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A Grander Sense: The Renovation of Newcomb Hall

In the summer of 2010, Washington and Lee University will see the results of the extensive renovation of one of its signature structures, the 127-year-old Newcomb Hall. “Overall, it’s going to be that same, familiar building,” said Thomas M. Kalesky, director of design and construction at W&L, “but in a grander sense, as you would have seen back in the 1800s.”

The 1882 building is part of W&L’s historic Colonnade, which comprises five buildings and received designation as a National Historic Landmark from the U.S. Secretary of the Interior in 1972. Given that status, the linked principles of historic preservation and rehabilitation underline the project. Preservation means maintaining and repairing existing historic features and retaining the building itself. Rehabilitation means the alteration or addition of certain aspects while keeping the original character. “We want to maintain as much of the historic fabric as possible but insert new systems,” said Kalasky. “We’re going for state historic tax credits as well.”

Newcomb Hall is one of several buildings to occupy its spot on the southern edge of the Colonnade. From 1804 to 1835, Union Hall and Graham Hall, which housed classrooms and student quarters, operated there. They were replaced by brick dorms nicknamed Purgatory and Hell. In 1882, those came down and Newcomb Hall went up. The $20,000 to build Newcomb came from Josephine Louise Newcomb as a tribute to her late husband, Warren Newcomb. He had given money to Washington College, as it was then called, during the lean years immediately after the Civil War.

For its first quarter-century, Newcomb contained offices, reading rooms, the University’s library and an art gallery. From 1907 to 1980, it housed the School of Commerce (now the Williams School of Commerce, Economics, and Politics). During that period, it underwent two rounds of extensive construction: the addition of a new portico to coordinate with the rest of the Colonnade, in 1910, and its last real refurbishing, in 1936. In 1980, the departments of history, philosophy, religion and sociology moved in.

Precisely because it has been more than 70 years since its last overhaul, Newcomb is first on the list for the renovation of all the buildings on the Colonnade, which should take five years. The Colonnade renovation, expected to cost about $50 million, including a maintenance endowment, is part of the University’s new campaign, Honor the Past. Build the Future, which is now in its silent phase. The Newcomb renovation is underway because of more than $11 million committed in private gifts.

Among the updates will be new fire alarms, a sprinkler system, elevators, automatic door openers and handicapped-accessible toilets. The new electrical system will allow the latest teaching technology.

When faculty, staff and students return to Newcomb next year, promised Kalasky, “one thing they won’t see is those air conditioners in the window.” The deafening units made it hard for professors and students to hear each other. In their places will be an unobtrusive—and quiet—mechanical system. Overall, users of the building “are going to see a better learning environment,” he said, one that meets 21st-century standards for safety, comfort and accessibility.

Once visitors get inside, “they’ll see a lot of things that have been covered up,” said Kalasky. For example, when the third floor housed the art gallery, natural light poured in through a glass roof, also called a light monitor. In the 1970s, acoustic tile covered up that feature—but no more. “We’re going to expose all the original beams,” he said. “That light monitor will be refurbished, so the third floor will be pretty spectacular.” Further, the original molding will be intact, joined by new but historically accurate materials, such as soapstone flooring similar to that already in Washington Hall, the central building on the Colonnade.

In addition to caring for the historic nature of Newcomb Hall, W&L is conducting the project in an environmentally sensitive manner. It is qualifying each phase for certification in Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, better known as LEED, bestowed by the U.S. Green Building Council. A LEED designation shows that the project is saving energy and water, reducing carbon emissions and caring for resources.

W&L’s contractors are therefore keeping 75 percent of the project’s waste out of landfills; using recycled materials; obtaining regional materials such as the soapstone, which comes from nearby Nelson County; installing low-flow toilets; and introducing controllable lighting and mechanical systems.

A new feature will help residents of Newcomb Hall reduce their own impact on the environment: a shower. It will allow staff and faculty who leave cars at home in favor of bikes to freshen up before they start the day.

With the construction zone’s location on a central, heavily traveled part of W&L, “one of our goals is to minimize the impact on campus life,” said Kalasky. “And it’s one of the biggest challenges, when you’re in the core of the campus.” To blend in, the fencing around the site and even the trailer containing offices are painted Spanish red. “And we want to maintain safety at all times,” he said.

Kalesky, who’s been at W&L since 2005, is pleased with the project so far: “Things are progressing right on schedule.” He’s worked on several facilities around campus, including the renovation of Holekamp Hall and the building of Wilson Field, and is attending to other projects in various stages while the jackhammers are pounding away in Newcomb. “Every day is different,” he said. “That’s one of the great things about this job.” He and his colleagues in this branch of Facilities Management work in the former Lexington train station, which W&L moved and renovated a few years ago to make way for Wilson Hall, the art and music building.

When it’s complete, Newcomb Hall will contain 28 faculty offices, two administrative offices, two group study rooms, two large classrooms, three seminar rooms and one computer lab. It will house the faculty and staff of history, archaeology, religion, philosophy, anthropology and sociology. For now, those offices are in Baker Hall, a dorm serving as temporary offices for faculty and staff while the Colonnade project moves along.

Glavé & Holmes Associates, of Richmond, designed the renovation. Kjellstrom and Lee, with offices in Richmond and Staunton, is doing the construction.

After Newcomb comes a similar renovation of Payne and Washington Halls (already in the planning stages), and then the entire Colonnade project will finish up with Robinson and Tucker Halls.