St. Mary's College attunes buildings to tradition

ARCHITECTURE REVIEW

May 22, 1994|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Sun Staff Writer

St. Mary's City -- With its tidewater setting and bucolic vistas, St. Mary's College of Maryland easily qualifies as one of the state's most beautiful campuses. Unfortunately, its buildings haven't always been as delightful as their natural surroundings.

But this year, college administrators completed two buildings that for once are worthy of the idyllic rural landscape. In the process, they have demonstrated a way for all state campuses to strengthen their identities. Both buildings were designed by Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, a Pennsylvania-based firm well-known for its ability to create a sense of place and its commitment to expressing humanist values. This month, the American Institute of Architects named it the 1994 Firm of the Year, for producing "distinguished architecture" for at least a decade.

A design collaborative that responds to the specific requirements of each commission rather than imposing one stylistic signature, these architects have developed a flair for capturing the essence of Tidewater Maryland architecture. Their buildings haven't so much appeared on the landscape as slipped into it, as if they had always been there.

With landscape architects Michael Vergason and Jay Graham, they have set a new standard of excellence -- and sensitivity -- for design work on a public campus in Maryland.

Founded in 1840 as a women's seminary, St. Mary's is now a public liberal arts college serving 1,500 students. The buildings that demonstrate its enlightened approach to campus-making are William Donald Schaefer Hall, a $16 million science center, and the Townhouse Crescent, a $4 million, 40-unit residential complex made of townhouses arranged in a semicircle.

Bohlin Cywinski Jackson designed both projects to reinforce the notion of the campus as an "academic tidewater village" -- a planning concept that college trustees adopted in 1987 to unify the 268-acre property, which borders the site of Maryland's first Colonial settlement and capital.

Schaefer Hall

Of the two, Schaefer Hall presented the tougher design challenge. With 58,000 square feet of space it is one of the largest buildings on campus, and it could have been one of the most mundane. But Bohlin Cywinski Jackson gave it pastoral panache, creating a composition that bespeaks the rich heritage of the tidewater region while accommodating the functional requirements of a modern research facility.

The key to the successful design was the architects' decision to treat the building as a synthesis of modern construction techniques and traditional forms that take their character from the indigenous architecture of the region.

To help keep the building as low and small in scale as possible, they limited its height to two stories and broke it into sections that frame a greensward. From a distance, its most noticeable feature is a series of massive paired chimneys that recall those on historic manor houses throughout the area. The chimneys are also fully functional for a science building, doubling as fume exhaust stacks for the laboratories inside. More than any other detail, they reflect the architect's quest to reconcile new and old, modern and traditional, urban and rural.

The calculatedly simple exterior design incorporates other key elements of 17th- and 18th-century tidewater architecture as well, including brick construction, peaked slate roofs, authentic multipane windows and arched openings that lead to covered passageways.

The plain architectural vocabulary is reminiscent of the Christopher Wren-inspired Assembly Building, a Colonial-era building that has been reconstructed in St. Mary's City. On Schaefer Hall, white paint covers the undersides of the arches and passageways, but the brick has been left exposed on the outer surfaces -- just as it is on the Assembly Building. To enrich the grounds, landscape architect Jay Graham created a walled garden and other intimate spaces, featuring native flowers and other indigenous plantings.

Another detail that underscores the synthesis of old and new is the series of dovecotes near the roofline. Instead of inserting metallic vents to draw in the fresh air needed to ventilate lab spaces, the architects fashioned brick openings in the shape of dovecotes, the traditional spots on buildings where domestic pigeons roost. Like the chimneys, these dual-purpose dovecotes mask the building's more high-tech function.

Schaefer Hall is not just an essay in historicism, however. Inside, the architects created "project labs" that enable undergraduates to work alongside professors in a way they would not usually be able to do until graduate school.

Also, although the building was constructed on a tight budget, there are numerous examples of quality craftsmanship and fine detailing. One particularly attractive room is the Waldschmitt Lecture Hall, where high ceilings, natural light and maple trim add up to a warm and comfortable teaching space.

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