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“Transforming Learning at Norwich University: Revitalizing a Historic Campus Core,” Sarah Tarbet, Michelle Crowley (Crowley Cottrell Landscape Architecture), and Aron Temkin (Dean of the College of Professional Schools) lectured on this project at the SCUP North Atlantic Regional Conference in Rochester, NY, in spring 2019.

“Envisioning a New Academic Quad in Context,” Marc Perras and Michelle Crowley (Crowley Cottrell Landscape Architecture) gave a tour and symposium on the project for AIA Vermont in 2018. 

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When working in a historic campus building, or precinct, we picture ourselves on an arc of history.

We are just one moment in the life of this campus, a perspective that requires both humility and pragmatism. Revere the historic building but do not be beholden to it. Make it function for today’s learning enterprise: sustainable, inclusive and energy efficient. Keep it as familiar to returning alumni as it is welcoming to current and prospective students. Balancing these competing forces with respect, thoughtfulness, and innovation is how we preserve the legacy of a historic campus core, making it as relevant for the future as it was the day it was built.

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Working Principles

During the course of working on these and other projects we’ve developed six principles that form a roadmap for respecting the past while ushering in the future.

1. Listen to the building(s)

Just because a building is home to classrooms, or that it is dedicated to the offices of particular college or school within the university doesn’t mean that is its best use. What is the building telling you it should be? What are the bones of the building saying it’s good for?

We approach this question by figuratively dumping all the program requirements out onto the table and looking fresh at all of the buildings. Then we put it all back in a way that makes sense for the building rather than the college or program. This highest and best use approach helps maintain the basic organizing principles and dimensional characteristics of the existing building. It prioritizes function over “ownership” of a given building by a specific department.

2. It’s ok to have buildings that aren’t ‘owned’ by colleges or schools

It can also ruffle feathers. No dean wants to be told a building is not “theirs” anymore and divesting this idea is a difficult mental hurdle for many university constituents. That said, the benefits — optimized space use and improved interdisciplinary connections among them — ultimately serves everyone better. 

In the case of Norwich, which was undertaking an organizational realignment of the three schools served by the trio of buildings, we looked at the best use of each building in the context of these questions: What spaces need to be dedicated to a College? What can be shared as a common resource, and how do we break down the traditional disciplinary silos to create new opportunities for research and discourse?

Ultimately, three buildings that were each dedicated to a college were reimagined and renovated to optimize spatial use and function. One became a shared resource composed of general-purpose classrooms, seminar rooms, a language resource center, and a writing center. The others are predominately administrative and faculty office space for the College of Liberal Arts with a few small labs, classrooms and seminar rooms.

3. Pay close attention to exterior spaces

Close your eyes for a moment and recall your alma mater. What comes to mind? For me, it’s Funkhouser Drive, the oak-lined walkways and quad, connecting Pence and Miller Halls, home to the studios for the school of architecture at the University of Kentucky. The well-worn walkway between the two was part of our daily routine, going to studio and classes, visiting friends, attending critiques and reviews.

Landscape is the first impression potential students have of the place in which they will spend some of their most formative years — and that first impression lasts. The most memorable spaces on campuses are exterior spaces (quads, lawns, plazas) and this nostalgia is critical for engaging alumni.

At Norwich, the task was to transform the exterior space of the historic academic core from a solely utilitarian solution to a thoughtful and memorable experience. Achieving this meant supporting unique program needs — the mustering, marching, and release of troops in formation — while serving a broader audience of civilian students, alumni, and staff. A tree-lined accessible path down from the Upper Parade ground along an axis centered on the chapel culminates in a platform sized for troop formations. New, barrier free quads are developed in front of Schneider Hall, and between Schneider and Mack Halls. An expanded Memorial Wall runs along the length of a path running north to south through both quads, connecting the academic core with the athletics precinct and armory to the north. A bridge connects Mack Hall to the Upper Parade ground, one of the four floors at which Mack connects to grade, allowing the building to function as an accessible circuit in the heart of campus. A bridge connects Mack Hall to the Upper Parade ground, one of the four floors at which Mack connects to grade, allowing the building to function as an accessible circuit in the heart of campus.

All of these moves are focused on creating a more cohesive and accessible network of quads, axes, and circulation for the academic core and the surrounding campus. Landscape, planting strategies, memorials, and other site elements reinforce each of these moves.

4. Show your work

Projects that involve historic buildings – often at the heart of campus – are extremely sensitive. People are invested emotionally and their opinions matter. Many see the idea of affecting them in any way as potentially damaging to the school culture and heritage. The stakes are higher, the conversations are heavier than a new building, and the need to bring people along paramount to success. 

Naturally this means thoughtful communication at all levels; more importantly it means showing your work. Present evidence of how programmatic or economic data affects the goals, show the results of contextual analysis and detail how the team arrived at the current design. Listen to feedback and show how it has been reflected. This means lots of town hall meetings, lunchtime pin-ups, slide shows, animations; lots of talking and lots of listening to trustees, alumnae, students, citizens and donors. All backed by strong presentation materials that work for fundraising and friend-raising.

