Linking the past with the future through architecture

Campus landmark buildings reflect history
By: | September 6, 2019
South College renovation on the University of Massachusetts Amherst Campus

Ed Hodges, AIA, is Principal & CEO with DiMella Shaffer.

Many college and university campuses find themselves at an unenviable capital appropriation crossroads: do they continue to maintain beloved landmark buildings that alumni fondly remember but can no longer accommodate evolving pedagogical requirements or do they invest in new buildings that will help recruit the next generation of donors?

This was the dilemma the University of New Hampshire-Durham and the University of Massachusetts-Amherst faced as they grappled with finding new homes for their Humanities Departments.

UNH’s Campus front porch

Hamilton Smith Hall on the University of New Hampshire’s Durham Campus was originally built in 1907 as a Carnegie Library with a $10,000 starter donation and named in honor of Hamilton B. Smith, a wealthy mining engineer who had a summer estate nearby. One of the oldest buildings on campus, “Ham Smith” as alumni refer to it, served as a library for more than 50 years, until Dimond Library was built nearby in 1958, and Ham Smith became an academic building. A series of unsympathetic additions during the ensuing years made it notoriously difficult to navigate.

However, it is very important culturally to the university. Heidi Bostic, dean of the College of Liberal Arts (COLA), describes Ham Smith as an iconic building that represents considerable history for both COLA and the university as a whole. Located on Main Street between Thompson Hall and the Memorial Union Building, “Ham Smith is the front porch of our campus,” says Bostic. As a symbol of the values of a liberal arts education and critical to the mission of the University of New Hampshire, UNH felt it was important to reuse their campus icon.

UMass Amherst’s important link to the past

Originally designed by William Brocklesby, South College on the University of Massachusetts Amherst Campus was built in 1887 as a replacement facility for the original South College, one of the founding structures of the then Massachusetts Agricultural College, which burned in 1885. The quick construction of a new building on the same site following the fire is testimony to the importance of South College within the history of the university.

Renovated significantly in 1902 and again in 1939, when an extensive safety upgrade created the present plan, South College had been transformed over time from a residence to a mixed use academic and administrative structure. Although some of the original architectural detail—especially the peaked cupola at the corner tower—had been modified over time, South College is considered an important link to the university’s origins. This, coupled with the fact that the university had been forced to demolish several other buildings on campus due to significant maintenance costs and their unsuitability to accommodate current technologies, leadership felt that finding a way to re-invent South College once more was a priority and worth the investment.

While both projects support similar academic departments and share historical connections to their respective campuses; each solution utilizes architecture in a different way to achieve their revival.

Architecture that connects people

UNH’s Hamilton Smith Hall was built in 1907, renovated in 1938 and was expanded again with two additions added in 1959 and 1965 that resulted in a convoluted layout making faculty offices hard to find and often inaccessible to students. The building is sited on the northern edge of a ravine with a 150-foot drop, which was considered the southern boundary of the campus when originally built. In the decades following WWII, the university experienced steady growth.

By the early 1960s, the southern expansion of the campus had “jumped the ravine.” No longer considered the back of the campus, the ravine, by happy circumstance, has become an important central open space and counterpart to the university’s open Great Lawn. In addition to serving as an aesthetic amenity, the Ravine is an important corridor in the campus’s pedestrian circulation system; however, slope differences between adjacent buildings made it difficult to walk from building to building.

As a result, during the programming phase, it became apparent that in addition to providing a unique interactive environment for student engagement and learning for the English, Philosophy and Humanities departments, the opportunity to create an accessible pedestrian link extending Library Way would contribute to the success of the project. While this added to the project’s cost, it was considered an important connection in the campus master plan and the university committed the funds.

The solution renovated 25,000 SF of the original Hamilton Smith Hall, preserving the “campus front porch.” After removing the 1950 and 1965 non-contextual additions, a 65,000 SF addition extends off the back of the original 1907 building out into the steeply sloped ravine. A new pedestrian bridge arches over the slope and completes the main campus path which now extends through the addition, connecting the academic core to the center of student life.

The addition’s exterior, articulated as a series of smaller buildings that steps down the slope to the ravine, features water struck brick, cast stone, limestone and zinc shingles that further refine the scale. Gabled slate roofs relate to those of the adjacent buildings. “Double-hung” windows convey familiarity while areas of expansive glass connection the interior to the landscape.

A focal point for socialization

As the largest classroom building in the heart of campus, 23 technology-enhanced classrooms serve all departments of the university with a heavy focus on Active Learning and provides academic communal spaces at various scales and formality. The building’s central Forum space is a focal point for socialization and study and engages the general campus population. It is now a crossroads for the campus with connectivity from all directions where the original building was inward-looking and centrally accessed.

While the architecture remains true to its historical roots, it also looks toward the future. Classrooms include two Technology-Enhanced Active Learning, or TEAL classrooms, that facilitate collaborative, technology-rich learning. These rooms allow faculty and students to share, interact and review one another’s work in small-group and whole-classroom settings. Newly-imagined lab spaces include the Donald Murray Journalism Lab, which boasts a soundproof editing room with a green screen, and a digital recording room. There is also a digital writing studio, a technical writing lab and a film screening room.

