History 03

Building Sawyer’s Library: Student-Centered Design in a Pinch

The College Library, it seems, needs to be reinvented every forty years or less, so the 1922 Stetson Hall was already superannuated when a replacement began to be contemplated in the later Sixties.  In the prior decade, two additions built with economy foremost in mind had reached the limits of the building’s ability to expand.  The list of student and faculty complaints about the facility was long, and guided the program for a new library.

Perhaps the over-riding flaw was that the building was created to serve a model of undergraduate education and library service that had been superseded, and it could no longer adapt to emerging requirements.  Most obviously, Stetson had been built as a closed-stack library, with no student access to the collections, except through request and delivery.  Over the decades the stacks had been opened to use, but retained their unwelcoming nature.  Lighting and climate control were poor, and conditions cramped.  The inadequacy of lounges, carrels, and group study areas were lamented, and longer hours requested.  And with open stacks, a range of security issues loomed larger and larger.

But most significantly, the need for a new library was, as always, driven by changes in curriculum, teaching philosophy, and student life.  Professor John Hyde ’52 pointed out to me the crucial changes that occurred between the time he arrived as a student and returned as a teacher in 1959.  Earlier the pattern had been to study in one’s room, which tended to be quieter in those less electronic days, and to use the library mainly for two purposes:  reserve room access to assigned readings outside of the regular textbook (pre-Xerox, the only alternative was “purplies,” re-typed on a stencil and mimeographed); and the few carrels in the stacks used only by upperclassmen writing an Honors thesis.  When elective seminars became more common, and more and more students started writing research papers, the shortage of library study space became acute.

The 1956 addition to Stetson also increased library traffic, with more carrels and a lounge in the new stacks.  Unlike the original stacks, which supported the floors, the extension was built so the floors would support the stacks, but with the same low ceilings that were such a problem when converted to a warren of faculty offices after Sawyer was built.  The further 1962 addition added more faculty offices and still more traffic.

My older fellow alums will recall another forbidding feature of the College Library at that time, the Reference Librarian, Miss Juanita Terry, a former lady Marine who had no use for student slackness of any kind, in dress or posture, for talk or — god forbid! — refreshments.  As student and fellow library staff, I found Miss Terry to be no mystery, but rather knowledgeable, helpful, and witty in a terse acerbic manner, but it’s true she would brook no trespass of the rules or breaks in decorum.  So you just weren’t going to the library to settle in for a comfortable afternoon or evening of study.

A different model was created in the library of Bronfman Science Center in 1968, which became the preferred study space — quiet, comfortable, open late.  And like the wonderful Schow Library in the recently built science complex, it highlighted the inadequacies of the existing main library.  Finally the increase in enrollment from 1200 to 1800, coincident with the admission of women, made a new library essential and past due.

The new library was to be the culminating development of the transformational tenure of John E. Sawyer ’39 as President of the College.  An economic historian and frugal Yankee, he presided over an era of startling change in every aspect of the College.  Beginning with the neutering, if not immediate abolishment, of the fraternities that had dominated student life for more than a century, and ending with coeducation, he oversaw Williams’ move from the poorest of the Little Three to the upward arc of its present eminence and affluence.

In What’s in a Name, Phillip Warren ’38 described Jack Sawyer as a “quiet conservative” who negotiated the immense changes of the Sixties — inside and outside the Purple Valley — “with disarming cool-headedness and understanding.”  Innovations of his tenure, besides the end of fraternities and the advent of women, run from the end of compulsory chapel to a broader reach for admissions, the Winter Study Program, non-western studies, a center for environmental studies, and ultimately the physical transformation of the campus.  He took the Presidency of the College from the benign autocracy of James Phinney Baxter III ’14 into a period of administrative sophistication, and further toward broad-based decision-making.

As Professor J. Hodge Markgraf ’52 wrote in a memorial minute celebrating Jack Sawyer’s stewardship upon his death in 1995, “His multiple initiatives were all part of a larger schema.  His horizon was further and his sight was clearer than most of his contemporaries.  He was wise, compassionate, witty, gracious, and extraordinarily well read.”  Also praised was “his desire to effect meaningful change and his ability to chart the clearest pathway.”

