The Corner Store
Modest but enduring, the KC has been a center of commerce and conviviality since 1840.
It was once a drug store that doubled as the Gambier post office. Generations of Kenyon alumni and faculty families remember it as the corner grocery store run by Jim Hayes. Today's students know it as the Middle Ground café, where conversation flows along with the latte and spicy mung-bean soup.
Nobody seems to know exactly how the cozy-looking storefront-cum-house on the corner of Wiggin Street and Gaskin Avenue came to be called "the KC." But that has been the more-or-less official name of this unprepossessing structure since 1976. And although modest compared to the stone halls across the way, it has an impressive historical pedigree.
The KC is, in fact, one of Gambier's most enduring buildings. Built in 1840, it is the oldest frame structure owned by the College and second oldest building of original construction, after Bexley Hall. Old Kenyon and Rosse Hall may have longer histories, but the originals of both buildings were lost to fire. As for those campus stalwarts, Ascension Hall and the Church of the Holy Spirit, neither building existed in 1840. Nor did Middle Path, or the College gates.
In a sense, the KC owes its existence to Bishop Philander Chase's original vision for Gambier. The founder's first design for the collegiate village included a large central boulevard that would run through the middle of the campus and would be broken by several squares. Anticipating the opportunities presented by this broad thoroughfare, Baldwin Norton of the Kenyon (as opposed to Bexley seminary) Class of 1840 built a new store on the northeast corner of Wiggin Street and Gaskin Avenue. He had previously operated a store on the south side of Wiggin Street, opposite where the Kenyon Inn now stands.
By the 1860s, the store was under the proprietorship of Sabin R. Doolittle and was one of several local establishments providing non-perishable groceries, hardware, and miscellaneous items to the village and College. The earliest stories of a restaurant in the building date from this time period, when it was reported to provide "ice cream and varieties."
Doolittle's tenure in the KC building was short--he sold the building to B. Harnwell in 1869 and built a new storefront two doors north on Gaskin Avenue, on the site of the current Village Inn. The Doolittle family, operating from that location, would remain a trusted name in the Gambier grocery world well into the twentieth century.
Following Harnwell as shopkeeper in the building was Henry Wright, son of Robert Wright, a prominent Gambier carpenter and builder. The elder Wright constructed many homes in Gambier, including "Clifford Place" or the Neff House, the current home of the dean of students. Shopkeeper Henry was also recorded to have one of the first automobiles in Gambier, a "roaring red monster" that terrorized the horses of the village as it "flashed by at probably twenty or twenty-five miles per hour."
Following the death of Wright, the building was purchased by James Townsend Russell, a Bexley graduate with an entrepreneurial vision for Gambier. He imagined that the store could become the cornerstone property in a renovated and rebuilt Gambier shopping district.
The vision, alas, went nowhere. Russell was unable to generate support from other local merchants or convince them to sell their property to him. After a period during which he rented the store to others, he abandoned his plans and sold the building.
Beginning around 1913, under the proprietorship of a Mr. Jackson (records do not mention a first name), the store shifted focus, becoming the local drug store and catering primarily to Kenyon students. When Jackson was appointed postmaster of Gambier, the village post office moved into the building. (It had previously been on the southeast corner of East Brooklyn Street and Gaskin Avenue.) The store was divided in two: postal services and materials to the west, drug-store merchandise to the east. The post office remained in the building until the construction of the current village post office in 1941.
Then came the era of Jim Hayes. In 1937, coinciding with the arrival of Kenyon's thirteenth president, Gordon Keith Chalmers, Hayes set up a grocery business in the KC. Chalmers had the college buy the property and then rented it to Hayes, despite the fact that there were two other groceries in town.
Hayes opened the store with $500 in cash and a cigar box for a cash register. He would go on to become a Gambier institution, a shopkeeper known by students and village residents alike. Following a fire at the Doolittle store in 1947, Hayes purchased the lot of the destroyed building, where he built the Village Inn as well as the adjoining home to the north, where he made his residence.
In 1966, Kenyon built Farr Hall, which included space not only for the bookstore but also for a new, modern grocery store. Hayes moved his establishment out of the KC building and into the new space. The College, as landlord, encouraged the name "Village Market" instead of Hayes Grocery Store. But, as testament to the loyalty and affections of local residents, who missed the name "Hayes" on the store, the words "James Hayes, Prop." were added to the Village Market sign out front.
Hayes retired in 1974, after thirty-seven years of providing grocery service to Gambier. He continued to live in his home on Gaskin Avenue until his death in 1997.
Following the departure of Hayes Grocery Store, the KC building retired from commercial service for the first time in more than 125 years. Little is known about its use in the years immediately following Hayes's move, although some College officials wanted to have it demolished.
But in 1974, it was reborn as the Kenyon Student Center, a general meeting space for students and a social facility on weekends. It was at this time that the building was expanded by joining the interior to the attached residence (known as the Baker House, which had been added on in the mid-twentieth century). A stage was built in the old store space for student performances. The Collegian reported, "The quiet, relaxed atmosphere was remarked on by many . . . as being a pleasant alternative to the inebriated boisterousness of fraternity parties."
On April 2, 1976, the Kenyon Student Center officially became the "KC." The name appears to have been chosen by the students operating the facility, although records don't say how the choice was made or who precisely made it.
In any event, it continued to be used primarily as a student-activity space through the 1980s and into the early 1990s. The building's dilapidated condition produced new calls for its demolition, but Kenyon officials opted instead for renovation. In 1984, the College installed a new roof, siding, and insulation. Parents and alumni came to know the building as a registration site and welcome center for events such as Family Weekend and Reunion.
Coffee entered the picture in the mid-1990s. In the spring of 1995, a subcommittee of the Campus Senate called the Campus Coffeehouse Committee recommended establishing a coffeehouse in the KC. In the fall, Kris Marcey (the wife of biology professor David Marcey) was selected as the vendor to provide service in the facility, under the name Red Door Café. The building officially emerged from its retirement as a commercial enterprise in early 1996, bringing cappuccino--and giant chocolate-chip cookies for a dollar each--to Kenyon.
(To provide some historical context: In 1996, Starbucks turned twenty-five years old, grew to more than a thousand outlets, and opened in Arizona, Idaho, North Carolina, Rhode Island, and Utah, as well as Ontario, Canada, and Singapore. So, Gambier got its first permanent coffeehouse the same year Idaho got a Starbucks.)
The Marceys left Kenyon in 1999, and Jennifer Johnson took over management of the café. In 2003, the College solicited proposals for a new business to move into a renovated and expanded facility to replace the Red Door Café. That spring, Kenyon awarded a lease to Jason Adelman, together with the husband-and-wife team of Joel Gunderson and Margaret Lewis, to open the coffee house and bistro Middle Ground.
The renovated facility opened for business in the fall of 2003, boasting expanded kitchen facilities, more seating, and a bigger menu. A restored glass storefront, meanwhile, gave the building its old face, in keeping with its old--and often renewed--identity as a place for food and commerce, for coming and going, for trading news, and for meeting friends.
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