You ever seen a building that’s been named after someone? Of course you have. We all have.
It could be a business building, or an old house, or even a laundromat. There are all kinds of buildings across the United States that have been named after someone. I don’t know about you, but the first question that I usually ask myself is, “Who the hell was that?” But that’s not really what we want to know, is it?
No, what we want to know is – why? Why is this building named after someone? And even more importantly than that, what did they do to make someone pick their name to slap on a bronze plaque on the side of a brand-new building?
Let’s look at one and see if we can’t figure it out.
Warren M. Lee was born just north of Corning, Iowa, at a place called Mt. Etna. It was 1908, and the century was young. Warren was a medium built, dark-haired young man who wore glasses. He attended Corning High School, where he was generally well-liked. While Warren did very well academically, he always had a keen interest in one area more than any other – the dramatic arts.
Lee loved everything about the theatre. He loved acting, true, but he had a greater love for writing. Luckily for him, there were other young people in the Corning area who also loved the theatre. They bonded together over their common interests, and formed the Greenlee Players, a playacting group that that wrote their own original plays and then acted them out on various stages throughout the region, including the Corning Opera House.
Warren’s plays had a lot of thought put into them. They were skillfully written and entertaining to his audiences on many different levels. The third play that he wrote for the Corning stage, “Wife-Husband,” was very well received. It showcased his potential, and seemed that great promise could come from this young Iowa man.
After being involved so much with the fine arts through his high school years, Warren decided to dedicate his life to them and enrolled in classes at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, Iowa. Eventually, he earned his bachelors, masters, and doctorate in fine arts there. Throughout that time, Warren continued to write plays and act. Warren was even a part of a dramatic group that broadcasted twice a week on WSUI Radio, a public broadcasting station based in Iowa City.
After his graduation, he moved to Minneapolis, where he took a job at the University of Minnesota. After a few years, it was time for him to move on. Warren had two choices at that time – either take a job in Topeka, Kansas, or move to South Dakota and work at the University of South Dakota. After some deliberation, he chose the latter.
In 1938, he settled down to a comfortable life in Vermillion, South Dakota, the home of the University of South Dakota. Warren did well in his job, and was successfully teaching the subject that he had always been most passionate about.
But over the next few years, an idea began to take root in Warren’s mind.
The Black Hills Playhouse
South Dakota was a very rural place, just as much or more than where he had grown up in southwest Iowa. Warren understood the value of entertainment to someone living in the country. He also understood that weather conditions and bad roads could prevent rural folk from travelling too far away from the farm.
What he proposed was a rural playhouse that could service the needs of people who lived in the country. This would also give theatrical students and professional actors a place to both work and hone their craft. Warren’s theatre would provide an outlet for top notch entertainment, not cut-rate garbage. He wanted to give rural South Dakota a slice of the best.
In 1946, Warren founded the Black Hills Playhouse, a theatre company consisting of several college students. He took his family, along with some fellow actors and several stage pieces to a place near Custer State Park in the Black Hills of South Dakota. They moved into some abandoned Civilian Conservation Corps buildings and began to host their plays there. Although they have had their struggles along the way, the Black Hills Playhouse is still entertaining the public today.
The Center for Fine Arts
Warren continued to write his own plays and teach at the University of South Dakota. He devoted his life to academia and the fine arts. In 1951, his lifelong efforts were rewarded and Warren became the Dean of Fine Arts at the university. He held the position until 1968, around seventeen years. When the university built their new fine arts building, they named it after him to honor all his accomplishments in the field.
Warren died in 1978, and a memorial service was held in his memory in Theatre 1 of the Warren M. Lee Center for Fine Arts. The center is still a hub of education and entertainment on the campus of the university today.
So, if you’re ever on the campus of the University of South Dakota, and you happen to drive past the Warren M. Lee Center for Fine Arts, you don’t have to wonder who that is anymore. You’ll already know that it was named after an Iowan with a passion for the theatre.
Maybe you don’t have to do something great and lasting like Warren M. Lee to get your name on a building. I highly doubt that’s what he was looking to do when he was writing plays in Corning. Maybe you just have to follow your dreams, work hard, and seize opportunity as it presents itself.
“Black Hills Playhouse founder dies.” Argus-Leader, 10/15/1978
Adams County Free Press, 12/7/1933
“Greenlee Players present Lee’s “Wife-Husband.” Adams County Free Press, 8/15/1929
Adams County Free Press, 6/18/1931
“Black Hills Playhouse Celebrates 70th Anniversary.” www.rapidcityjournal.com