New England and Sanders Renovations Showcase the Old and New
Two classroom buildings that together have served Vassar students for more than 200 years have undergone major transformations. Sanders Physics, built in 1926, was gutted and completely refurbished and now houses the computer science department as well as the physics and astronomy departments. New England Building, which opened in 1901, has a new interior that includes some touches harking back to its original design. It now serves as headquarters for the psychology and cognitive science departments. Both buildings reopened at the start of the fall semester. Their renovations are important components of the Integrated Science Center, which also includes Olmsted Hall and Vassar’s new “bridge” building, currently under construction.
Bryan Corrigan, project manager in the Buildings and Grounds Department, says Ennead Architects LLP of New York City, and general contractor, Kirchhoff-Consigli, of Pleasant Valley, New York, “did a great job stripping the buildings down to their bones and modernizing them.” That modernization included the use of recycled materials, energy-efficient heating and cooling systems, and other amenities that earned both buildings certification in Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) from the U.S. Green Building Council.
Now that the renovation of New England is complete, the building looks a lot more like it did when it first opened. A skylight, part of the original design that had been removed during a previous renovation, was custom-fabricated and installed, and the main staircase was restored.
New plumbing and electrical systems were installed in both New England and Sanders, and the interior of Sanders was reconfigured to add classrooms, a conference room, lounge, and faculty offices on the third floor for the computer science department, capturing an additional 4,634 square feet of usable space. Previously, the Sanders “attic” had been used to store outdated science equipment and furniture.
The exterior of Sanders Physics may look the same as it did before the renovation, but everything inside is brand new—from the spacious physics labs in the basement to a new roof, and all three floors in between. “Our classrooms are better equipped and our labs are much bigger; we can run a lot more experiments at a time,” says associate professor of physics Brian Daly, who chairs the department.
All classrooms are equipped with SMART Boards that enable faculty to display information while allowing students to capture it in their laptop computers. Physics professor Cindy Schwarz says the high-tech equipment enables her to teach more effectively. “We had SMART Boards in the old Sanders, but these are much better,” Schwarz says.
One new feature allows Schwarz to import all of the information she puts on the SMART Board onto a Moodle learning platform that students can later access from their own computers. “This is especially helpful if a student is struggling and comes to my office hours,” Schwarz says. “We can open up Moodle and look at the material that was presented in class.”
Physics major Rob Sciortino ’15[RH1] , who serves as a lab assistant in Sanders, says he enjoys working in the renovated building. “All the labs are really nice, and there’s a lot of new equipment,” Sciortino says. “And having the whiteboards and computers right there makes it much easier to organize group study activities.”
Associate professor Marc Smith, chair[RH2] of the computer science department, says he and his colleagues and students are thrilled to be joining the physics and astronomy faculty and students in Sanders Physics—the department moved from the basement of the Old Laundry Building. “The chairs of all the science departments have been talking for quite awhile about doing more to integrate learning, and it’s great that we’re now all in the same quad,” Smith says. “Being over here allows for more interaction and conversation with other science faculty and students, and that’s always beneficial.”
Vassar students and faculty aren’t the only ones who are impressed with the newly renovated science building. Prospective students are too. “When I see the looks on the faces of the young people touring the building, I’m sure this is helping our admissions process,” Smith says.
Like Sanders, New England underwent major renovations inside, but great effort was made to restore the building to its original grandeur. When Ennead architects studied the original plans for the building that were drawn more than a century ago, they noticed the building was topped with a skylight. “We felt it was important to restore the architectural integrity of the original space by recreating the skylight,” says project architect Kate Mann. After inspecting one built by the same craftsmen as the one made for New England, Mann says, “We were able to re-create the skylight using modern materials.”
The architects also used the century-old sketches of the building to dramatically alter the interior by restoring the main staircase to its original design. “We removed all non-original parts, restored what was left and replaced what had been demolished,” Mann says. “The original staircase, including the treads and the rails, remained.”
While reinstalling a skylight and restoring the staircase were always part of the plan, contractors faced an unexpected challenge just a few weeks after construction began. When they dug a trench along the north and west sides of the building, they discovered a substantial portion of the foundation was crumbling. A decision was made to pour a new one, a process that took nearly six weeks. Despite the setback, Corrigan says, contractors found ways to do other work inside the building while the foundation was repaired, and they met the project’s original deadline.
Since it opened in the fall, the modernized building has been getting rave reviews from those who work there. Associate professor of psychology Dara Greenwood says she’s particularly impressed with how spacious the interior has become. “The waiting areas outside our offices allow students to connect with each other both socially and academically,” Greenwood says. “And the lecture halls afford a more interactive classroom dynamic because of the circular seating. The students can all see each other while they are making comments, which I believe facilitates a more respectful and relaxed classroom experience.”
Professor of psychology Susan Trumbetta, who moved to New England from Blodgett Hall, says the renovation “brought some welcome changes” for her and her students. “The New England floor plan flows as a unified whole, with more accessible, open, and welcoming space,” Trumbetta says. “We enjoy more opportunities for conversation with our colleagues.”
Trumbetta says New England’s main staircase has already drawn several art students to the building “to capture in charcoal its graceful lines.” She says the natural light that pours in from the skylight and other windows in the building “make it easier to work comfortably for hours at the computer.”
“I don’t know if Vassar’s generous donors can fully appreciate the huge difference their gifts have made,” Trumbetta adds. “I finally have a lab space appropriate to my research needs. Most mornings I can’t wait to start the day.”
Photo credits: EA: Courtesy of Ennead Architects; KR: ©Vassar College-Karl Rabe; TT: ©Vassar College-Tamar Thibodeau