Whitwam: The man who made the iconic tipis and more

KELOLAND.com Original

A tipi or pole lodge is included at the Valley Spring Welcome Center for the South Dakota Department of Transportation. Photo courtesy of the S.D. DOT

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — The man responsible for one of South Dakota’s most iconic man-made features has died.

Architect Ward Whitwam of Sioux Falls died on Jan. 25.

Part of his legacy are the nine tipi structures at rest areas and welcome centers across the state.

“South Dakota’s concrete tipis are iconic features that have come to define the state. They are one of the most recognizable symbols associated with travel across the state and some of the most photographed SRA features in the nation,” said a study through the U.S. Department of the Interior for National Historic Places and provided by the South Dakota Department of Transportation. The tipis are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, according to the S.D. DOT.

The tipis are made of eight concrete poles and each weighs 6 1/2 tons. The tipis are 56 feet tall.

The tipi at the Valley Springs Welcome Center. Photo courtesy of the S.D. DOT.

They are noted not only for their culture significance in the state’s history but also for their artistic merit, the U.S. Department of Interior said.

The tipis are not the only mark Whitwam left on the South Dakota landscape.

The chapel sits in the center of the Augustana University campus.

Campus pastor Ann Rosendale said a retired professor often remarked that the chapel is not the largest or the tallest structure on campus. Nor is it the haughty or looming, Rosendale said.

Instead, Whitwam’s design of a less imposing build has secured its significant place, both physically and spiritually on the Augustana campus.

A study of the chapel

For at least 15 years, Augustan students in the honors program have taken a class on studying the architecture of several buildings on campus.

The chapel is one of the buildings included in the class.

Rosendale said students are encourage to consider the “ways in which the architecture of the building reflects the mission and the core values of Augustana.”

“We really feel the chapel is an ode to mission and core values of Augustana. It really reflects who and what Augustana is and what we are about here,” Rosendale said.

As a liberal arts university, Augustana works with three core disciplines of natural science, social science and humanities. The university integrates those three disciplines such thinking about how biology intersects with religion or how poetry intersects with all, Rosendale said.

The slants in the roof of the Augustana Chapel are one of its features. Photo courtesy of Augustana University.

Whitwam designed the chapel with slanted roofs. The roofs slant in a couple of different directions.

One section slants more toward natural sciences and one points more toward humanities, she said.

The roof is example of how the chapel reflects the university’s mission and core values, Rosendale said.

Although it’s not an imposing structure, the chapel is an anchor on the campus.

There is a down to earth aspect of the design “that roots us and grounds us,” Rosendale said.

Each day students and staff walk past the chapel and are reminded of the mission of the university, she said.

A home on Minnesota Avenue

A home with large windows on two balconies sits on hill on North Minnesota Avenue in Sioux Falls.

It’s home for a family but this family includes the dozen residents of the Good Samaritan Society care facility on North Minnesota Avenue.

“The biggest thing in this building is our solarium,” said care facility administrator Melissa Tordoff. “It is all surrounded by windows. One section is in the (upper level) and one is in the lower level.”

The Ward Whitwam-designed care center on Minnesota Avenue in Sioux Falls. Photo courtesy of the Good Samaritan Society.

Whitwam designed this care center years ago but it continues to have an impact on those who live at the care center and those who have shorter stays for rehabilitation.

The lower section is used a dining room for residents who on are temporary stays as they rehabilitation from illness or surgery.

The coronavirus pandemic may have changed how many people can gather in the dining room but it is a gathering place.

Residents can “share a meal…get to know each other,” in the solarium, Tordoff said.

The chapel in the Ward Whitman-designed Good Samaritan care center on Minnesota Avenue in Sioux Falls. Photo courtesy of the Good Samaritan Society.

“The upper level is our chapel. It’s a sacred space,” Tordoff said.

Again, the pandemic may have changed how residents can gather in the chapel but it is the site of any regular Sunday services and daily devotions.

“Many times we see residents in there throughout the day,” Tordoff said of the chapel.

Both areas offer residents and staff a view through the world through windows that Tordoff estimated are about as tall her 5’4″ height.

Visiting family members also use the two spaces on each levels, she said.

The big windows and curved balcony solariums are familiar to many Sioux Falls residents, Tordoff said.

When people learn where she works they often comment, “‘That’s the one on the hill with the balcony.’ I think it is very well known in Sioux Falls,” Tordoff said.

When Tordoff first saw the two sections, she believes she had the same reaction as many who see it for the first time.

“It’s awe inspiring. It’s such a neat space,” Tordoff said.

Sense of place, history

In a story published in the September-October 2003 edition of South Dakota magazine, Whitwam said the tipi design for rest stops and welcome areas in the state were intentional.

The story said Whitwam had first wanted to depict settlers when he began thinking of designs but realized American Indians were the first to settle in the state. From there, the tipis, or lodge pole design emerged.

“…the tipis pay tribute not only to South Dakota but also to indigenous peoples of the northern and southern Plains, The American West and Canada,” the U.S. Department of Interior said in its historic comment study.

Rosendale said the Augustana chapel’s design also ties it to the state’s landscape. Students have noticed this.

The interior of the Augustana chapel during a service. Photo courtesy of Augustana University.

“The room is really made up of earthtones. If look at the inside of the building it really is resonate of withe the plains of South Dakota,” Rosendale. “There is flatness to it in terms of how the pews are laid. And then the tile of the floor has this kind of reddish brown tint to it.

The art behind the altar also has earth tones that pick up the prairie feel of South Dakota, Rosendale said.

The windows of the Good Samaritan facility provide a front row seat to a city on the prairie. But it’s also a good place to watch some clouds roll in. Perhaps another for the architect to the land on which Whitwam grew up.

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