The changes in the built environment were emblematic of the deeper structural changes taking place.  The opening of Greylock Quad in 1965 represented the College’s commitment to take over from the fraternities the housing and feeding of all students, and also the beginning of the semi-urbanization of a rural and largely-unplanned campus, the first step toward the density of development that seems to have reached its ultimate destination in the ongoing Stetson-Sawyer Project.  Greylock was also the first building project for which student input was actively solicited, going so far as to build mock-ups of the planned dorm rooms in Lasell Gymnasium.  Bronfman Science Center followed in 1968, also designed by the architect and campus planner Ben Thompson.

In December 1966, President Sawyer convened a small committee to address the College Library’s mission and to assess its requirements anticipating a 50% increase in enrollment, but carefully avoiding the question of whether those added students might be women.  The then newly-arrived chairman of the Classics department, Charles Fuqua, was on that committee and the subsequent library planning and building committees, and he recalled them for me in a recent conversation.  He remembered his first meeting of department chairmen, when the President laid out the College’s financial situation — an annual budget of $9 million based on an endowment of $48 million — another reason “Thrifty Jack” was the right man for the job at the time.

Those committees were charged with developing the program for the new library, addressing the deficiencies of the old, and soliciting library staff, faculty, and students for their needs and suggestions.  The site and architect were givens from early in the process.  The college engaged campus planner Dan Kiley in 1968 and he recommended both sites and architects for what would become Mission Park and the Sawyer Library, the concept being to have a residential ring (including transformation of old Williams Inn into Dodd House) around an academic core.  His was the initial intuition of an east-west campus axis north of Route 2, though I’m not sure why he urged dumping a big brick box athwart that axis.  But that concept will finally be realized in 2011 when it will run directly from Greylock Quad through the open quadrangle where Sawyer is now to the entrance of the new Stetson-Sawyer building.

Kiley’s plan placed the library in the center of an architecturally “busy” site, in the midst of contrasting styles in Stetson, Hopkins, and the Congo church.  He felt that called for an “ascetic” style and recommended Harry Weese and Associates of Chicago as architects for the building.  Now Jack Sawyer was known to suggest that if he had been anything but what he was, he would have been an architect, and maybe an ascetic style was precisely to his taste.  Maybe while he was at Yale before coming back to Williams, he had been a proponent of Paul Rudolph’s controversial Art and Architecture Building, which is literally the textbook illustration of Brutalist style.  But that’s pure speculation.  More likely, when he said he didn’t want Williams to turn into a Ben Thompson campus, the preference he had for the Weeses had to do with their firm reputation for bringing buildings in on time and under budget.  Certainly it was a turn in style from New England academic to midwestern functional, and that was Sawyer’s choice.  The only specific remark of his I could find on the aesthetics of the eventual building was that “the southern elevation didn’t turn out as happily as I’d hoped.”

Ben Weese, the younger brother who was point man for the Williams library project, is remembered as friendly, accessible, and responsive, but somewhat ideological, “slightly bananas” in Charlie Fuqua’s phrase.  He was insistent that a library was a warehouse for books, but welcomed the demand for greatly expanded and diversified spaces for study.  As he describes his method in an online oral history:  “So instead of just throwing furniture in, we actually designed libraries around the furniture — made libraries places where people wanted to be and increased their attendance tremendously.”  Perhaps that’s what appealed to President Sawyer and the small group that visited the Weeses’ newly-built library at RIT.  At any rate that decision was made, and when the Weeses independently confirmed the site recommended by Kiley (and apparently seconded by library consultant Keyes Metcalf), that was a done deal as well, though there were numerous hurdles yet to cross.

Not least was the problem that the site was occupied by Van Rennselaer House, formerly the Sigma Phi fraternity house and for a short time home of the new Center for Environmental Studies — something of a campus landmark, if also a white elephant.  I’ll get to the subsequent controversy over its razing later, but it’s safe to say that the building’s fate was sealed early because Jack Sawyer did not want a fraternity house smack dab in the middle of his campus.  So he was not receptive to suggestions like Ben Thompson’s that the old building be restored into a ceremonial centerpiece of the college.  He professed the “greatest reluctance” in acquiescing to the recommendations of one consultant after another that the new library should supplant Van Rensselaer on that site “on the basis of centrality, traffic flows, functional relationships with the present Library, and the overall organization of the campus.”

