by Stacy Deibler
Special to the Chicago Tribune
The elegant building, reminiscent of an English Tudor manor, is an appropriate enough place to learn about the works of English writer C.S. Lewis or J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings.”
This structure isn’t in London or Oxford; it’s on the campus of Wheaton College. And there, Christopher Mitchell, director of the Marion E. Wade Center, is eager to answer any questions about the authors, their works or whatever else visitors might want to know.
Mitchell and Marjorie Mead, associate director of the Wade Center, a library, archive and literary research center celebrating seven famous British writers, encourage anyone with a passion for reading to drop by. Visitors are free to browse the collection and get acquainted with Lewis, Tolkien, novelist and preacher G.K. Chesterton, and writers Dorothy Sayers, George MacDonald, Owen Barfield and Charles Williams.
“We hope more people will discover this place,” Mitchell said. “We really want to raise our public profile.”
This week, workers put the finishing touches on the 10,000-square-foot stone building adjacent to Edman Chapel. An open house and dedication ceremony will be held Saturday.
The center reopens to readers and scholars Monday.It has been closed since April, when staff packed up 2,000 cartons of rare books, manuscripts, articles, letters, photos, diaries, tapes and memorabilia for the move from the space it outgrew at the nearby Buswell Memorial Library.
The elaborately carved wardrobe from C.S. Lewis’ childhood home, made famous in his beloved children’s book “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” made it safely to the new Museum Room off the lobby. A children’s corner is coming together, including a map of the mythical Narnia, setting for Lewis’ seven Narnia tales.
“We not only have little children coming but all ages of adults reading and enjoying these works,” said Mead, a staff member since 1977. “School groups often come in and we do a slide show on Lewis. From April to June, we’re pretty packed.”
Scholars come from as far away as Australia and Japan to study. One researcher from Austria “was here for six months,” said Mitchell, also a theology professor at Wheaton who has taught classes on writers in the Wade collection.
“We have people from very diverse backgrounds,” Mitchell said.
The writers are loosely linked. Some were friends, including Lewis, Tolkien, Williams and Barfield, who formed a literary discussion group at Oxford called “The Inklings.” Some were influenced by others on the list, Mitchell said. “The Craft of Detective Fiction,” spotlighting the work of Chesterton and Sayers, is the first exhibit in the Museum Room.
The new building has numerous display areas, a large workroom, an audio-visual center and extensive climate-controlled storage areas. One room is devoted to Lewis’ private library, donated by his brother, Warren. A classroom seats 40 for lectures and seminars.
“We’re interested in evening classes on all our authors,” Mitchell said. “We want a lot of things to be open to the public. For example, we could offer a children’s reading hour.”
The first major event will be the Oct. 28 premiere of a PBS documentary on Lewis narrated by Ben Kingsley.
The building was a gift of Mary Wade, daughter of the late Marion E. Wade, founder of ServiceMaster Co. and a major donor to the center. Officials declined to say how much it cost.
The rooms radiate English ambiance with deep chairs, wood trim, a fireplace and glass-front bookcases, but with modern touches. The long tables in the Reading Room are wired for laptops.
The Wade Center began in 1965, the brainchild of the late Clyde S. Kilby, a professor of English literature at Wheaton. Kilby searched the globe for materials. What began as a small stack of letters from Lewis ballooned to include everything from news clippings to more than 70 taped oral history interviews. The center also publishes “Seven,” a literary journal on the seven authors.
“We try to be as comprehensive a research center as possible,” Mitchell said. “We not only collect things written by our authors but things written about them. It’s like one-stop shopping.”
The center should attract more fans with the December release of the movie version of “The Lord of the Rings” starring Cate Blanchett, Ian Holm, Liv Tyler and Elijah Wood as the mythical hobbit, Frodo Baggins.