WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Williams College will ask the town's Historical Commission for permission on Thursday to raze an 1850 South Street structure that has served as a residence hall since the 1970s.
Garfield House, named for its first occupant, an 1885 alumnus and ninth president of the college and the son of the 20th president of the United States, also a Williams alumnus, is outdated, inefficient and far too costly to renovate, according to a nine-person committee that studied the building.
The college's executive director of planning design and construction, who co-chaired that committee, said she and other members went into the six-week study hoping and expecting to be able to save Garfield House, which was purchased in 1924 as the home of the Delta Upsilon fraternity.
"I feel strongly about renovating historic structures," Rita Coppola-Wallace said earlier this month. "I came from Florida, and in Florida, if something is 10 years old, they knock it down to make way for something new. I was impressed when I came here and saw buildings still very much in use dating back to the 19th century.
"I came into the committee fully expecting to go the route of historic renovation. At the end, myself and the other three people who came in with that perspective all looked at each other and said, 'It's a no-brainer.' "
The driving force behind the study is the college's memorandum of understanding with the Massachusetts Architectural Access Board, which monitors compliance under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Over the next 15 years, the college plans to tackle accessibility issues and other renovations in 11 to 13 dormitories, Coppola-Wallace said. Garfield is first on the list, and the MAAB expects the facility to be fully accessible — either through renovation or replacement.
The committee determined the former was impractical.
"This dorm has four different levels just on the first floor," Coppola-Wallace said. "We would have had to remove floors and joists. … The costs would have been astronomical. … We would have had to remove the stucco, take down the wood and remove portions of the floor."
The committee's Nov. 8 letter to the college community summarizing its findings made the same point.
"The committee felt that while many of the challenges that the existing structure presents could be solved during a renovation, that process would require the commitment of enormous resources just to solve them," the letter reads. "Constrained by the existing structure's footprint, various floor elevations and extremely poor circulation paths, the resultant project would be less than successful in improving the quality of student life and meeting the current college standards for residence halls."
Another issue standing in the way of renovation: energy efficiency.
Even a renovated Garfield House would have required 29 percent more energy per square foot to operate than a new dorm, according to the committee's report. And the total energy picture is more dramatic than that, because a new structure would require 26 percent less square footage than the existing 19,000 square foot residence hall for the same 40 beds it currently provides.
The total energy consumption of a renovated Garfield House would be 39 percent higher than a new build, concluded the college's consultants at New York-based engineering firm Thornton Tomasetti.
"The renovation option poses an interesting opportunity to perform a 'deep energy retrofit,' by essentially wrapping the whole building with continuous insulation," reads a report from Thornton Tomasetti's Michael Pulaski included in the committee's report. "This is relatively unique and can lead to significant energy savings getting close the performance of a new building, but has numerous hurdles to overcome including the introduction of a lot of cost risk associated with unforeseen conditions.
"While the renovated building will have all new [mechanical, electrical and plumbing] equipment, achieving a continuous insulation and air barrier around the perimeter will be a significant challenge. In particular, the details at the foundation and roof represent the biggest challenges."
Finally, while the 1850 structure's physical deficiencies could be patched over at considerable cost and with long-term higher energy consumption, the college committee studying Garfield House was not sure it was worth the effort.
"[The] facade is handsome, an ornament to the street," according to Williams art historian E.J. Johnson, who sat on the committee. "The three public rooms on the ground floor are also handsome. Those are the only parts, I think that are worth saving."
Johnson's comments were included in the committee's summary report to the college community, where he indicates that while the building itself dates back to the mid-19th century, a number of subsequent renovations, starting with the fraternity's makeover in 1924, make it less historically significant.
"Even though I'm an architectural historian and an ardent preservationist, I find it very hard to argue that we should go to the trouble and take the risks of trying to make it into a more acceptable dorm," Johnson wrote.
Not lost on the committee is the fact that Garfield House is "the least desirable residence hall on campus," and speculates that "small rooms, poor HVAC, leaky walls and windows, extremely poor paths of circulation and the lack of dedicated small lounge areas to gather all certainly played a major role," in its status.
That said, Tudor-style building is not without some fans. Coppola-Wallace said she has heard from one alumna of the college who expressed a fondness for the dorm, and the Delta Upsilon fraternity has expressed an interest in preserving a shield and emblem that still adorn the walls of the dorm.
On balance, the college has decided it is time to replace Garfield House, and on Dec. 22 it is scheduled to make that case to the Historical Commission, which will be asked to determine if the building is "preferably preserved."
Coppola-Wallace said that if the town committee gives its approval, the college plans to build anew on the site in 2018 and have a new dorm online for the start of the 2019-20 academic year.
Although the Garfield House sits just up the road from the Clark Art Institute, Coppola Wallace said the college is not thinking of the South Street location as a potential home for the Williams College Museum of Art. In 2015, the college floated the idea of building a new museum at the corner of Main and Southworth streets, but that idea was withdrawn after it met with considerable pushback from neighbors.
"We're looking at two other [WCMA] sites — Water Street and the current Williams Inn site — in addition to staying where we are," Coppola-Wallace said. "We do recognize the connection with the Clark that could potentially happen if the new museum goes at the inn site."
But as for the Garfield House site?
"We have 450 acres, and most of that is developed," she said. "We don't have any land, and we need the dorm. What makes the sense now is to rebuild on the site and look at the other two sites and the possibility, certainly, of the museum staying where it is."
And Coppola-Wallace does not expect the sprawling Garfield House to have the same happy ending seen by Mather House, which was acquired by a town resident and relocated for conversion to apartments in 2014.
"We've not talked to anybody [about moving Garfield]," she said. "We certainly can talk to them. We can make it available, but I dare say it would be close to impossible to relocate it.
"Miller House was the largest structure we relocated. That was 8,500 square feet [less than half the size of Garfield's 19,000]. It was one move, but it was wood construction. I don't want to say that move was easy, but it was straightforward.
"Garfield has two staircase towers connected to it and a carriage house connected to it."
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