitions every year. 

The Ballroom Dance Company performs a piece entitled “Fall on Me.” BYU’s “World of Dance” had its last performance at the de Jong Concert Hall Sept. 17. (Savannah Hsu)

A dedicated place

When Newell Dayley came to BYU in the 1960s, plans for the Harris Fine Arts Center had been approved, but the building had not yet been constructed. A fine arts major himself, Dayley said that while the faculty members for the fine arts programs were great, the facilities were less than desirable. The Harris Fine Arts Center was a huge step up, as it provided a centralized space at the center of campus for its students. 

Dayley remembers playing in a brass quintet for the groundbreaking for the building in 1962. After graduating, he returned to BYU in 1968 as a professor, where he spent many years in various positions in the college. He served as chair of the music department, associate dean and then dean of the college. 

The Bent F. Larsen Gallery, as photographed in 1965. The center of the building serves as the foyer for the building’s theaters. (Photo courtesy of BYU Special Collections)

Cherished memories

Like Dayley, many students and faculty have spent countless hours within the Harris Fine Arts Center, and the building has become the home of many cherished memories.

One memory shared by many past faculty were Christmas concerts in the foyer of the building. Mark Ammons, assistant director of the School of Music, started his freshman year at BYU in 1979. He remembers those concerts fondly. 

“At Christmas time, they’d have a big kind of a musical extravaganza where they’d have a choir on one end, an orchestra or band in the middle and small groups on the other end,” he said. “It was all Christmas music for an hour and then right at the end, they’d all do the ‘Hallelujah Chorus.’” 

Ammons said everyone from the community was invited, and hundreds of people would line the railings of the third, fourth and fifth floors to enjoy the music.

While it was hard to pick one specific memory, the performances in general stuck out to Ed Adams, dean of the College of Fine Arts and Communications. 

“I have just loved sitting in the audience of any number of productions and performances,” Adams said. “Every time I do that, I just get this feeling that I have to do more for this college when I see the talent and feel the spirit in these performance areas.” 

Students walk past the Harris Fine Arts Center. The building will be torn down after the Fall 2022 semester. (Kaelin Hagen)

Growth and change

Apart from some minor modifications, the building is exactly the same as it was when it was constructed. However, the ways in which the building is used have changed. 

Programs have come and gone from the building over the past 57 years. At the beginning of its life the building housed not only the fine arts classes, but also speech, audiology, communications and KBYU. Throughout the years those programs moved on to other buildings, while other programs such as media arts, design and animation were added. Design has since become the largest program in the building. 

Adams has been involved with the Harris Fine Arts Center since his time as a student at BYU and has seen these changes take place firsthand.

“Through the period of 60 years, we’ve evolved considerably into other programs that have greater demand and different kinds of facility needs,” Adams said. 

The Harris Fine Arts Center originally had approximately 35 faculty members and 150 students; Adams said the total has grown closer to 100 faculty members and 1,600 students.

The Mormon Arts Ball was held in the Harris Fine Arts Center in 1974. Performances from various acts took place before the dance. (Photo courtesy of BYU Special Collections)

Challenges 

The building has not been without problems; Dayley said he remembers that while the HFAC was in the process of construction, the budget was cut by a significant percentage. This led to difficulties that faculty and students had to deal with for years. 

Dayley said practice rooms were too small and difficult to train in and offices had to be turned into additional organ studios. As the building got older the plumbing started to decay, and because it was housed in concrete it was difficult to fix. He said it was a continual challenge to keep the building up and running. 

The programs had also expanded so drastically that it was hard to keep up. Scott Boyter worked for the college for over 45 years as a business manager, accountant, assistant dean and financial controller for the college. He said although the building was designed with an expectation for growth, the programs grew far more than the designers had anticipated. 

“Within a short period of time they started needing more space. For instance, up on the hill there is the bell tower. Well, along that road were a number of homes that were actually residences that BYU bought and made available for students and faculty,” Boyter said. 

He said the art program, along with some music classes, expanded into those homes for a period of time due to the lack of space. 

BYU Men’s Chorus warms up before a recording session in the Madsen Recital Hall. The choir will soon be rehearsing in the new School of Music building. (Kaelin Hagen)

Legacy

Despite any challenges that the building presented, it won’t be remembered for its problems.

On Dec. 3, 2022, the final scheduled performance will be held in the Harris Fine Arts Center. For one last time the crowds will fill the gallery of the building, lining up to enter the de Jong Concert Hall. The final songs will be performed, and students will take a bow one last time before the walls of the building come down. Although the Harris Fine Arts Center will soon be a distant memory, its legacy and what it stood for will live on.

While the building has been able to provide a space to showcase talents and creativity, the heart has always been the students.

“It’s not the building itself; The faculty over the years and the many students over the years have created a beacon of excellence,” said Kory Katseanes, director of orchestras for the School of Music. 

The Harris Fine Arts Center is shown under construction in 1963. The building was constructed in the form of an “H”, with the central gallery connecting the its theaters. (Photo courtesy of BYU Special Collections)

Ammons had similar feelings; he said that the arts have been an active part of the gathering of Israel at BYU.

“I think that the Harris Fine Arts Center has been truly a center of not only art but also of light on campus, and it’s something that we will carry for certain to the new building in the School of Music,” Ammons said. 

Ammons said that he understands why some people are emotional about saying goodbye to the building; many people have made wonderful memories during their time as a student there, and it’s hard to leave that place behind. Ammons himself met his wife in the building. But with the building’s closure imminent, he said he doesn’t feel too sad to see it go.

“I know that it has served its purpose well, but it also is tired,” he said. “There’s not much that can be done. They have done everything they can do to try to limp it along for a long time.”

The opinion of Katseanes was similar. He said that saying goodbye to the HFAC was similar to the passing of a loved one. 

“It’s sort of like going to the funeral of your grandparents. You love them, you’re grateful for them, and you’re glad you knew them,” he said. “This building was truly spectacular and exceptional for the year it was built.” 

The School of Music is expected to move into its new building at the start of the 2023 Winter semester. The department of art is currently housed at West Campus and will remain there until the completion of the new arts building, set to be built where the Harris Fine Arts Center now stands. 

The de Jong Concert Hall stage is lit blue. The hall has been used for a variety of shows and performances. (Kaelin Hagen)
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