By Jan McCoy Ebbets
It was a sunny morning, the second
month of the fall term at Smith College. Behind the door of room
203, on the second floor of a brick building that only last year
was a dormitory at the Clarke School for the Deaf, art professor
Lee Burns was looking for something that he knew was in his office,
somewhere. At least he had the needle-nosed pliers, woodcarving
But Burns, who chairs the art department with associate chair and art history professor John Davis, was not about to be discouraged. He says with a typical grin, "It's business as usual for the art department since the move -- with only a few glitches."
Smith's Fine Arts Center, the complex that housed the college's Museum of Art, art department and art library, is a mere shell of its former self. As this issue of NewsSmith went to press, the hulking brick and glass complex had been stripped to its skeletal frame.
Ultimately it will be re-created as
a series of spectacular new structures. In the interim, most
students, faculty and staff are maintaining a good-natured disposition
about the recent havoc and resettlement into a temporary command
post that is a hearty walk from the center of campus. For the
next two years, the museum staff, art department and art library
will conduct business in buildings leased from Clarke School
But despite the upheaval caused by this temporary relocation, the Smith art community is optimistic. What lends buoyancy to that optimism is the prospect of a $35 million renovation and expansion of the arts complex, being designed by the acclaimed New York architectural firm of James Stewart Polshek & Partners.
It is Smith's most ambitious capital project to date, but not the only one currently under way. It is, in fact, one of several significant campus renovations, expansions or brand new building projects, which together will constitute $100 million worth of construction by 2003. These include a 352-car parking garage that opened this month on West Street; the college's first-ever campus center, to be built next to John M. Greene Hall, Lyman Conservatory renovations (see related article); and a multipurpose classroom and climbing wall to be added to the athletic complex. Also, sizable upgrades were completed to such residential houses as Comstock, Wilder, Tenney, Hopkins and Wesley (which last summer was hoisted onto a truck and moved 100 yards north to make way for the upcoming construction of the campus center). In addition, students are already attending classes in a temporary building that was erected last summer for Smith's new engineering program.
Beyond 2003, the building boom will continue with other construction projects, including renovations to the field and boat houses, and plans to build a new fitness center. Planning is also under way for a major upgrade of the college's science facilities, but construction won't begin on that project until the fine arts complex and campus center are completed.
The promise and the havoc of construction projects have been obvious on campus in the past nine months. A chain-link fence surrounded the site of the fine arts center, which looked raw-boned and cavernous. Even as school was still in session last spring, the wrecking balls arrived, and sometimes swung precariously close to College Hall windows. And during the summer, 18-wheel tractor-trailers rumbled down roadways, carrying segments of a 300-ton crane that had just been discharged from duty on Boston's "Big Dig" highway project and immediately sent to Smith's parking garage construction site.
But perhaps most unique, even to the non-horticulturists in the community, was the sight of a large crane lifting a rare dove tree native to central China, Davidia involucrata, out of the former lower courtyard garden of the arts complex. The 35-foot tree, its root mass already carefully dug and balled, was gently lifted onto a waiting front-end loader, and then slowly moved to its new site along the south side of College Hall. The actual moving took eight hours, but according to Smith botanists, the tree survived and this fall was setting seed.
Chalk most of these disturbances up to necessity. In the 30-year-old fine arts buildings, for instance, some art studios were overcrowded, the museum collections were stored in substandard conditions, and the department had outgrown its supply of faculty offices. The complex's exterior envelope was plagued with severe leaks, and an inadequate ventilation design often allowed contaminated studio air to permeate the system, creating a potential health hazard throughout the complex.
The construction of the college's new four-level parking garage was deemed essential for alleviating parking problems on campus and in nearby residential neighborhoods.
What's happening on campus is at the heart of Smith's commitment to deliver a top-rate education to its students and to provide them with the best buildings, equipment and residential houses possible.
As President Ruth Simmons said in a recent speech to visiting alumnae, "The quality of our education offerings depends, in part, on our maintaining a first-rate infrastructure to support teaching and learning. As you undoubtedly witnessed on your trip through campus, we are beginning a series of renovations and new construction projects that will ensure Smith's facilities are among the very best in higher education."
