A Welcome Addition: Beloit College’s ‘Brilliant’ Powerhouse

The school’s bold step of transforming a power plant into a student union and athletic center is quickly proving its value.

A field house built onto Beloit College’s Powerhouse has an artificial turf field that’s ready for athletic competition.

A morning run can really clear your head. For Scott Bierman, a morning run sparked a true inspiration.

Bierman was in his early days as Beloit College’s president when he jogged past a decommissioned electrical generating station on Pleasant Street, just off the Beloit campus.

“I went past the Blackhawk Power Station and I thought, ‘My gosh, I wonder if this could be used for a recreation center,’ which the college desperately needed,” Bierman says. “I brought the idea back to the community and there was some enthusiasm about it. So, I tasked a group of students, faculty and staff with exploring the idea of converting the power station to a rec center.”

A couple of months later, the group reported back with a bigger idea: create not just a recreation center but also a student union in the building.

“That’s when the real brilliance of all this came to life,” Bierman says.

That “brilliance” became the Powerhouse, a unique facility that’s become the focal point of Beloit College’s campus. The 120,000-square-foot structure, located on the Rock River near downtown Beloit, now features a fitness center, a gym, an indoor artificial turf fieldhouse, a running track and an eight-lane competition swimming pool. The facility also has a coffee shop, student lounges, club rooms, a conference center and a 164-seat auditorium.

“The reason why this building is world-class is because it integrates the student union with the recreation center,” says Bierman. “That’s what gives it power to draw people multiple times a day. It’s the physical centerpiece of students’ lives, and that’s an important part of what I wanted to see to determine the success of the building.”

Prior to the Powerhouse’s opening last year, there was a great need for an updated recreation center and student union.

Previously, student recreation space included Flood Arena, which had basketball and volleyball courts. That facility still exists and serves those two sports. The pool, however, has been decommissioned.

The Quonset Hut, which was built in the 1940s and served as a temporary hangar during World War II, once served as the college’s field house, but it’s since been decommissioned, as well.

Until last year, the student union was housed in Pearsons Hall, a structure originally built for science education that had since become a hodgepodge of offices and meeting rooms.

“It never served as a good student union,” Bierman says. “We really dramatically changed the quality of those spaces.”

The Powerhouse was built in 1913 as a coal-fired, steam turbine electrical generating station. It was expanded in 1927 and again in 1940, but it was formally decommissioned in 2010. That’s when the 10-year transformation began.

“There were two components to that change,” Bierman says. “One was making sure that the building was a safe place to work, live and, of course, breathe in. The second component was removing a ton of equipment in the building. And throughout all this, we were expertly guided by Studio Gang, the architectural firm.”

Studio Gang, led by Belvidere native Jeanne Gang, brought together the final vision.

“Jeanne Gang committed herself to making sure this was one of her signature projects,” Bierman says. “We couldn’t be more pleased with how this turned out. She really accomplished this glorious objective that we set, and it was not easy. It required all of the brilliance and skill she had, and, boy, she brought her ‘A’ game.”

The Powerhouse formally opened in February 2020, but a month later the COVID-19 pandemic forced the college to send all of its students home to study remotely.

When the campus reopened for the next school year, college leaders were still cautious about bringing the Powerhouse online.

“We wanted to make sure students were safe and that we minimized the effect of any possible infection,” Bierman says. “So, it was only open to students and staff who worked in the building.”

The college instituted a policy that limited visits to guests of students, faculty and staff.

That policy is still in place, but it hasn’t hindered the use of the college’s crown jewel.

“The building has been alive with on-campus activity,” Bierman says. “It’s rare that a student is not going over there once, twice, three times daily. There’s a lot of activity, but the building is very large and we look forward to the day in the not-too-distant future that we can really open things up to the broader community more regularly than we are.”

Opening the Powerhouse to the community at large has always been part of the plan. How that will look post-pandemic is still being discussed.

“We don’t have all of the details in place yet,” Bierman says. “Members of the community will be asked to sign in at the front desk. Then, depending on how they intend to use the building, that will determine what access they will have.”

For example, the fitness center is reserved for students, faculty and staff first, before openings are available to others. For now, Bierman and his staff want to understand how that equipment will be used before opening it up to the public.

“It will start with faculty, staff and their families,” he says. “Then, we’ll see how much capacity is left after that.”

The fieldhouse portion of the building includes an artificial turf field. “We’re still in the process of understanding the best use of that space,” Bierman says.

The three-lane track is designed for walking or running, and there are no plans for it to be a competitive track. The only part of the Powerhouse designed for serious intercollegiate competition is the pool, which already has hosted college and middle school swim meets.

As for the social aspect of the Powerhouse?

“You can see the Rock River from almost anywhere in the building,” Bierman says. “There’s an open-air deck a story above the river. It’s a beautiful place to sit and spend a morning. I’ve had a large number of my meetings on the deck.”

And the other positive aspect of the Powerhouse is its convenience for students. The school built a walking bridge over Pleasant Street, connecting the Powerhouse to the part of campus closest to the residential halls.

“Students can pretty much roll out of bed and in a few short yards go right from the dorm to the Powerhouse and be right on the river,” Bierman says. “The fact we’re able to conceive this all from an old power station is a testimony to the way creative imagination really blooms when the opportunity exists to think outside the box … or, in this case, outside the Powerhouse.”