Once it was determined that Stetson could not be expanded further without creating an intolerable hodgepodge, and cognizant of Amherst’s unhappy experience in rebuilding a library, the Trustees approved the site and the plan, stipulating that a new use must be found for Stetson Hall.  Meanwhile the faculty/student/library staff committees were working on programmatic development of interior spaces.  Once again, mock-ups were built for students to use and comment on, varieties of seating and desk space.  Weese was particularly proud of what he called the “railroad carrel,” which would eventually enter student parlance as “monkey carrels,” either for the jungle-gym monkey-bars by which one ascended to the upper level or for the bonobo-like activities reputed to take place therein.

Professor Don Gifford was chair of the planning committee as well as the subsequent building committee, and he is warmly remembered by all, both for his broad scholarship and administrative leadership.  His oral history in the College Archives recalls that by 1968 “books were being stored in all the corners available to the college, including the indoor swimming pool at Mount Hope.”  Noting that site and architect were largely givens, he mentions one controversy the committee had to deal with — whether there would be faculty offices in the new library.  Ultimately, student study spaces were privileged over faculty offices for the natural light around the perimeter of the building, and a student body poll voted against the noise and traffic that offices would bring.  Since there were already faculty offices in Stetson, that became the obvious if compromised answer to the building’s re-use, as mandated by the Trustees, with the 1956 stacks being converted to faculty offices, bypassing the hard-to-adapt 1922 stack core, which was retained for library closed storage.

One feature of Sawyer as built I have not been able to get to the bottom of — why you have to go down and then up to enter.  I had heard that the plan was lowered eight feet in response to complaints about the bulk of the building when designs were first presented.  But as Professor Gifford remembers it, that was the original design, and the plan was raised to grade only because a ledge was found that complicated going down, but after determination that the cost of going up would be a wash, plans reverted to the original.  So it’s hard to know whom to blame for the downward entrance, one of the most annoying aspects of the current building, which also emphasizes its obstruction of the perceived campus axis — at grade level you might be able to see through it better.

Clearly security concerns were responsible for the single entrance, a staircase literally overlooked by the circulation desk.  Well before the advent of electronic security systems, this was one part of the new library program close to the heart of new College Librarian Lawrence Wikander ’37, who had been recruited with a new library building program in mind.  Also central to the program was the need for ample, flexible, and contiguous staff spaces, and an underground tunnel from the existing loading dock in Stetson.  In the Archives oral history, Larry Wikander notes that thinking about a new library began with an accreditation procedure that noted “very inferior library facilities for a college of this status.”  He credits Harry Weese in particular with the “basic concept of coming in from both sides and going up in the middle,” the ramp-down east-west concourse that offered two means of access but one control point.

Jack Sawyer and Larry Wikander tour their new libraryLike others involved in planning the library, Larry Wikander explicitly deferred to Jack Sawyer in questions of aesthetics and concentrated on the disposition of functions.  And he was pleased with how that came out: “I thought it worked very well, especially trying to keep all the noise part of it in one place, that is, the circulation desk where people talk and the reference desk where people talk, were all away so that the upper parts, where the readers were reading, could be quiet.”  When pressed, he declines an opinion on the exterior, and says simply “it’s a very functional building and it shows its function.”

One mandate from the President that was taken up and amplified by the architect was energy efficiency.  Though provision was made to add air-conditioning later, the building was designed to do without.  The light courts were planned for enhanced circulation, while the exterior was designed to limit sun exposure to the south.  With modulated natural light coming from all sides, the idea was to keep general light levels low, with light-colored fixtures and appointments, and individual controls on lights at study stations and in the stacks.

So the plans were frugal and far advanced when presented to the Trustees in April 1970, but nonetheless the building was shelved because money could not be raised at that time.  There might also have been indecision at that time based on the question of whether to dig down or build up.  Apparently a fundraising brochure was issued in May 1971, but in one of the many accidents of timing in the development of the project, a reaction in the Williams Record was published in the commencement issue of June 6, 1971, when it had no chance to ignite a campus debate.