5. Partner with experts

For our work on renovations to Harvard Hall, we worked closely with the Harvard Historic Interiors Program. At MIT, when working in the original Main Group buildings, we review projects with their historic interiors team.

At Norwich, the design team worked closely with Vermont’s State Historic Preservation Office to balance historic preservation with code compliance, accessibility, and Norwich’s program needs. Renovations preserved critical interior details and several rooms in total, along with an historic staircase, and fireplaces in some faculty offices. Key historic spaces and elements were retained, restored, and are features today. In one case, a wood-lined conference room was disassembled, meticulously restored, and re-installed. Providing proper egress and accessibility for two buildings required additions.

Arriving at solutions like these means tackling conversations early and often. Meet with historic experts to share early concepts, scope historic details that are important to them, and listen to their priorities. Lead regular give-and-take discussions of milestone drawing sets, and discoveries along the way. Lay the groundwork for facing the challenges that will inevitably arise. Respect for the buildings, and the participants, begins with this head-on approach early on, and maintaining them throughout the project.

6. Start talking about logistics from day one

Historic cores are the heart of campus. As such, interventions are very disruptive to student’s daily life and experience.  The buildings rarely have a “back,” but rather are four-sided, making it hard to put an addition on core buildings. They are generally set tight up against other buildings, part of a quad, and with nowhere to go around them.

Certainly this is amplified with urban campuses where we have worked – Harvard, Northeastern, MIT – where university buildings are cheek by jowl with other urban neighbors. But even with a rural campus like Norwich, it is close quarters. This requires tight coordination with the Construction Manager. Understanding the phasing of a project and how the CM will go about executing the construction can inform how you produce the drawings. What sequence they came out in, what kind of enabling work needs to be done for each subsequent phase, and how they all connect?

All of this needs to be considered and parsed out in a way that makes sense while keeping the campus up and running. For Norwich, where we were undertaking three building renovations with additions, one new building, and a major site infrastructure package that ties them together, this meant many iterations with the CM and campus operations, and a flexibility in the field in response to day-to-day challenges.

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Of smaller scale but no less grand on challenges, we have worked with schools such as MIT (since 2013) Northeastern University (since 2013) and Harvard University (since 2015) whose historic campus cores have strict guidelines and oversight that require carefully considered responses. For the New Hampshire Institute of Art, whose campus is deeply embedded in the City of Manchester, an effort to integrate their offerings into historic public buildings led to the potential for a unique town and gown partnership. With our work at Cape Cod Community College and Massasoit Community College, we developed solutions that cleave to the different character of these two mid-century campuses.

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A yearlong planning and programming effort resulted in a $45 million project in which Jones undertook renovations to the three buildings, the addition of a new building, and major site infrastructure improvements to knit all of these new and old buildings together in a way that is meaningful and memorable.

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Ainsworth and Dewey Halls are two of the oldest buildings on campus, and each have unique historic character that yearned to be rediscovered and augmented.

  • Ainsworth Hall was built in 1910 for the United States Weather Bureau as its central Vermont station. In the 1960’s and 70’s it was converted to the School of Social Sciences.
  • Built in 1902, Dewey Hall is one of the oldest buildings on the Northfield campus. It was gutted by fire in 1925 and rebuilt as a three-story structure. At the outset of the planning process, it was home to the School of Business & Management, including a top-five program in cyber security.
  • Webb Hall (1960) contained Dole Auditorium and was the home to the School of Humanities. It is now called Schneider Hall.

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Background on Norwich University

Founded in 1819 in Norwich, Vermont, by Captain Alden Partridge, Norwich University is the oldest private military college in the United States. Partridge grounded the education in a traditional liberal arts curriculum with instruction in civil engineering and military science. Subsequent moves to Middletown CT (1825) and back to Norwich (1829) preceded a final move to Northfield VT in 1866. In the mid 1990’s, Norwich University acquired Vermont College and now combines its robust military history with a civilian student population. The central campus revitalization was the anchor project of Norwich’s 200th anniversary capital campaign. Freeman French Freeman, Architects worked with Jones as the architect-of-record.

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Flanked by campus landmarks such as the Upper Parade Ground, White Chapel, and the Wise Campus Center, this central area is comprised of three buildings: Ainsworth, Webb, and Dewey Hall. At the outset of planning, these buildings were home to the School of Social Sciences, School of Humanities, and School of Business & Management, respectively. They were dated and tired, did not serve their constituents well, were plagued by deferred maintenance, and yet remained vital contributors to academic life given their central location and historic character.

Intro Panel

If you survive long enough, you’re revered – rather like an old building.”
— Katharine Hepburn

All campuses face aging core academic facilities, often housed in important historic buildings at the heart of campus. These buildings typically come with a long list of needs like supporting modern programs, addressing deferred maintenance, code compliance and accessibility. But topping the list, always, is the need to maintain historic character and the distinct sense of place these buildings impart.