The Evolving Role of Preservation on College Campuses
Colleges and universities are some of the oldest and most stable institutions in the country, and as such they feature environments that facilitate an attachment to place few other institutions can claim. They have long understood the allure of the past, as a way to keep alumni coming home and as a strategy for cultivating future students.
“It’s interesting how many campuses show their historic buildings when selling themselves to prospective students, especially online,” says University of Oregon professor of landscape architecture Robert Z. Melnick. “In my observation, very few college websites are saying, ‘We’re brand new, come test us!’ It’s a way of establishing or asserting longevity.”
As a professor of architecture and the director of Historic Preservation Initiatives at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, I’ve seen the challenges of campus preservation firsthand. Once-grand campus buildings from the 19th and 20th centuries are now finding themselves outdated. In an age when the tools of education such as books, notepads, and ballpoint pens are becoming obsolete, campus buildings are being reinvented, one by one.
So how should we approach preservation planning? Single out the oldest buildings, the physical links to the founding of the school? Or should we preserve the buildings and landscapes most central to the image of the campus today? What makes a place worth investing tens of millions of dollars for a rehabilitation—its architectural merits, the importance of events that happened there, or both? Compounding this challenge has been the ferocity with which schools have defended their prerogatives to do as they wish with their buildings. It’s been my experience that colleges and universities, despite their deep histories, have done surprisingly little to reflect on what they want to preserve, and how. But that is starting to change.
The cause of campus preservation has made significant progress since the turn of the 21st century. In particular, the Getty Foundation’s Campus Heritage Initiative encouraged a methodical approach to preservation, including surveys, plans, and community discussions. Between 2002 and 2007, the Getty awarded 86 Campus Heritage grants, totaling $13.5 million. “The goal was to get consideration of preservation on the table in all campus planning decisions,” says Melnick, who ran the initiative for two years. “Every grant had an educational component, whether it was educating students, maintenance staff, or board members. The idea was that it wasn’t just about doing a report and putting it on a shelf.” After the initiative ended, and with the support of the Getty, the Society for College and University Planning compiled summaries of each grant project—from schools such as Louisiana State University, Haverford College, and Bronx Community College—into an online campus heritage network.
The Campus Heritage Initiative increased awareness of the role of preservation on campuses, and it became the catalyst for new and more sensitive preservation projects, guidebooks, and planning and development at schools across the country. “It put the campus heritage question into the air and made it part of campus discussions,” says Carl Elefante, principal of Quinn Evans Architects, which counts campus preservation as a major area of its practice. “Your heritage plan should interact with your sustainability plan, and the Getty initiative put that into the ethos. Schools [now] have formalized campus sustainability programs, and many of them include heritage programs as part of it.”
Others have created standalone preservation plans, such as the University of Virginia’s Historic Preservation Framework Plan, which senior historic preservation planner Brian Hogg says is “regularly consulted as decisions are made” regarding alterations to the Jeffersonian campus.
On a recent trip to Los Angeles, I toured California State University, Long Beach (CSULB) to see its remarkable collection of public sculpture stemming from the International Sculpture Symposium movement. Started in the late 1950s, the symposia marked an effort by artists to facilitate international cooperation in the face of the Cold War. The first one in the United States (and the first on a college campus) took place in 1965 at CSULB. It resulted in nine works by important sculptors such as Kosso Eloul and Robert Murray, and over the years 11 more pieces have been added.
The school’s University Art Museum is teaming with another Getty undertaking, the Getty Conservation Institute’s Modern and Contemporary Art Research Initiative, to conserve these works. Over the past three years, the Getty has provided research into the original state of the sculptures, while the campus has committed itself to a stewardship plan for the collection. Five of the sculptures have been conserved so far, and the conservation of a sixth, Robert Irwin’s Window Wall (1975), is underway. The sculptures, it should be noted, are set in a campus master plan by architect Edward A. Killingsworth, a regionally important Midcentury Modernist.
CSULB’s work with its sculpture collection is admirable, but preserving physical elements such as art and architecture isn’t the only aspect of campus preservation. Colleges and their buildings gain their power as much from the ideas and movements born within their walls as from the walls themselves. For example, Founders Library at Howard University shares some of the DNA of other 1930s academic library buildings. When Founders opened its doors in 1939, with the support of a $1 million federal allocation, it was the largest library at a Historically Black College and University (HBCU). The venerable Washington, D.C., building, designed by African-American architect Albert Cassell, pays homage to Independence Hall in Philadelphia and could be transplanted to any number of campuses.
But the structure’s importance—and the reason it has been named one of the National Trust’s National Treasures—has as much to do with what happened inside, and its symbolism to generations of African-Americans. It was in Founders, when the law school library was housed there in the 1940s and 1950s, that Thurgood Marshall and Charles Hamilton Houston developed their novel and nation-changing strategy for winning the Brown v. Board of Education legal case in 1954. And Founders is where the civil rights and women’s rights activist Pauli Murray studied for the law degree she earned in 1944, graduating first in her class. Built primarily as a library and administrative space, the building also houses the Moorland-Springarn Research Center, one of the world’s largest collections of archival materials related to African-American history.
Founders Library replaced the old “Main Building,” one of the campus’s original buildings from 1867. Unlike the Main Building, which had faced outward to the city, Cassell oriented Founders to the north, toward the quad that is the heart of the Howard campus. The building’s placement also aligned its front entrance with the pathway called “the long walk,” where the graduation processional is traditionally held. When I visited in July 2016, the campus was still buzzing from the presence of President Obama as the featured speaker at Commencement, held each year on the quad in front of Founders.
University libraries in general are facing an uncertain future, because modern technology and changing educational practices render many of their features unsuited to present-day needs. To address this threat at Founders while preserving the building’s character and history, the National Trust is working with Howard to develop a renovation strategy it hopes will set a standard other colleges and universities can follow.
To the same end, the Trust has also teamed with Morgan State University in Baltimore to come up with a stewardship plan meant to serve as a model for the other 100-plus HBCUs in the country. Brent Leggs, executive director of the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, says the administrations of most HBCUs see the value of preservation, and are looking for help with implementing it. “Right now, only a handful of HBCUs have completed preservation plans,” Leggs explains. “These plans are an essential tool to ensure protection of the vast collection of HBCU resources.”
At the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where I teach, the 1886 Old Chapel is a beloved symbol of the university, but one that was boarded up for nearly two decades. By last fall, with the steady pressure of the campus advocacy group Preserve UMass and funding largely provided by the University of Massachusetts Building Authority, a $21 million renovation by Finegold Alexander Architects (FAA) returned the chapel, now an event space, to its original status as one of the premier gathering places on campus.
FAA carefully restored the second-floor auditorium, including the long-lost rose window designs, while more freely adapting the first-floor space, which had been altered many times. To satisfy ADA requirements, the architects created a new terrace on the south side of the building, and remade several window openings as the new entry doors. Students quickly found a new place to study and hang out, and everyone from trustees to newly married couples have stood in awe beneath the massive wood beams of the auditorium.Public or private, large or small, every campus contains places that mean something to the people who have passed through it. “Ages 17 to 23 are formative years in this country,” says Robert Melnick. “College is where many people met their first boyfriend or girlfriend, or made friends they still have. If you’re a commuter student, the campus is still a place where you go through these major life changes. I think that memory of a campus is an argument for thinking about the historic resources there.”