Building the Future

By Charlotte Bruce Harvey '78 / September/October 2009
September 25th, 2009

It's easy to imagine Brown in summer as a serene and verdant place, with graduate students and professors strolling leisurely under the elms en route to the library.

But that would be the stuff of fantasy—or distant memory at least. For the past few years an army of construction vehicles has rumbled onto campus even as the Commencement platform was being dismantled. The Friday before this year's Commencement, in fact, Brown broke ground on the Creative Arts Center on Waterman Street along the Pembroke Walk. Before you could blink, backhoes were gouging an immense crater along Angell Street, excavating for the foundation.

All this frenzied activity is one of the physical manifestations of the Plan for Academic Enrichment, which has been changing the campus landscape since 2002. Even as the recession and a rapidly declining endowment have forced the University to rethink or downscale some capital projects, others have gone ahead. Some of them were well along or near completion when the economy collapsed, and the money for others, including the Creative Arts Center and the Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology and Ancient Studies on the College Green, was already in hand.

Maintaining a campus as old as Brown's is always a game of catch-up, and not surprisingly the list of facilities in need of renovation has grown long in recent decades. No wonder, then, that this summer, 131 construction projects were under way on campus. University officials estimate that they've spent $31 million on construction between May and September—$12 million of it on labor, which, by creating jobs for about 300 construction and trades workers, has come at a critical time in Rhode Island's battle against a 12.9 percent unemployment rate.

All summer long, workers with jackhammers tore up sidewalks, and trucks hauled away the rubble. Outside historic buildings, dumpsters overflowed with the detritus of centuries: lathe and horsehair plaster, crumbled stucco and mortar, old gas pipes and remnants of knob-and-tube wiring. In their place have come insulated windows, energy-efficient heating and lighting systems, and the components of state-of-the-art "smart classrooms." All of the new construction has met the standards for at least silver LEED certification.

Several of these new projects are restorations. Pembroke Hall, erected in 1897 to house what was then the Women's College, reopened last fall as the ultramodern home of two research institutes: the Cogut Center for the Humanities and the Pembroke Center for Teaching and Research on Women. Two blocks over in J. Walter Wilson Hall, old labs were gutted after scientists moved into the new Sidney Frank Hall for Life Sciences, and J. Walter Wilson was transformed into a daylight-filled nexus for student services, offices, and glass-walled classrooms. Now students can grab a cup of coffee and check their mail in the building's atrium before heading upstairs to go to class, meet with a chaplain or therapist, file a permission slip with the registrar, or research internships and volunteer jobs at the Academic Resource Center.

Alumni returning to campus over the next few years will see some transformed buildings on the College Green. After Wilson Hall (not to be confused with J. Walter Wilson) got a facelift, attention turned across the Green to Rhode Island Hall, whose restoration was completed as the BAM was going to press, and Faunce House, which will be transformed over the coming year into the Stephen Robert '62 Campus Center.

The renovation of Rhode Island Hall is Exhibit A in the philosophy driving much of the new work-in-progress. This massive Greek Revival building, which anchors the southwest corner of the Green, was stripped down to its rubble walls and completely rebuilt. It opens this fall as the Artemis A. W. and Martha Sharp Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology and Ancient Studies. (We'll include photos in an upcoming BAM.) While providing all the newest technological aids to teaching and research, the building also includes glass panels allowing visitors literally to look into Rhode Island Hall's past. What's more, students under the direction of art professor Richard Fishman salvaged some of the massive wooden beams abandoned as part of the restoration and made benches and other furniture pieces from them that are being used in the building today. They're an apt reminder of the University's belief in continuity, in inventing a future without abandoning the past.

Charlotte Bruce Harvey is the BAM's managing editor.

Photographs by Erik Gould.

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September/October 2009