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W&L Trustees Approve Renovations to Residence Halls, Belfield

Washington and Lee University’s Board of Trustees approved a $22.5 million project to renovate Graham-Lees Hall and remodel Gaines Hall as part of an overall plan to improve residential life for first-year students at the University.

Approval came during the board’s October meeting in Lexington last weekend.

The trustees also approved a proposal to convert Belfield, the former residence of the late Frank Gilliam, W&L’s longtime dean of students, into a guest house.

In addition to those two actions, the trustees heard proposals for revisions to upper-class housing and for the eventual development of new indoor athletic and recreation facilities.

“We are pleased with the board’s decision on Graham-Lees and Gaines halls and are anxious to get started on this critical project,” said Sidney Evans, vice president of student affairs and dean of students, who co-chaired a special task force on housing with Trustee Dallas Hagewood Wilt, of the W&L Class of 1990.

The task force was empaneled by W&L Rector Donald Childress and President Kenneth P. Ruscio. It was guided by the 2007 Strategic Plan, which specified improvements and enhancements to first-year residential life plus consideration of upper-class alternatives. Childress is a member of the W&L Class of 1970; Ruscio, Class of 1976.

“In developing these plans, we are motivated by our desire to improve the experience for our students by creating a greater sense of community during that important first year,” Evans said.

According to John Hoogakker, executive director of facilities, plans call for the project to begin in the summer of 2013 and to take two years to complete. “There are some significant logistical challenges,” Hoogakker said. “But we have been creative in our planning and fully intend to get this accomplished on schedule.”

Graham-Lees is the combination of Lees Hall, built in 1904, and Graham Hall, built in 1920. The buildings were connected in the 1940s, and Graham-Lees was last renovated in 1982. “Generations of W&L students have lived in the building and, over time, developed real fondness for it,” said Hoogakker. “We plan to take advantage of its distinctive character. But the fixtures and finishes in Graham-Lees are extremely worn, and the building does not have air conditioning. This will be a major upgrade.”

Gaines Hall was built in 1986 and was originally designated for upper-class students, featuring suites along long hallways. “Gaines was an early experiment in suite-style living in a traditional hall,” said Hoogakker. “In recent years, the layout has not been well received by students, and we think that it will be much more functional when it is turned into a more traditional hall arrangement with program, social and laundry spaces.”

The required capacity to house all of Washington and Lee’s first-year class, including resident advisers, is 481. During the project, the capacity of Graham-Lees will be decreased slightly from 258 to 236, while the capacity of Gaines will be increased by 27, for a net increase of five spaces overall.

Evans said that the Residential Life Task Force was especially anxious to maintain the location of the first-year residence halls in the core of campus. It also wanted to create internal spaces that were not as isolating as is currently the case in the buildings.

“The architectural drawings that we have seen do an excellent job of establishing opportunities for casual interaction within the two buildings,” Evans said. “We are pleased with the common areas and program spaces that are planned and think this will meet the committee’s goals.”

The University has been working with Hanbury Evans Wright Vlattas and Co., of Norfolk, Va., to the renovations. The architectural and planning firm specializes in campus buildings, including renovations of residence halls at the University of Michigan and Rollins College.

Hoogakker said that two facilities will be renovated in sequence, beginning with one half of Graham-Lees during the summer and fall of 2013, and the other half during the spring and summer of 2014. Gaines will also be done one half at a time, during the summer and fall of 2014 and the spring and summer of 2015.

“In order for us to do this, students will move from one side of the buildings to the other as we complete the work,” Hoogakker said. “We are fairly sure that we have enough capacity on the campus to be able to do this, but it is a logistical challenge.”

A final element in the overall plan will be to create new green space that connects the two residence halls. “This plan does call for us to open up the space between Gaines and Graham-Lee and to unite them visually,” said Evans. “This will establish a very strong concept of a residential-life neighborhood for our first-year students.”

Funding for the projects will come through the sale of bonds.

Belfield Approved

Meanwhile, construction on Belfield will begin late this year and is planned for completion by next fall.

The $1.5 million project involves renovating, furnishing and equipping the main floor for small-scale programs and events. The upper floor will become guest accommodations, with four guest rooms and baths. Belfield is a 6,000-square-foot, Tudor-revival house built in 1929 and surrounded by 2.63 acres.

The formal gardens, which were designed by Charles Gillette, the preeminent Southern landscape architect, will be restored.

The University received an anonymous gift in 2010 from an alumnus and former member of the Board of Trustees to purchase Belfield and to conduct a study to determine the best use of the facility. Since the purchase, two other donors have made gifts in honor of Dean Gilliam to help with the project.

New Indoor Athletic and Recreation Facility Discussed

Meanwhile, the trustees also heard a report from a task force of trustees and members of the administration who have been exploring a new indoor athletic and recreation facility, which is one of the capital-project targets in the current campaign.

After exploring several alternatives, the task force asked the trustees to consider a plan under which a new facility is built on the current Warner Center site, with Doremus Gymnasium, which adjoins Warner, maintained and remodeled. Under the plan, a separate natatorium would be constructed on another site on the campus.

“The task force was very thorough in its work,” said Steve McAllister, vice president for finance and treasurer, who co-chaired the task force. “Our recommendation retains the majority of indoor athletics and recreation programs within the core of campus, which was a major consideration. It takes advantage of both Doremus, which not only has substantial value but is also a campus landmark, and the Warner Center site, which remains extremely advantageous.”

Additional Residential Life Task Force Proposals Considered

In addition, the trustees discussed the proposals of the Residential Life Task Force with regard to upper-class students. Among those is a requirement that students live on campus for three years rather than two. The task force based its recommendation on extensive research into housing patterns both at W&L and at other colleges. Among the issues it cited were the safety and security of current off-campus options, as well as the impact on the sense of community at the University of the many students now living more than a mile and a half from campus.

Currently, on-campus housing options for upper-class students include a small number of so-called theme houses, Gaines Hall, Woods Creek Apartments and the University-owned fraternity and sorority houses. The proposal suggests that W&L offer upper-class students an array of attractive, varied options for on-campus living. Those choices would include new construction, the renovation of existing facilities and leasing options. The goal would be to provide numerous choices for location and style of housing.

“As we explored this question, one of the resources that we discovered was a report that had been issued in 1968 on student housing,” said Evans. “We were amazed to see that a self-study from 1966 raised these issues, and that a visiting accreditation team expressed concerns that off-campus housing patterns were hindering the development of an effective academic community. Many of the issues identified in that report are strikingly similar to those that we have now discovered.”

The trustees also heard a presentation on campus planning, which offered one possibility for establishing a neighborhood on campus that could be anchored by a natatorium, and might also feature new student housing, along with other amenities.

“I think it is important that the trustees consider these issues together,” said Ruscio of the recommendations issued by the task forces. “For instance, one of the possibilities would be to unify the campus by creating a dynamic neighborhood to include established facilities, such as Lewis Hall, the baseball stadium and the indoor tennis center, while carefully incorporating any new facilities. If a decision is made to go in this direction, the area now referred to as ‘across the ravine’ would no longer seem separate and remote.

“The key element in the trustees’ deliberations, in my view, is to consider the way these plans will help us preserve the traditional features of our historic campus while constantly improving the academic and co-curricular experiences of our students.”

The trustees are expected to consider these recommendations at their next meeting in February.

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Jeffery G. Hanna
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