The letter was written by Mark Livingston ’72 and Sheafe Satterthwaite, then new to the art department but a faculty member to this day.  It raised a number of red flags, starting with the anonymity of the architects whose work was represented in the brochure.  While not doubting that “compelling reasons exist for a new library building,” they hoped that given the funding delay, “the whole sorry scheme might well be reassessed.”  They complained about the massive bulk of brick, the impervious facades, the neglect of topography.  “Without, it is true, having much knowledge of the long and sincere planning process that lies behind the present concept (an ignorance not entirely of our own making)” the writers propose first that “the whole college community should be actively involved in the selection of architects and the entire development process.”  That suggestion was clearly ahead of its time, but would come to pass by the time the Schow Science Library was being planned and built in the ’90s.

Perhaps a fuller airing of consultant recommendations would have obviated the critics’ alternative siting suggestions, but there is some prescience in their conclusion: “Our concern and fear is that the new library, if executed as presently conceived, will turn out to be the same kind of aesthetic albatross as Baxter Hall, and that the lack of building funds at present gives the college an invaluable opportunity to engage in the kind of rational, critical evaluation that should have smothered Baxter Hall in its cradle.”  Now that Baxter Hall is late and unlamented, and the then-new library soon to be the same, you have to give the opponents some credit for their vision.

At any rate, when the plans were reintroduced to the campus at large in the fall of 1972, they took many by surprise and generated a good deal of controversy.  Though a deadline of 3/1/73 was set for “making adjustments to the structural plans for the building,” the controversy seems to have simmered till that date, then boiled over to arguments back and forth in every issue of the RecordAdvocate in April and May.

Four students, seniors Steve Davies and Tim Tasker, junior Martha Bedell, and sophomore Jim Rosenthal, compiled a 20-page critique of the plans for the new library as “antithetical to the avowed spirit of Williams College.”  They were allied with the young art professor EJ Johnson, who still teaches at the College and recently told me, “I got more credit for rabble-rousing than I deserved, it was the four students who took the initiative.”  And indeed their report is much more impressive and convincing than typical student grousing, and may almost seem prophetic.  Steve Davies ’73 contacted me when he saw I was writing about Sawyer and credits the controversy with propelling him toward “a commitment to grassroots planning that has led to a 30 year career at Project for Public Spaces.”  These students had a good idea of what they were talking about, but couldn’t evaluate how late they were coming into the process and how much pent-up forward inertia was behind it.

Student input had indeed been solicited to a then-unprecedented degree, so it was especially ironic and painful to the administration to be met with vociferous opposition so late in game and on more fundamental issues than they were willing to reconsider.  Yes, interior functions were still in discussion but no one intended to go back and start from scratch with the most fundamental decisions of site and architect.  Misconceptions led to flarings of temper, and the heat of argument escalated. When the library design was widely derided as “Der Fuhrer’s Bunker,” you know the controversy had gotten out of hand.  And as “the leader” of Williams, Jack Sawyer had to be unhappy, disheartened in his final initiative after going from success to success throughout his career.

Largely unspoken at the time was the sense that this was final element of President Sawyer’s legacy at the College, and the Trustees and others were inclined to go along with his efforts as a matter of trust and gratitude.  So it is not surprising that they issued this statement at the end of April:  “In view of the controlling priority of getting a new library for Williams College at the earliest feasible date, the Board believes that postponement would be unwise, and it has great respect for the years of study, the care and the professional skills that have gone into the decision.”

Immediately after the decision, EJ Johnson found himself at a cocktail party at Mount Hope, with Jack Sawyer coming up on one side of him and Larry Wikander on the other, saying “Well, you almost got your wish.”  He remains amazed that he went on to get tenure after that contretemps, but also remains critical of the building and its animating premise that a building at center of campus, the library no less, was to be background edifice.  While claiming to be self-effacing in the midst of varied neighbors, the architect insists on a brutal statement.  EJ believes that Weese’s plan was deliberately ugly as a matter of conviction.  Certainly a warehouse effect is what he was after, and the use of internal courts, while having a purpose, contributed to the sheer unembellished bulk of the building, which the architect objected to shielding with a screen of trees.