The project also features two Works Progress Administration murals dating back to the 1940s. UNH recognized the historical importance of the artwork and had them restored to their original splendor. They are showcased in the lecture halls.

Sustainability guidelines

As a leader in sustainability, the University of New Hampshire has put in place a set of design guidelines that emphasize durability, continuity with history and adaptability for future generations. The architectural solutions embraced these guidelines through the renovation and preservation of significant features of the original building that restored Hamilton Smith’s place as an iconic front door for the campus.

UNH’s primary purpose is learning: students collaborating with faculty in teaching, research, creative expression and service. As the largest classroom building on campus with a wide array of teaching spaces the design directly supports the university’s mission.

Brenda Whitmore, UNH’s director of facilities project management adds, “I have been at UNH for 30 years and Hamilton Smith Hall is the first building on campus that connects and showcases inside and out all the wonderful elements of the UNH campus through a single building.”

Architecture that reflects history

South College was built in 1885 at the center of UMass Amherst. The Massachusetts Historical Commission categorizes the building exterior as “Chateauesque” and the herringbone-patterned gables as characteristic of the Tudor Revival. This romantic, picturesque style reflects the materials and architectural vocabulary of its own time and place—including the irregular and articulated massing common to the late 19th century styles, the climate-appropriate gable and hip roof forms, the granite, brownstone, red brick and slate materials of New England.

The building’s original functions are reflected by its exterior. The three vertical sections of the south wing represent “houses” of dormitories; the east wing originally contained a museum and classrooms; the tower contained faculty and administrative offices, as well as a meteorological observatory.


Read: Remodel, restore or raze? Evaluating midcentury campus buildings


South College and other small early buildings on the UMass Amherst campus had at one time been deemed too difficult and expensive to save. Low floor-to-floor heights and antiquated MEP systems made renovation of the buildings a costly option. The continued loss of the original campus building fabric led planners and leadership to place renewed emphasis on saving the remaining structures from this era of campus architecture.

The design team, with Kliment Halsband as academic planner and interior design architect, and DiMella Shaffer as exterior design architect and architect of record, convinced campus stakeholders that South College could be given a second life by using the “Buddy Building” concept where a smaller heritage-focused building is paired with a larger modern addition.

The larger new building of the pair becomes the code compliance envelope for accessibility, circulation, MEP installation on other efficiency issues, allowing the original building to be re-imagined.

The architectural solution respects the past while supporting evolving educational trends to create a state-of-the-art academic building for the Humanities Department. The iconic red brick façade was restored, and the interior of the original 1887 30,000 SF building was gutted and renovated to bring it up to code and ADA compliance.

The four-story 67,000 SF addition façade of brick, slate, and glass reference the original historic structure —while remaining deferential in height and configuration. The idiosyncratic original windows—that reflected the variety of building uses —inspired a shifting window composition in the addition. Both in terms of mass and materials, the addition was designed to complement and augment the historic structure rather than overwhelm or compete with it.

Housing a variety of flexible teaching environments and seminar rooms, as well as traditional classrooms and offices, the design supports academic collaboration and study by placing gathering spaces throughout the building and interconnecting the various levels of the project.

The heart of the building is a four-story sky-lit commons. This lounge for students and faculty is a meeting and event space for the building and the university. It is bounded by the original 1885 building and the addition and enclosed by instructional space at ground levels. A simple corridor pattern and clearly identifiable vertical circulation help orient visitors in this complex building. The vertical maple slats in the atrium respond to the warmth and scale of the restored brick walls. Interior finishes were deployed to unify the two sections into a single building—while retaining the character of the existing building.

A diverse range of flexible, collaborative public break-out spaces allows small groups of users to inhabit the building. Shared spaces were maximized to increase building capacity and encourage interdepartmental interaction. Meeting spaces were designed to accommodate multiple users throughout the day. Shared kitchen and lounge spaces allowed dedicated departmental suites to be downsized in favor of additional office capacity. These flexible spaces provide a social spine linking the three primary levels of the building and connecting the four building entrances to the campus pedestrian pathway network.

The existing underground utility system for water, steam, data and electricity required significant upgrades to support the new South College Academic Facility. Recognizing that the nearby Dubois Library had limited capacity at the previous loading dock and poor vehicular access, the project also included an underground service corridor tunnel. This created improved loading dock access and allowed new steam and condensate service to connect to the library and improve distribution to downstream buildings.

The past as prelude

One’s college experience is often closely tied to place. Historic buildings and campus elements contribute significantly to an institution’s identity and can be powerful motivating factors in philanthropy and alumni engagement. While older buildings may present economic challenges for adaptive re-use, thoughtful architectural approaches can help link your historic past with your pedagogical future and transform outdated assets into next-generation facilities.

Ed Hodges, AIA, is Principal & CEO with DiMella Shaffer. He can be reached at 617.426.5004 or [email protected]