The Importance of Renovating Historic Buildings on College Campuses

Newman 4
May/June 2020

Associate Principal Amy Daniels was featured in the May/June issue of ACUHO-I's Talking Stick. Check it out here and read the entire article below.

Renovating rather than replacing aging residence halls allows campuses to conserve both the embedded energy and the embodied social history of these essential campus building blocks, key aspects of sustainable design and construction. Many campuses across the country possess robust residences that have housed students and hosted student life for generations, birthing life-long friendships and fostering treasured experiences that endure powerfully in memory. Their historical architecture provides for the unchanging needs of young people, for a home away from home, in changing times. The older these structures grow, the more power they accrue as iconic symbols of institutional legacy, inspiring daily lives of students, faculty, and administrators on campus and keeping alumni connected. Even if internal configurations reflect outmoded social and pedagogical paradigms, and systems have reached the end of useful lives, these structures offer value and opportunity that more than justify the costs of renewal.

The University of Mary Washington is one of these lucky campuses, one with a historic context and buildings that have been loved for many generations. Newman Architects, along with Train Architects, have had the opportunity to renew two such iconic residences to serve future generations for the University of Mary Washington. The first, Willard Hall, was built in 1910 as the first building on UMW's campus, a college-in-one-building such as started many similar institutions. The second, Virginia Hall, was built in three phases between 1914 and 1936, also hosting campus function besides residence. Both buildings have been re-designed on the interior, while preserved and restored on the exterior, to support contemporary student life on campus. Both projects prioritized implementing the Living and Learning Model, and supporting the University's freshmen-seminar program, while preserving treasured architectural characteristics and amenities whose value emerged from an online survey of current students and alumni. In addition to restored stairs, high ceilings, and large bedroom windows, each building provides substantial new community space, including academic space, and state-of-the art technology. Differing approaches to balancing preservation with contemporary expression in the two companion residences makes for an interesting contrast.

Willard Dining Hall 1915
Newman 5

Willard Hall originally housed the campuses' main dining room complex, a special asset whose original layout was readily restored while being re-programmed to support Living and Learning on campus. The new program for this area includes a seminar room, two small study rooms, a media lounge, flexible gaming lounge, dining area, and community kitchen. These activities are all housed in an open, transparent first floor environment executed in a contemporary architectural language, operationally open to the campus community during the day. The residential floors above each include a common room, as well as new small study and (cell) telephone rooms at the end of each corridor. The glassy interventions allow transparency for seeing and being seen, and for light to pour into the corridor, while still defining space outside of resident bedrooms for breakout study and privacy.

Newman 2

The interior re-design of companion Virginia Hall is fewer liberties with existing architectural language, preserving much of the original layout, including a formal first-floor Parlor that once housed the university library. Basement space, previously used as storage, is repurposed for an active lounge and community kitchen to support building social life. Individual bathroom previously carved out of bedroom space are removed, returning bedrooms to their original size, with new large, shared bathrooms serving each residential floor and promoting resident interaction.

When campuses renovate residence halls, they have the opportunity to embrace and extend their own history. As at the University of Mary Washington, many Universities seek to integrate academics and residence life in a holistic way that supports an integrated student-services model, better equipping students for academic and social success. This effect is especially true for first year students, whose academic and social success is strongly influenced by their experience within their residence hall. Renovated historic residence halls can help foster the community that makes this effect happen, in which living and learning reinforce each other. Historic buildings offer the unique benefit of combining contemporary living-and-learning spaces with legacies of past community building. Beloved buildings foster community across generations of students and alumni, building collective identity and a commitment to see these buildings continue to evolve as community builders.