Additions must respect campus

Williams College is about to experience the most sweeping change to its physical character in a century. Within the next few years, the Adams Memorial Theater will be expanded into a performing arts center, Baxter Hall will be transformed beyond recognition and Stetson Hall will exchange the rabbit warren of offices to its rear for a sleek and modern addition.

These projects are being entrusted to architects of national distinction, and it is to be expected that they will be impressive and well-functioning specimens of modern architecture. They might even be great buildings. But will they be great Williams buildings? This, as we shall see, is a different question.

All three projects involve the remodeling or replacement of a prominent existing building, juxtaposing the Williams present with its past. For this reason it is useful to look at our architectural history to look for guidance, for inspiration – but also for warning signs. And here we must turn to the principal reference for the College’s architecture, the superb and witty Reflections on the Architecture of Williams College by emeritus professor Whitney Stoddard.

Stoddard’s account shows that the College’s architecture can be divided into three phases. For its first fifty years, buildings adhered to a gentlemanly Georgian style, of brick walls and wood trim. West, Griffin and East testify to this stately and reticent architecture. Then came the Victorian explosion, a rollicking series of building in fiercely different styles and materials. There followed the picturesque Gothic of Goodrich Chapel, the pugnacious Romanesque of Hopkins Hall and the whimsical Queen Anne of the three science buildings, standing obediently at attention in a prim row. Loveliest of all were those elegant dolomite fortresses, Lasell and Morgan, fickle buildings that could not choose between the forms of the Dutch Renaissance or the Byzantine Empire, and so decided to use both.

The third phase began in 1902 when the College summoned the celebrated landscape firm of F. L. Olmsted and Company to assess the architecture and planning of Williams. Not surprisingly, the campus was found to be visually discordant and spatially incoherent, and to an appalling degree. To remedy the first deficiency, Olmsted recommended a unified architectural style; for the second, a series of quads, organized by function and location. These principles brought into being the campus we know today, the relaxed and informal geometry of interlocking quads, pearls of spatial clarity strung along the meandering necklace of Route 2.

It was the great good fortune of Williams to find an architect of extraordinary talent to create the visual unity that Olmsted sought: Ralph Adams Cram, the famed designer of West Point and of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York. Cram’s brilliant insight was to look at the original historical character of Williams, before the Victorian interlude, for his architectural cues. This he found in the handsome and genteel Georgian architecture of the early years, with its classical rooflines, brick walls and sparing use of wood or marble trim. Although a passionate lover of medieval architecture, Cram subordinated his own architectural preferences to the character of the campus – something our current architects should do well to note. Over a thirty-year run, Cram contributed more buildings than any other architect who worked at Williams, including Chapin, Stetson, Sage, Williams, Lehman and the Adams Memorial Theater. He even managed to find poetry in his 1934 power plant.

Although modernist buildings began to infiltrate Williams in the 1960s – belatedly and at first rather nervously – they did not overthrow the logic of the Olmsted plan. Greylock and Bronfman borrowed the brick walls and flat rooflines of their Georgian predecessors. More assertively modernistic designs have followed, such as Spencer, Mission Park and the leviathan of the new science center. Nonetheless, all these buildings have come at the periphery of the historic campus. The historic core has remained intact, variegated in its individual expression but unified in its consistently human scale, its red brick and white trim and its tradition of good architectural manners. This now looks likely to change.

The most imminent change is that to the Adams Memorial Theater, whose lofty classical portico is to be destroyed with the construction of the performing arts center. This is a melancholy loss, and almost certainly an avoidable one. Even worse is its replacement with a strident modernist gesture, which might well prove as jarring an architectural note as has yet been built along Main Street. This street has its own splendid compact unity, carried by the mild rhythm of its repeated classical porticos: the Congregational Church, the Faculty Club, Chapin and the Adams Theater in its present incarnation. And the centerpiece of the entire ensemble – standing closest to the street and acting like a gem in this setting of classical porticos – is the house of the College president. The death of one of these porticos diminishes them all.

It is not clear why the Adams portico must depart; evidently it is being punished for having had the temerity to have been built in 1941. In any event, the loss to the coherent unity of the street is irreparable.

While the design of the performing arts center is now settled, this is not the case with Baxter. Here too is a building that occupies some of the campus’s most conspicuous public terrain, and its exterior is of the highest importance. Baxter may be an undistinguished piece of colonial revival nostalgia, but it performs one part of its mission magnificently, and that is to act as a polite neighbor. With Sage and Chapin it interacts amiably, sharing a common scale and palette of materials. (Notice the shared band of limestone that unites all three). Whatever new building rises upon the foundation of Baxter must also respect its context. Chapin Hall, with its sumptuous portico of monolithic limestone columns, is the architectural crescendo of the College. It reigns on its podium like a king, alert and regal; he should not be upstaged by his spear carrier.

The third project, the Stetson-Sawyer renovations, is not yet far along; no architect has yet been chosen. It too involves the adding of a massive wing to an exquisite architectural heirloom, containing what is perhaps the campus’s most opulent interior space. Here again is an opportunity for much good – and much mischief. For this reason an architect with historical conservation credentials should be considered, at least as part of the team. Within a few months we will know more.

Such is the state of architecture at Williams at the start of the new century. Perhaps all three projects will be glorious triumphs. Intelligent committees, clever architects and good will can accomplish much. And the level of good will surrounding these proceedings in the past three years is perhaps the best indication that things will work out.

But I am still troubled that three architects will be working independently on their respective projects, toiling in isolation, without the remarkable coordination that the Olmsted-Cram team produced. In retrospect, the most impressive achievement of their collaboration was that their ineffable feeling for the character of the place in which they worked. If they did not make monuments of great sophistication and boldness, this is perhaps not the worst sin; sometimes it is better to be considerate than conceited. We could do far worse than going back to Olmsted’s sensitive and humane recommendations, which shaped this gentle and gregario
us place in which we live.