But let’s look at the criticisms made at the time, and how much time has borne them out.  First off, there is the loss of Van Rensselaer House.  While conservation and restoration have become more cherished values since that time, it’s an open question whether the dark and heavy architecture of that late Victorian recasting of elements from an earlier Troy mansion is truly missed.  Parts of the original Richard Upjohn interior are now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but the building itself had been torn down to make way for a railway line when parts were salvaged by Marcus Reynolds, Williams ’90, to build the Sigma Phi chapter house.  I remember a nice wood-paneled dining room in which I attended an extracurricular seminar on Maoism led by Professor Gaudino in 1965, incongruously full of SDS types, and an attic hideaway put to good, if illicit, use by a classmate friend of mine, but the impression I retain of Van Rensselaer is decrepit and stuffy, so I won’t lament its passing.  Whatever merits it might have had, it did not deserve its privileged central position on the Williams campus, which will be well served by the open quadrangle remaining when the Stetson-Sawyer Project is complete.

Generally speaking the objections seemed to come down to a preference for the old, small, and rural against the modern, large, and urban.  There’s no question which way Williams has been tending in the years since then, so the intention to stand and say “No!” seems to have been a losing cause.  And yet there’s equally no question that a venerable part of Williams’ appeal remains its age, size, and location, none of which got sufficient attention in the Weeses’ design.  What might have worked in a midwestern corporate office park remained out of place in the Village Beautiful.  When you look at pictures of the building before it was hemmed in by the new faculty office buildings, it is striking how solitary it looks outlined against the sky.  It does not defer to its surroundings, but defeats them, both the buildings next door and the hills beyond.  Its design is clearly aggressive and monolithic.

The student report makes this case with prescience, beginning: “The appeal of the Williams College campus, unlike more urban campuses, lies not in any rigid sense of order, but rather in its informal sequences of semi-enclosed spaces and in its blending of old and new structures.  It has been Williams’s tradition to be tied to the rural landscape and in spite of recent growth, its large buildings — including Mission Park dormitory — do not overpower either the town or the College.”  They cite Professor W. H. Pierson’s comment on the opening of Greylock Quad, praising the “diversified, informal character” of the campus and the way it had avoided the “claustrophobic nonsense” of the pseudo-Gothic quadrangle, so that “something of the varied and fluid space of the New England landscape still prevails on the campus.”

They also quote Ben Thompson’s speech at the dedication of Bronfman:  “Williamstown is an ode to the repose and civility that marked that early age of community architecture.  The unity of brick, the controlled scale, the landscape so important to the atmosphere of the place, were all respected.  One remembers Williams for its warm brick tones, its green areas and great trees, for the purple mountains and crisp air that makes one feel so alive. . . Look around you and wonder — why are there so few places like this built, or preserved, today?”

The student report comes to the crux with a fair comment:  “The words which come to mind in searching for a landscape vernacular for Williams — repose, warmth, liveliness, harmony, informality, and openness to a rural environment — strike a note of discord with those that have been used to discuss Weese’s work: austere, ascetic, functional, bearing out the character of urban ‘commercial and industrial structures’ that Weese has absorbed in the course of his development.”

They recommended a site north of Stetson, as had Ben Thompson.  But that idea had been abandoned as dysfunctional and haphazard by the Library Building Committee, as well as Kiley and Weese.  At the time the option of expanding east was never mentioned, nobody had the audacity to suggest tearing down the recent additions to Stetson, which is where the new Sawyer Library will be built. In those days the College clearly did not have the capital to engage in creative destruction.  The students made no brief for Van Rensselaer as an authentically historical building, but recommended the site remain open, even quoting President Sawyer himself to the effect:  “I have always enjoyed its long sweep of lawn and the view toward it, its scale and the way it sits slightly elevated on its site, and the grace of a past era it has lent to the campus.”

Does new defer to old?
                                  Does new defer to old?

