Cochran Library plan honors past, serves future

| August 14, 2012

Construction crews have broken ground on a new wing on the west side of Sweet Briar College’s Mary Helen Cochran Library. The work is the first of three phases that will include removal and replacement of the Dana Wing, a 1967 addition to the north side of the historic 1929 building.

The $8.8 million dollar project — the money for which is already in hand, thanks to generous donors who designated contributions to support it — also includes renovations to the original library. Anyone familiar with the plans inevitably hastens to explain that “renovations” refers to essential upgrades such as air conditioning, improved ventilation and better lighting. The library is one of the campus’ most important buildings, both in purpose and in architecture.

“Nothing will be torn off of the original Cram structure,” says librarian Lisa Johnston, having personally calmed the fears of many a Cochran devotee.

To the contrary,  some of its grand elements will be restored, including the ability to look through the sweeping round-top windows along the original rear wall. The new atrium design will open the view now blocked by the Dana Wing, and reveal the brick exterior wall that was covered up by the 1960s addition.

The elegant, south-facing gallery adjacent to the Powell Reading Room also will be restored. It will again display art, as it was intended to, as well as provide a pleasant workspace.

The College is working closely with VMDO Architects and the builder, C.L. Lewis, to ensure the project will qualify for federal tax credits for historic preservation. Environmental sustainability also is a priority, influencing decisions about materials, design and construction to make it as “green” as possible, says Scott Shank, Sweet Briar’s vice president for finance and administration.

Ralph Adams Cram, the College’s chief architect during its formative years, dedicated Cochran Library on Founder’s Day in October 1929. It was a time with parallels to today. Then, as now, some desired features of the building were scaled back because of cost constraints, according to former art history professor Aileen Laing (Sweet Briar College and Ralph Adams Cram: Dreams and Reality, 2001).

But the College and Cram were lucky, too. Cochran was nearly complete when the stock market crashed on Oct. 29 of that year. This time around, Sweet Briar was forced to overcome difficulties presented by the recession that began in late 2007.

Laing also notes that Cochran was the last and most architecturally rich building that Cram was directly involved in at Sweet Briar. Nevertheless, proper library spaces of 50 or 80 years ago haven’t always stood the test of time, says Sweet Briar libraries director John Jaffe.

This is particularly true in the application of digital technology. That’s why the 1960s “book storage facility” will become sun-washed “people spaces,” where students can study alone or work collaboratively, always within reach of an electrical outlet and an Internet connection.

“This project will create a library for this generation,” says Jo Ellen Parker, president of the College. “It will enable students and faculty members to work together in new and digitally sophisticated ways. The best academic libraries today provide points of connection between scholars, both locally and globally.”

The new construction won’t add significant square footage. But with so much of the library’s overall holdings in digital form and the addition of compact shelving to house the core collection, less space is required for physical materials.

That makes room for an improved and expanded special collections display, an additional high-tech classroom, and a self-service vending café so students won’t have to leave the building for a snack or a cup of coffee.

The librarians also look forward to the College’s Academic Resource Center relocating to the library, where they can work hand-in-hand with ARC staff to better support students’ needs. But what really makes them beam is the addition of elevators to every floor of the building. It’s “huge,” says Liz Kent, noting they will no longer have to move classes for students who can’t negotiate the stairs.

Work is expected to continue into the summer of 2014. The west wing, portions of which extend into the Fletcher Hall parking lot, should open by May or June 2013.

Shank says it will be some time before any steel goes up, however. “You’ll see dirt being moved, but you won’t see a lot of visible construction going on for a couple of months.”

Two years from now, patrons will see a clear and intentional visual distinction between the past and present. Johnston loves what she sees on paper.

“I think the cool thing about the design is the way the new addition features the historical structure and builds a bridge between the two very different styles of architecture,” she says.

It also preserves the library’s longstanding place as the “vibrant center of intellectual life on campus,” President Parker says. “This renovation and expansion will create a space that reflects the vitality, tradition and beauty of our academic community.”

Jennifer McManamay


Category: A Landscape for Learning, Digital Sophistication, Uncategorized