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Lessons in Preservation

Randolph-Macon's president ties up some loose ends before retiring.


The freshman dorm had long been, everyone agreed, something of an embarrassment. Now, after a dramatic and extensive makeover, the so-called motel dorms are ready for a second half-century of providing living space at the 175-year-old, Methodist-affiliated school.

And when Martin retires next year, he can claim not only this reclamation act as a major accomplishment, but another recently completed building project as well — the impressive rehabilitation and expansion of Thomas Branch Hall, a campus landmark of much grander scale and intentions.

Both projects were designed by Glave & Holmes, a Richmond architecture firm that has made a specialty of delivering thoughtful and contextual design for museum, library, and college and university clients.

The "motel dorms" were built soon after World War II, when housing was hurriedly constructed here and on other American campuses to keep pace with the demand from students enrolling under the G.I. Bill.

The dormitory was built on poured concrete slabs flat to the already flat ground that characterizes Ashland and its environs. The dorms were arranged in two adjacent U-shaped groupings facing westward toward the college stadium. They had red brick exterior walls and hipped roofs but otherwise offered no architectural detail or merit.

The rooms opened then, as now, onto long, wide hallways. Basically, these were barracks.

Glave & Holmes has maintained the buildings' intimate scale but added considerable stylistic punch by raising the roof at the center of the buildings to create a type of three-part Palladian facade.

Then, along the exterior of the head building, architects added a classically inspired white-trimmed pergola. It is reminiscent of The Lawn at University of Virginia. Inside, casually furnished student lounges have been added, providing students some common ground for random group assembly.

While the newly christened "Freshman Village" is on the far back edge of the campus, Thomas Branch Hall is one of the first buildings folks see when they arrive on the grounds by vehicle or on foot. The U-shaped three-story brick building is mildly classical revival and in recent years housed faculty offices. It was opened initially in 1918 as a men's dormitory.

Now the former open space within the U has been enclosed with a glorious three-story atrium that serves not only as a new major point of entry but as a versatile space that can be used actively or passively for a range of activities, from receptions and lectures to student lounging and studying.

The original building now opens onto the space, linked by large glass openings that house offices and spaces of the international studies center, the career counseling staff and the school's tutoring services.

With large dorm rooms for 64 students also in the building, the whole point of the reconfiguration is realized: to create spaces where real academic and social interaction can take place between students, faculty and staff.

Those familiar with the interior of Glave & Holmes' striking William Morton Smith Library at Union Theological Seminary in Ginter Park will see that many of the same good ideas are at play in this space that manages to be sweeping despite its relatively modest dimensions. There are stone floors and high paneled walls of warm wood veneer that stretch upward to clerestory windows and a dramatic, translucent skylight. At Branch Hall, however, gray steel has been added to the mix to make the space more completely contemporary in feel than at Union.

The interior is also remarkably and refreshingly quiet for a space that has all hard surfaces.

On the exterior, this infill has taken an ugly rear of a building and given it prominence as well as interaction with surrounding buildings.

Randolph-Macon College moved from its Boydton campus to Ashland in 1868 after the Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac Railroad donated the land. Since that time, the school has built and expanded physically depending on the financial status and fickleness of changing tastes, college administrations and, if it is like most other schools, its big givers.

Although in many ways the campus is a crazy quilt of architectural styles, they all adhere to certain core ideas. These include human scale, use of red brick and high respect for the wooded and parklike campus setting.

The Freshman Village and Thomas Branch Hall make major contributions architecturally by tying together some of the campus's loose ends while setting a high bar for future historic preservation, expansion and new construction at this proud and fine old college. S

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