Principia’s Mistake House

Set on the bluffs above the historic village of Elsah, Illinois, Principia College overlooks the “muddy Mississippi” River and the delta farmlands of southeastern Missouri. Principia’s original campus buildings were designed by famous Arts & Crafts architect Bernard Maybeck (1862-1957), with work beginning on campus buildings in 1923. The Maybeck “houses,” i.e., dorms, reflect the charm of an English country village and highlight the natural beauty of Elsah’s wooded surroundings. Maybeck believed that “the college buildings should be so spiritual that the students without knowing it get the qualities which…make leaders.” Through expertise in his craft, Maybeck succeeded in capturing the essence of process and thoughtful experimentation, both of which are conducive to moral and intellectual growth.

The Mistake House, our journal’s namesake, is a petite building that Maybeck constructed in order to sample various architectural techniques and materials he would use in later constructions throughout the campus. The north side of the Mistake House roof faces the campus interior and features poured concrete that simulates thatch. The terra-cotta tiled southern slope faces the highest point on the Principia College property where the Chapel designed by Maybeck overlooks the College green—a large field of lush grass bordered on the west by the limestone bluffs, a place where students enjoy an unhindered view of the sun setting over the Mississippi River. Faced with such a stunning view, one finds inspiration and stillness in an otherwise busy schedule.

The process-oriented, exploratory craftsmanship of Maybeck’s architecture reflects Principia founder Mary Kimball Morgan’s dedication to “handwrought education” and individualized learning. Morgan’s vision established an atmosphere in which students and faculty collaborate as they explore the nature of analytic thought and creative process.

On campus programs such as Creative Writing, Studio Art, Dance, Theater, the Mediation Team, Solar Car Project, Global Perspectives and Sustainability minors, and the Public Affairs and Pan-African Conferences offer students hands-on opportunities to develop techniques, learn innovation, and discover their own sense of meaning and views of the creative process in the context of world issues.  Similarly, Principia’s abroad programs allow students to broaden their perspectives of the world and immerse themselves in cultures new to them while studying languages and a range of academic subjects. Principia’s close-knit community, whether on campus or abroad, teaches the value of collaboration, resulting in memorable experiences and life-long friendships, all of which find their homes in the collage of architectural and natural beauty that constitute the Principia College campus.

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