As part of a broader plan to renew the infrastructure supporting the natural sciences at Vassar College, contractors from Daniel O’Connell’s Sons proceeded to demolish Mudd Chemistry. Welders and workers finished dismantling the steel frame of Mudd Chemistry on Friday, April 22 and have begun clearing the site to make room for a new green located to the north of Olmstead Hall and the Bridge.
Drawing on contractor expertise, the demolition has continued without major incidents. Project Manager Jeffrey Weinman explained, “The demo plan involved carefully stripping away the non-structural elements, such as the masonry façade, interior walls, windows, so that the structural members can be cut off and removed selectively, without destabilizing the remaining frame.”
He continued, “The greatest safety risk is any unplanned structural failure or collapse. This is why a competent professional is brought in to assess the structure and assist in planning the demo sequence.”
The Chemistry Department, which has been housed in Mudd Chemistry since 1982, reports that the transition to the Science Bridge exhausted their support staff. Associate Professor of Chemistry Christopher Smart reflected, “The transition was incredibly complex and difficult. [At the same time], the transition was extremely smooth, due to our fantastic staff in the Chem Department who helped the faculty way, way above and beyond the call of duty.”
Noting that the transition began over the summer, Associate Professor Chemistry and Department Chair Zachary Donhauser corroborated, “I’d also add that the move-in phase to the new building isn’t done yet! There are still boxes to unpack and labs to set up.”
Despite the toll that the transition took on the Chemistry Department, with all of the time that it took to transfer the entire department’s equipment, faculty and administration decided together that the best choice was to move to the Science Bridge. Considering the condition of Mudd Chemistry, President Catharine Hill explained, “While innovative for its time, there have consistently been problems with water leaks, which can be incredibly problematic for those working in the building.” Although built in 1984 and relatively young on this campus, Mudd was not in as good condition as was expected. Professors observed that the building was also energy inefficient.
Mudd Chemistry, however, was not always as run-down as it appeared in its final days. In its heyday, the building hosted a vibrant scientific community of Vassar faculty, students and visitors alike. Professor of Chemistry Miriam Rossi explained, “It was a place where many students got started on their first research experiences, including some that are now faculty members themselves! In the early 1990s, I drove a U-Haul truck from Philadelphia with a large, heavy and complex instrument—a single-crystal X-ray diffractometer—thus making Vassar the first undergraduate school in the U.S. to have one onsite
She went on to say, “I was personally involved in inviting and hosting stimulating visitors, such as Nobel Prize winning scientists Linus Pauling, H.C. Brown and Baruch Blumberg, writer Anne Sayre and physician Oliver Sacks.”
With every space carefully allotted to classrooms, offices and laboratories, professors and students circulated throughout the building to study, work and experiment. Referring to the top floor, Rossi reflected, “There was a really nice student lounge with a fair bit of natural light where the chemistry majors would make the Friday afternoon liquid nitrogen ice cream.” Students and staff all found the building comfortable and familiar. Co-founder of Women in STEM at Vassar College Neila Kline ’16 agreed, “It was a comfortable and quiet space to convene before and after classes, and really only drew chemistry students.” Comparing the old lounge to various study spaces in the Science Bridge, Kline suggested that the influx of non-majors has made Science Bridge less intimate and a lot noisier than Mudd was.
Mudd Chemistry also had an unusual setup in its basement which allowed for easy communication. Donhauser explained, “The bottom floor was essentially one big, open research lab that faculty and students shared. I believe that was one factor that led to a culture of collaboration and collegiality in our department.” In addition to creative chemistry, the windowless concrete walls also provided a layer of security, shielding peaceful researchers below from inclement weather. Rossi remembered a time when she remained unaware of a hurricane going on outside the lab until she finished her work and emerged.
The move to the Science Bridge presents novel opportunities to explore space, but it also creates challenges. According to Rossi, there is an emerging shortage of offices and traditional classroom space on campus. Since the Bridge classrooms are different in design from the familiar Mudd rooms, professors and students will have to be more creative about what a learning space should look like, especially in a highly specialized field such as chemistry.
Chemistry Professor Joseph Tanski was more optimistic, arguing that the Bridge’s innovative design gives it longevity. Donhauser agreed, “We’re now equipped with modern, more spacious and better equipped spaces for our research and I expect that the number of collaborative research projects with our students will continue to grow.”
Others hope that the physical transition will also mark a thematic one. Kline expressed a vision for the new building, suggesting, “Vassar shows dedication to strengthening its research programs. We hope that this new building can create more opportunities for women and other minorities to engage in research alongside faculty members, and to increase our representation in these disciplines.”
Rossi observed that despite Mudd’s shortcomings, the building had sentimental value for generations of students and for the faculty who began their careers in its halls. Her statement certainly applies to Smart, who reflected, “My entire teaching career was in Mudd, so in a way all of my moments were there.” He continued, “I had a very hard time watching Mudd come down. Each day I could look into some space in which I had spent considerable time. It is different from leaving a building that will be used by someone else. With Mudd, it’s just gone.”
Looking forward to new projects, Hill concluded that the master planning process is turning to new projects on campus, including the space left behind by Mudd Chemistry. Weinman predicted, “In my experience working here over the past three years, one of the things I have appreciated about the campus is the many natural green spaces and significant architecture of the buildings. I think the finished product of the restored landscaping will mesh well with the feel of the campus.”