A.D. Bruce Religion Center: UH’s Platform 9 3/4
“Are you familiar with Harry Potter?” A.D. Bruce Religion Center Manager Bruce Twenhafel asked me. He has held his position for the past four years.
Twenhafel recalled a story of a young woman — a UH alumna — who was getting married. The woman wanted to get married at the religion center and see it for herself first.
“I said, ‘We’re right next to the football stadium,’” Twenhafel said. “She said, ‘Where?’ and I said, ‘Weren’t you a student?’”
The woman said she really did not know where the center was. Twenhafel asked her what her major was; she said it was English.
“I said, ‘Ma’am, we’ve been behind Roy Cullen for four years.’ She said, ‘Oh! So that’s what that building was! So we jokingly call it, ‘Platform 9 ¾’ because if you don’t know anything about it, you just think it’s a building you go past,” he said.
Twenhafel noted that most people spend four or five years on campus, but never visit the A.D. Bruce Religion Center—including faculty and staff.
“Everyone thinks that this is the wedding chapel,” Twenhafel said. “Nobody knows we’re here. It’s amazing.”
Twenhafel thinks this has a lot to do with people associating a degree for a higher education with classrooms.
“They’re thinking of the typical kinds of things they had in high school and grammar school,” Twenhafel said. “And so, you’re going to have the fitness centers, (and) they may not be aware of the Health Center or the University Center, but they never hear about faith or spirituality.”
“Back in the ’40s, ’50s, ’60s, we had our campus ministries in the little houses. The neighbors would get upset that the University was bleeding over to their property,” Twenhafel said. “So there was an immediate need for some kind of religion center.”
The University first began as a community college, later transitioning into a private college.
“As a private college, it didn’t really matter,” Twenhafel said. “They were working with Gen. Bruce, and he knew we would eventually become a public university. So he said, ‘If you want a building on this campus, you need to do it now.’”
Back in the ’50s and ’60s, while the center was being developed, a lot of the denominations were building stand-alone centers specific to their beliefs and their religion around the campus. The religion center is one-of-a-kind: a negligible number of major and smaller public universities in the United States have a facility like A.D. Bruce Religion Center.
“There are only three public universities that I have found in all of my research that have something similar to A.D. Bruce Religion Center, with Penn State and Southern Illinois State University being the others,” Twenhafel said.
“(The Muslim Student Association has) close to 20,000 students coming through the center, including faculty and staff, to attend their events. It’s phenomenal how this building is used so quietly and so often, and people don’t recognize it.”
Bruce Twenhafel A.D. Bruce Religion Center manager
When the University Center took responsibility for the management of the religious center in Sept. 2009, the building was brought up to speed in terms of reservations and the provision of other services.
“How those kinds of things were different is that there’s a whole new philosophy, in which students come first and how provide those services,” Twenhafel said.
Nine months later, when Twenhafel came on board, he noticed the building was in disrepair.
“We needed new carpet. Certain areas hadn’t been painted in a long time. (By) paying attention to the cleaning, we were able to go to the Student Fee Advisory Committee and make the case (that) this is one of the student centers,” Twenhafel said.
In addition, the religious center needed new chairs and tables as well as an improved sound system in the chapel.
“It’s not just weddings we have. We hold Mass, and some of the fraternities and sororities use the chapel for inductions for their groups,” Twenhafel said. “We have alumni events, recitals, musical events so we’re able to justify it as a student center facility.”
- The religion center is named after retired U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Andrew Davis Bruce. He became president of UH on Sept. 1, 1954 and in 1956, he became Chancellor. The center was not dedicated to him until nine years later. He passed away in 1972 and is buried in Arlington Cemetery.
- Davis saw religion as an essential on campus. “Exclude religion entirely from education and you have no foundation upon which to build moral character,” he said.
- In a cover letter, he wrote “University of Houston believes very strongly that religion must have a central role on campus, as part of the student’s daily life.”
- The Jewish denomination was the first religious group to campaign for funds for the new religion center.
- Weddings at the religion center make up only five percent of profits. The rest are due to bookings by student organizations.
- Religious groups could be “chartered” in the religion center if they donated a minimum of $10,000.
- Stained-glass windows were originally part of the construction plan. However, due to shortage of funds, only one set of windows are stained-glass.
- When searching for a spot to build the center, architect Frank Dill saw a tree with twelve branches. The branches represented the number of religious groups at the time. When the contractors tagged trees to be removed on the building site, Ralph Frede of the Development Office wanted the tree to remain. It still stands today.
Additionally, students come to the center to meditate, while others use the chapel for a quiet place to study.
“We have Wi-Fi,” Twenhafel said. “Students practice on the piano. Students of architecture would be sent to draw sketches of the building, which is great example of post-modern design facility.”
UH will also be celebrating the religion center’s 50th anniversary. They are currently in the planning stage, with a committee to plan activities that will occur in Feb. 2015.
“We would like to have an opening ceremony,” Twenhafel said. “We’ll have concerts, we’ll have lectures (and) we’ll have food events.”
In addition to weddings, the majority of bookings are with the student organizations. One of the organizations that frequents the center is the Muslim Student Association.
“They have close to 20,000 students coming through the center, including faculty and staff, to attend their events,” Twenhafel said. “It’s phenomenal how this building is used so quietly and so often, and people don’t recognize it.”
Twenhafel adds that the hallmark of the religion center has been interfaith dialogue throughout its 50 years of existence.
“Our Campus Ministries Associations has been working hard to make certain that in collaborative process in an education component, that in a comparative culture way, people have an opportunity to understand each other,” Twenhafel said. “So that once you know not only the character of the person, but the beliefs of the person you have a better understanding of them and an appreciation of what they are and likewise, they will have a better understanding and appreciation of who you are.”
This article is selected from our Faith special section in the latest installment of CoogLife, which can be found in our fall Back to School edition.