Speculations on dorm renovations impact campus’ future

Pictured here is Josselyn House in April, 2011. Flowers bloomed on Joss Beach on a fine spring morning seven years ago. Perhaps here will be the future location for the next revamp project. / Courtesy of residentiallife.vassar.edu

Changes are on the horizon that will affect the structure of campus. Vassar’s Campus Master Plan will culminate in yet another renovation of Main Building. The current form and condition of the building is a far cry from what it was like when the College first opened and it housed all of the students and classrooms as well as the art museum, chapel, dining hall, kitchens, servants quarters and library.

However, Main will need to be vacated for up to two years for the renovation. A crucial prerequisite is the creation of additional staging space, including the construction of a 10th residential house. Vassar Architect and Project Manager Bryan Corrigan was able to provide more details on the project.

Although a timeline has not yet been set for the construction of the new dorm, Corrigan says President Bradley has re-prioritized residential life, after major restorations were put on hold five years ago. Renovations first slowed after Davison was reopened in 2009; plans to gut the other three quad dorms were put on hold by the 2008 recession. Davison’s project cost around $20 million, and Vassar could no longer afford to complete a project that expensive every two years as was originally planned. The College instead prioritized short-term improvements such as bathrooms and interior finishes, which cost around five to six million dollars per dorm. However, even these were put on hold during Catherine Hill’s presidency before all of the dorms were reached. This is set to change under President Bradley.

The new dorm will initially be used to hold people who are displaced by the renovation of Main; the school hopes to renovate the entire building at once, and there is currently not enough space in the existing dorms to hold all of Main’s over 300 residents. Offices will mostly be moved to Kenyon. According to the master plan website, the new dorm will have around 150 beds. Other students will be housed in vacant rooms in other dorms, or in large singles that could temporarily be used as doubles.

After Main’s renovation is complete, the school does not intend to use these additional beds as an excuse to increase enrollment. Instead, the new dorm would replace the South Commons, as those buildings are foundationless mobile homes which were constructed to address a temporary increase in enrollment; they have now outlived their intended lifespans. The new dorm addresses the wider goal of bringing seniors back to the center of campus, as does the current requirement that all students be on the meal plan.

Unlike the other residential houses, there is a significant chance that the new dorm will be suite- or apartment-style, or even all singles. Corrigan dispelled rumors that the new building’s exterior would copy those of the existing quad dorms, but as there is not yet an architectural firm signed onto the project, the design of the building also remains uncertain. Corrigan believes the new building represents an opportunity for some different and expressive architecture; the other dorms were built when student’s lives and schedules were much more regimented. For example, the meals were eaten at certain times each day in the rooms that are now the MPRs.

Aspects of existing dorms and dorm life, such as the House Fellow program and the large common areas, will be integrated into the planning of the new dorm. However, the possibility of a dorm without doubles and the focus on bringing seniors back to the center of campus raise questions. While residential areas such as the fifth floor of Main do not house any first-years, there are currently no dorms that exclude members of any one class as a whole. However, the possibility of suite- or apartment-style housing calls into question whether or not first-years will be included. If they are not, the opening of this new dorm would mark a radical shift from housing patterns elsewhere on campus and could alter the social fabric of dorm life at Vassar.

Perhaps the biggest impact of the 10th dormitory will be its location, as that will affect when and how residents and non-residents alike will interact with it. While the site has not been officially selected, Joss Beach remains the only potential site listed on the master plan website, which reads, “One proposed location for a new residence hall, Joss Beach, presents the opportunity to explore geothermal heating and cooling for the new building.” A major factor in site selection is the high water table on campus, which can make construction difficult in some areas. Additionally, Joss Beach is one of the few large open spaces near the center of campus but not central to campus life.

The new dorm is only part of a longer process; other projects on the horizon include renovating Kenyon, Blodgett, the Old Laundry Building, Raymond, Noyes and Cushing. What is here today will pass on and be replaced by what is coming, and this new dorm represents just a glimpse of what awaits the future of the campus.

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