The Birth of a Library – Quentin Cohan

In the fourth Art History 101 lecture in the fall, Professor Michael Lewis explained the history of Williams College’s libraries. The first one was Lawrence Hall (which is now the Williams College Museum of Art), built in 1848. In 1923 Stetson Hall replaced Lawrence as the school’s main library. Fifty years later, Sawyer became the school’s main library, which it has remained ever since. College President Adam Falk said in a video posted online that Sawyer is “396 individual study carrels located around a static collection of books. That is what a library was forty years ago when Sawyer was built, and that is what it has remained.”

That definition will drastically change when the College’s new $86 million, 176,276 square foot, five story library opens in late July. According to project manager Felipe Giraldo, the construction is about 90 percent complete, with “some spaces 99 percent complete, and some 80-85 percent.” All that remains is final testing of the mechanical systems, aesthetic touches such as carpeting and paneling, and, of course, moving in all the books.

The idea for renovating Stetson Hall, which was built in 1923, has been in planning since about 1998, per an article in the Berkshire Eagle. College officials were ready to begin work on the new library in 2008, but the recession struck forcing the college to put the project on hold for three years.

The project, which began in earnest in 2011, was designed by architect Chris Sutterer from the firm Bohlin Cywinski Jackson and is being built by Consigli. When Sawyer was built in 1973, Stetson was “hastily renovated to provide uncomfortable faculty offices and awkward classroom spaces,” according to a memo in the Consigli office on campus. It consists of demolishing the 1956 and 1962 additions to the original building, renovating the building’s 40,000 square feet, and adding on another 130,000. The new façade includes brick, cast-stone, sculpted slate, and slate shingle veneers.

The building’s interior is a sprawling monument to the wonders of learning. The library will hold the college’s book collection, digital library, media center, and rare artifacts collection. It also contains group study spaces, individual carrels with beautiful views of the berkshires, reading rooms, faculty offices, and a café. Giraldo happily pointed out that the new library, unlike the old Sawyer, will have restrooms on the first floor.

Restroom accessibility is, fortunately, not the only difference between the libraries. The old Sawyer was built in 1973, a barren architectural era. All Giraldo would say about the old library is that it is a “different building.” The new Sawyer, however, is an architectural marvel which Giraldo describes as “unique.” The building’s addition encases the back of the old building, creating a stunning visual from the second floor of being able to see the old brick exterior while still inside the building. The new library, much like the Schow science library, was designed with an emphasis on group studying–a notion desperately lacking from Sawyer. Additionally, many Williams students have described Sawyer as a “dungeon” because of its low-lighting, cramped hallways, and concrete pillars. The new building is a palace. The sunshades magnify the natural light which pours in through the glass walls, giving the building an ethereal lighting.

Every room has a distinguishing element, all of them jaw-dropping. The Reading Room has ornate sculpting in the ceiling and will be a place for quiet studying twenty-four hours a day. President Falk said “it’s one of the most beautiful rooms, I think, on the entire Williams campus.” The Chapin rare books archive is a two-story chamber supported by elegant corinthian columns. In a room on the second floor there is a hand-carved wood relief of a open book encircled by a wreath. Perhaps most awe-inspiring of all is the atrium on the main floor, which is a two-story opening flooded with light at the front of the library that connects the old and new structures. Like a gothic cathedral, it draws the eyes upwards to the heavens.

Girlado says that Consigli takes “great pride in working for Williams College to deliver this project.” He and the other 170 workers are on site for about sixteen hours everyday, and they are progressing very quickly. Despite the long hours, Giraldo has worked with great passion on this project, and he is “jealous of the students” who will get to study in the new Sawyer because “you don’t see many buildings like this.” The new library will fit in with the architectural theme Bohlin Cywinski Jackson established when they designed Schapiro and Hollander, so the building, though new, “won’t look foreign,” Giraldo says. Additionally, when the old Sawyer goes to the chopping block in the summer of 2015, the college will turn that area into a lawn which will open up the campus. Once the library opens and students begin claiming carrels, they will see that, as Giraldo explained, “this building is amazing and it leaves you in awe.”


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