During the construction phase of the fine arts complex, the staff of the art museum jokingly say they are "in exile," occupying offices in Leonard Hall at the Clarke School. While the museum is not scheduled to reopen until 2002, director Suzannah Fabing says that it has taken several approaches to maintaining its presence. Rather than pack away all of the museum's 24,000 holdings, the staff has sent the best of the collection to museums around the world. Exhibits have been scheduled in the National Academy of Design Museum in New York, the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., and the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy, to name a few. Given that the Smith museum is one of the best college art museums in the country, the intent, says Fabing, is to make the collections as available to scholars and the public as possible.
To maintain a significant art presence on campus, the museum has installed visiting exhibitions of outdoor art on the Smith grounds. "We have no building, so we're using the campus for exhibit space," Fabing says. Five large contemporary sculptures made of bronze, steel and stone were on loan to Smith last spring and fall from the renowned Nasher Collection in Texas. Raymond D. Nasher loaned the sculptures to the college in memory of his late wife, Patsy, who graduated from Smith in 1949.
This April, the immensely popular sculptor Patrick Dougherty arrives on campus for a three-week residency and, with the participation of the Smith community, will create towering in situ sculptures out of tree saplings.
Less visible is the museum's ongoing work to wed digital images of all its holdings to an online database. Fabing says about 6,000 art objects were photographed with a high-resolution digital camera before the museum closed, creating more than 8,000 digitized images of those artifacts that are most often requested by the public. Eventually Smith Internet users will be able to view facsimiles of all 24,000 objects in the museum collection.
This is part of a larger effort to place Smith's entire collection of visual images -- from the geology department's slides of Death Valley to archival letters and photographs from the Sophia Smith Collection -- in the hands of any member of the Smith community who has access to the Web (see related story).
When the ground is broken in early 2002 for Smith's first campus center, the project will reflect a design that was met with sighs of relief and real enthusiasm after an earlier version drew fire. Many felt that the sleek contemporary design of the original plan was not in keeping with the architecture of other buildings on campus or with neighboring buildings along North-ampton's historic Elm Street. Soon afterward, the architects revised the plans.
In the newest design by the New York architecture firm of Weiss/Manfredi, the 2-1/2story center will occupy some 60,000 square feet next door to John M. Greene Hall and open onto Chapin Lawn. The design designates space for a lobby and a reception area, main skylit concourse, a two-story lounge looking toward Paradise Pond, performance and meeting rooms, a community art gallery, a bookstore, a mail room, the student radio station, and dining areas, including a patio and a food court.
The architects paid close attention to the college's goal for the campus center-to serve as a vibrant, inviting meeting place for the Smith community and as a welcoming gateway for visitors to the college.
"This is a building that embraces us when we go into it, no matter who we are," President Simmons has said of the center, which is scheduled to open in fall 2003.
The glass-roofed concourse, lined with
benches and filled with natural light from banks of windows,
will wind its way through the building. Clapboards and painted
wood will help blend the building with the existing architecture,
as well as with the Frederick Law Olmsteddesigned landscape
of the campus. Dean of the College Maureen Mahoney says she hopes
that Smith's campus center will be not only the front door to
the campus but also a destination and a "great place
"This is going to be a campus
center where people will want to go to see and be seen,"
she says. "There will be many opportunities for chance encounters.
That's why the architect's use of glass and transparency and
light is quite deliberate."
"It's a beautiful space," says Jim Johnson, professor of exercise and sport studies. "When you go into a classroom and it calls out to you to be physical, that means that the space is achieving what it's supposed to." He recalled the disadvantages to teaching ESS classes in open gyms. "At Smith we're always striving for excellence. But with the spaces we were teaching in, we weren't looking at excellence."
Climbing will be taught in the new
facility as well. The climbing wall, reported to be the only
wall among athletic facilities in any Seven Sister school, will
be used in classes by the ESS outdoor adventure program and the
extracurricular Smith Outdoors group.
And what of Lee Burns? Yes, he did find his desk calendar. And he taught Sculpture I this fall in a studio a mile from his office-in a retrofitted physical plant garage bay. "It's a work in progress," he says looking at a pile of wood that would eventually become shelves for his students' materials and projects and admiring the bathroom walls that he had caulked and painted himself. He was also pleased with the wall clock a student had contributed and the stereo system he had installed and the natural light that poured into the room through high-tiered windows. "We've never had such sunlight before."
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Copyright © 2001, Smith College. Portions of this publication may be reproduced with the permission of the Office
of College Relations, Garrison Hall, Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts 01063. Last update: 1/25/2001.
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