Nishinomiya, Hyogo Pref. – A campus tour of Kobe College has drawn many visitors to the private women’s college in recent years. But rather than prospective students, most are architectural buffs wishing to see the campus’ Spanish mission-style buildings designed by American missionary and architect William Merrell Vories (1880-1964).
An hourlong tour, led by student guides and offered several times a year, takes participants around the campus in Nishinomiya, Hyogo Prefecture, where 12 buildings designed by Vories and completed in the 1930s were designated national important cultural properties by the government in 2014.
At a recent tour on a Saturday in late March, the guides led a group of 60 through the Vories landmarks while explaining the architectural details.
The Main Library, for example, is among several key buildings that form a cluster surrounding a garden with a fountain. Inside, light flows in through large arched windows, illuminating brightly colored arabesque patterns of blue and pink on the ceiling beams. The desks, chairs and desk lamps still in use are original furniture from when the library was built.
At the Searle Chapel, which stands amid a grove of trees, stained glass featuring an image of seven candles provided a spectacular sight. Impressed by Vories’ detailed designs, tour participants took photographs of such things as the chapel’s decorative doorknobs.
At the Literature Building, the student guides told participants an anecdote about the peacock decorating the entrance window. The original ornament was made of metal but it was dismantled during World War II in response to the government’s drive to collect metal for military use. College staff then reproduced the ornament by carving it out of plywood.
Vories arrived in Japan from the United States in 1905 as an English language teacher at age 24 and also engaged in Christian missionary work. He is known for the emphasis on practicality in his architecture designs. For example, the joints where floors and walls meet are slightly curved — a feature to minimize the gathering of dust and to make it easier to clean.
“One can feel his careful consideration and attention to detail” when designing the buildings, said student guide Yuki Shigematsu, a senior at the college’s School of Human Sciences.
The architectural tour in late March was the 20th since mid-2014 when the Vories-designed buildings were designated national cultural properties. The school has been inundated with interest, with tours on weekends and national holidays often fully booked two to three months in advance.
The schedule for tours during the current school year that began in April is available on the college’s website.
Many of the participants are experts in architecture, or are Kobe College alumnae. “I learn a lot from the participants, too,” Shigematsu said.
Yoshiko Tobukuro, a 72-year-old participant from Otsu, Shiga Prefecture, appeared fascinated by what she saw.
“I was moved by the beauty of the buildings,” Tobukuro said. “Japanese people have a tendency to always want to demolish old structures to make way for new ones, but I hope movements to preserve historic architecture, like they do in Britain, will spread here.”
Vories became a naturalized Japanese citizen in 1941 and took his wife Makiko Hitotsuyanagi’s family name. He never left Japan, even during World War II.
Over the years, he designed some 1,500 structures in Japan. Among those still standing are the famous Hilltop Hotel in Tokyo, a favorite lodging place among big-name novelists such as Yasunari Kawabata, and the Clock Tower at Kwansei Gakuin University in Nishinomiya.
However, some of his works, such as the main building of the Daimaru department store’s Shinsaibashi branch in Osaka, have been torn down due to deterioration, quake-resistance issues and other structural concerns.
In 2011 in the city of Fukushima — much to the regret of scholars and church members — the century-old Fukushima Church of the United Church of Christ in Japan was demolished due to damage caused by the March 11, 2011, earthquake that devastated the northeast of the country.
But the former school building of Toyosato Elementary School in Toyosato, Shiga Prefecture, was saved from demolition after residents campaigned for its preservation. Similarly, the Komai Residence, a Western-style private house in Kyoto designed by Vories and constructed in 1927, is now open to the public after maintenance conducted by the Japan National Trust.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.