The foursome complain about the sheer bulk and stark shape of the proposed building; the long, solid, entranceless wall it presented to Main Street; the way it overpowered rather than deferred to its surroundings.  They made sophisticated observations about lighting, heating and ventilation, regarding problems that did not in the event arise, but noted two that did:  “The scattered arrangement of staircases, elevator shafts and light wells requires an arrangement of stacks so irregular that the need for a directory on each floor is anticipated,” and the supposed flexibility of the open plan was seriously compromised by the donut holes of the courts.

Larry Wikander responded to the student queries with answers from the architects, which while not comprehensive did indicate the quality of consideration that had been given to all such questions.  For example, in response to a complaint about the small windows and lack of views from the reserve room, they replied, “Reserve reading rooms are used intensively for relatively short occupancies for required reading.  Conditions should encourage concentration.  The carrels on upper floors house readers doing papers, long term research near a variety of books, and writing notes and drafts.  This more contemplative use deserves the windows and views.”  This is further evidence of considerate student-centered design.  The architects also explain in technical detail the action of windows and ventilation.  Though partial, the responses are suggestive of all the careful planning already expended on the project.

As thoughtful as the students’ observations were, they were unmindful of the institutional momentum they were trying to stop in its tracks.  They took umbrage at what seemed like a brush-off by the Library Committee, which in fact had no authority to revisit questions of site and exterior design, and the committee was understandably peeved at the irony of large-scale last-minute complaints coming at the end of a protracted process of soliciting and considering student input. To a college administration in those days it may have seemed that students were not primary stakeholders, given their transience, and they might also be subject to a misplaced NIMBYism, a premature nostalgia for their own college experience.  Certainly the development process became more open over time in succeeding projects, but under those circumstances of urgency, you can understand the reluctance to revisit decisions made carefully years before.

There was considerable back and forth that was barely silenced by the Trustees’ decree at the end of April.  When it came to aesthetics, it was left to Trustee and incoming President John Chandler (his appointment was announced the same week at the library plans were made public) to calm the waters by saying, “In such a case, it’s not unreasonable for reasonable men to disagree.”

It certainly made the college paper livelier to read for a few months, but I want to highlight one “Viewpoint,” by a student with three first names followed by a roman numeral, whose unintentionally(?) comic screed concludes, “If built, the new library will be the tomb of chivalry and the sarcophagus of excellence.  There will no longer be a place for gentlemen at Williams.”  Well, yes, in a way that’s true.  The move from Stetson to Sawyer certainly signaled the final step in Williams transition from a “gentleman’s college” to “consumer college,” in the words of Professor Fred Rudolph ’42.  But it was a change he himself explicitly urged in this case, “Since returning to Williams in 1950 I have watched the library facilities of the college change from excellent to adequate to annoying to embarrassing.”

That sense of urgency seemed to carry the day.  The RecordAdvocate ran a nonbinding poll in May and found a narrow 52% margin against halting the project, on a vote of 392-356 among students.  Though more than 58% voted against the architect’s design, nearly as great a majority favored the site.  The faculty voted more than 80% to continue, though some still questioned the design.  That was the last gasp of the semester, and in June, Van Rensselaer was razed and repeated blasting began for the foundation of the new library, which was hardly mentioned again in the student newspaper till it opened two years later, to both relief and enthusiasm.

John Chandler confirmed to me that Jack Sawyer did indeed tell his successor that he could scrap the plans and start over.  Chandler acknowledged the seven years of planning that had gone into the project — to which he been privy first as Dean of Faculty and then as Trustee while serving as President of Hamilton College — and deferred both to Sawyer’s architectural judgment and to his desire to go out on a positive note.  So in his first official interview, he said, “At this point I have every bit of confidence that the plan is well conceived, thoroughly thought through and that we should go ahead with it.”  But now he ruefully admits that he was “in pretty thorough agreement with critics of the library design,” particularly in the height of the building and the way it blocked views of the mountains and was generally not attentive to its surroundings.

