Knowledge of the past is a heavy thing. When Swift Hall, burdened with the weight of professors’ history books, began to sink slowly into the earth, the College agreed it was time to renovate.
The story of Swift Hall’s recently completed renovation, which closed the building down from June 2012 until August 2013, is a little longer than that.
Swift was built in 1900 to be Vassar’s infirmary, and its foundation was designed to support a health center housing relatively light-weight equipment. Forty years later it became home to the History Department and began housing, along with classrooms and offices, lots of heavy books.
Project Manager for the Vassar Office of Buildings and Grounds Jeff Horst said, since the History Department moved in, this unanticipated weight caused the building to settle approximately three inches over the next 60 years.
Horst was responsible for the over-yearlong refurbishment of the over-one-hundred-year old structure.
He said “[The job was] A complete renovation of the building, while retaining its historical character.” The outside was meant to look like the original facade of Swift Hall, but the inside would be redone from the foundation to the roof.
Before the renovation, Swift’s layout was still that of the old infirmary.
This created several problems for construction. Most distressing of all was the lack of office space. According to Horst, the faculty needed 17 offices. There were only 14 in Swift. Three professors’ offices had to be outside Swift and away from the rest of the department. History Professor and Chair of the Department Nancy Bisaha said this was what finally put Swift on the slate for renovation.
“The faculty grew in the past few years and we weren’t able to accommodate everyone here, which we thought was a problem. One of the things we value in this department is collegiality,” said Bisaha.
Horst also described how back in the days of the infirmary, there was a main staircase and two smaller staircases specifically for the sick. These two flanking staircases got sealed off when they were no longer necessary, but they still filled up physical space and messed with the floor plan.
Swift’s third story was not a long and continuous hallway for offices, but a series of curved corridors. Bisaha and Horst both described third floors as so confusing that it resembled the layout of a “rabbit’s warren.”
Bisaha and the rest of the History Department has welcomed the new Swift Hall. Bisaha said “I think we’re all happy to be back. We’re glad it was improved but not so changed that it is unrecognizable.” She added, “We’re happy that it still feels like old Swift in a lot of ways.”
The crew took pains to preserve as much of the original exterior as they could. They were able to keep the original glass windows, but they made them more resistant to weather. And for what had to be touched-up or redone, Horst said, they did their best to replicate the original colors. Not just the colors of the building before it was renovated, but the colors of the building when it was first built over a hundred years ago. They sent samples from the site to a company in the city for color analysis.
The mortar between the bricks, which degrades after 50-60 years, was replaced using the same light color as the original. This wasn’t all that had to be redone on the exterior.
“A lot of bricks were replaced where the face of the brick had spalled off. You can never match old brick so we match it as closely as we can,” said Horst.
Listing one last addition to the facade, Horst mentioned the wheelchair ramp at the front of the building. “[When] you look at the front of Swift there’s a rather discrete, accessible ramp allowing everyone universal access to come through the same doors. I think that was for me critically important.”
The interior was, as Horst put it, completely gutted. Walls were torn down and new ones erected to fit the additional offices. Extra beams were installed to support a heavier building. Swift was also given new furniture, new plumbing, power, fire suppression and, for the first time, centralized furniture and cooling. Each office, said Horst, could be privately climate controlled.
Horst told the story of how when the architects had to, complying with fire regulation, install a second means of access to the third floor, they found an innovative solution. The architects decided to reopen one of the sealed-off side staircases, saving them time and space. Work continued inside through the winter months, the contractors warmed by portable heat systems.
Bringing all the faculty members’ offices under one roof, though, meant giving up something else: two of Swift’s classrooms. Sacrificing two-decade-old classrooms for the new offices was not an easy task for Bisaha and her department. The consensus, she said, was that the trade-off was necessary.
“We all felt that it was important to have everyone here, but we sorely miss the extra classrooms,” explained Bisaha.
The two classrooms left in Swift are new and have all the amenities that come with being new: standardized desks and chairs, a camera for projecting pictures of documents of the screen, and of course air-conditioning.
Said Bisaha. “[The new classrooms] have the same basic character as the old classrooms so its nice. It doesn’t seem like you’re teaching a completely radically new space. It is updated, cleaner and neater.”
Bisaha was thankful for the air-conditioning last week when the weather got so warm, but she noted a bit of nostalgia for the old desks and chairs.
She noted, “Most of it [was] mismatched. Us historians kind of liked our mismatched old furniture.”