But that train was leaving the station, and one had to get on and make the best of it.  And it did turn out for the best.  The economy was in dire straits, so contractors were hungry, and Professor Fuqua recounted to me the broad grins that went around the table when the library building committee opened the bids.  Budgeted at $5 million in 1970, library construction wound up at $4.8 in 1975.  Quite a bargain for 100,000 square feet.  As widely anticipated, when Jack Sawyer stepped down as President, the new library was named for him.

A month after the building opened in September 1975, Librarian Larry Wikander was reporting, “There has clearly been a very large acceptance of the library by students,” with several counts of more than 400 users at a time.  And then in September 1976:  “A year later there is less talk about aesthetics and more about the library as a place to study.  The word is: Sawyer works!”  Already student use had doubled over the last years in Stetson.  With nearly 800 study stations of various kinds, there was something for everyone, from the step-down desks around the light courts to the monkey carrels in the basement, from the desks with lounge seats that stretched along the south wall of the upper floors to the partitioned tables and captain’s chairs along the north wall.

The Weeses were no slouches as architects, as they showed in designing the DC Metro, but the question remains whether they were right for Williams.  John Stamper might have summed it up best, in a 1976 exhibition catalogue, “Three Architects at Williams College”:  “Weese appears to understate the design to the point of overstatement.  This relates most particularly to the Chicago School of architecture with its highly functional, no-nonsense tradition.  Sawyer Library is a distinctly midwestern building placed in an equally distinct New England campus.”

Card catalogs have been replaced by Reference DeskBut it did work, with some allowance for changing trends in library use and technology.  It might have been a big box of bricks from the outside, but that was not the experience of users on the inside, where the layout of services was fairly logical.  Though the initial plan was concerned to find room for microfilm and microfiche readers, which were then the presumed successor to printed volumes, provision was made for extra conduit, which allowed the building to be wired over time for the electronic devices that are now ubiquitous.  The presumed flexibility of the modular grid design proved to be elusive, however.  The library accommodated a doubling of volumes only by dispensing with most of the casual seating and lounge arrangements, and moving the stacks closer and closer together, so that now there are some you have to sidle into sideways.

One thing that couldn’t be foreseen, was the passage of the American with Disabilities Act around 1980, which effectively forestalled any expansion of the existing building, by making it prohibitively expensive to retrofit to compliance with handicapped access, as required by law.  Another unforeseen development affected one of the primary programmatic elements of the library — the reserve room, which was designed with its own egress directly to the outside, so that it could stay open after the rest of the library was closed.  Security and staffing issues soon nixed that, and nowadays the function of the reserve room has been largely superseded by online resources, so the then-unanticipated collections of video tapes and disks have now taken over that space.

And that space is my most frequent recourse for library use these days, so I tend to find the whole down-up-down of entry particularly annoying.  And that central staircase!  I’m sure fire codes accounted for much of the design, and convenience dictated the location, but did it have to create such a nondescript hole in the center of the building?  This is particularly noteworthy to me because I have an architect friend whose firm recently built the new Bronx Library Center, in which the staircase is the most aesthetically pleasing feature of the building, glazed translucently from top to bottom to create a delightful play of light.

Schooled in the values of the Depression, John Sawyer was conservative in the best sense, open to change but aware of what must be conserved.  His vision and accomplishment cannot be gainsaid.  And the circumstances were such that his effort to supply the College with a new library as his departing initiative can hardly be criticized.  But from the perspective of the 21st century, when the “wisdom of crowds” argument is very persuasive, one has to acknowledge that a broader form of community planning would have been desirable.  Schow Science Library and the Stetson-Sawyer Project are evidence of this.

In function the history of Sawyer Library remains a mix of pluses and minuses.  On the positive side, Thrifty Jack’s building will have provided more than 35 years of student-friendly service at a bargain price.  On the other hand, there is unlikely to be much nostalgia when it comes down — if a utilitarian box outlives its utility, there’s no reason not to discard it.

When John Chandler first heard of plans to tear down the building, his first concern was to remember Jack Sawyer.  And when told that the new library would retain his name, his widow Anne, first recipient of the Ephraim Williams Medal, was agreeable as well.  So the not-so-old library will be going the way of Van Rensselaer, but the new Sawyer Library will rise phoenix-like from its own ashes.

Thanks to librarian Nick Baker for color photos