Sawyer Library: farewell & welcome

The past week I’ve been keeping track of the demolition of the old Sawyer Library, and you can too on the College’s construction blog.  A few days ago I gaped at a huge excavator at work with a shear attachment, and channeling my inner three-year-old, imagined a dinosaur with giant metal jaws.  And yesterday there were six excavators on the site, hard at it simultaneously, outfitted with buckets and grasping teeth, some salvaging rebar and other metal, while others scooped and crushed rubble to fill in the foundation hole.  The unmaking of the old was as dramatic as the making of the new.

Most impressive was the opening up of the view toward the west façade of Stetson Hall, and the culmination of a new campus axis, first suggested by architect and planner Ben Thompson back in the Sixties.  With the removal of the boxy brick obstruction of the Harry Weese & Associates building, an open quadrangle will create a public space as satisfying as the new water feature at the Clark Art Institute, where I work.  And then the rendering at the top of this page will finally take shape in actuality.

Thus I’ll be prompted to put the finishing touches on this website, just as the finishing touches are placed on the grand project of the New Sawyer Library.  The library itself has been in operation for almost a year, and by now has a familiar, lived-in feeling.  A magnificent construction built for use, designed to be all things to all people, it is already fulfilling its purposes, and will soon achieve its ultimate shape.  I look forward to drawing comparisons between the work of Bohlen Cywinski Jackson on the fulfillment of this plan for a new campus focal point, and Tadao Ando’s creation of the same for the Clark, achieving similar aims in antithetical styles.  It’s been a stunning year for architecture in our remote corner of Massachusetts, and I intend to celebrate it.


New library links

As the latest of Eph’s Libraries enters its final phase of construction, for opening in September, the College has posted on YouTube an informative and entertaining illustrated lecture on the the history of libraries at Williams by Professor Michael J. Lewis, Faison-Pierson-Stoddard Professor of Art History.  Meanwhile, many plans, photos, and video can be found at the New Sawyer library website.

New Sawyer gets go-ahead

Last month the new President of Williams College, Adam Falk, announced to the college community that construction of the new Sawyer Library, on hold for two years because of the economic climate, will begin in April 2011, for completion in 2014.  Head Librarian David Pilachowski celebrated the resumption of the project, and the Williams Record reported the story.  I hope to follow up with interviews with both officials, but in the meantime, here’s an answer to any who might ask “Why a new library when books are on their way out?”:

“Our humble and astonishing inheritance is the world and only the world, whose existence we constantly test (and prove) by telling ourselves stories about it.  The suspicion that we and the world are made in the image of something wonderfully and chaotically coherent far beyond our grasp, of which we are also part; the hope that our exploded cosmos and we, its stardust, have an ineffable meaning and method; the delight in retelling the old metaphor of the world as a book we read and in which we too are read; the conceit that what we can know of reality is an imagination made of language – all this finds its material manifestation in that self-portrait we call a library.  And our love for it, and our lust to see more of it, and our pride in its accomplishments as we wander through shelves full of books that promise more and more delights, are among our happiest, most moving proofs of possessing, in spite of all the miseries and sorrows of this life, a more intimate, consolatory, perhaps redeeming faith in a method behind the madness than any jealous deity could wish upon us.” — Alberto Manguel, The Library at Night

Project on hold

There’s irony — not tragic but pointed — in the new Sawyer Library going the way of the old.   First in having fiscal difficulties delay its construction, and second in having its future called into doubt by a presidential transition.  This is a tale of two letters written by Morty Schapiro, sent by email to the Williams community, one in October outlining the College’s response to the global financial meltdown, and this month’s announcing his own imminent departure to assume the presidency of Northwestern.  The first brought news of the hold — perhaps one year but who really knows? — on construction of the new library, and the second means that some currently unknown person will be leading the decision to go forward when the time comes.  In several ways, it’s 1972 all over again.


The delay in completion of the Stetson-Sawyer Project does not imply abandonment of this online journal, but it does stretch out the timeline and remove some urgency.  In between the two communications from President Schapiro, I had a conversation with Dave Pilachowski, College Librarian, and found him still hopeful, even a little grateful for the breathing room the delay offered, to complete planning and preparation.  The architects were busily preparing immensely-detailed construction drawings, useful to have before the bidding process.  Asbestos abatement was going forward in Stetson, a necessary prelude to construction.  Historic appeals were in process on the disposition of the Seeley and Kellogg houses, which would have to be moved or razed as part of the project.  The overall design of the new library was not being reconsidered, but rather the administration was just waiting for the cost of money to come down, in the wake of the overall credit crunch. 

Update as of 4-30-09 :  Here’s a link to a communication from Professor Michael F. Brown, co-chair of the Stetson-Sawyer Project, which indicates current status of building plans.

Sawyer history posted

As the big brick box of the old Sawyer Library enters its final phase — as a blank obstruction squeezed between the striking new academic buildings — it is destined to make way for an open quadrangle, which will pass between those new faculty offices and lead to the entrance of Stetson Hall, gateway to the new Sawyer Library.  This moment between incarnations is a good place to reconsider the biography of the building, its birth and its fate, its assets and liabilities.  Like each of Williams’ libraries, Sawyer typifies an era in the history of the College, and it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that its tearing down will mark a new era.  Before the infamous “bunkercomes down, let’s recall, in a bit of preemptive nostalgia, its war stories — the trials, the triumphs, the ultimate obsolescence.  Find the story here.


Beyond any specific quotations within the text, I wish to acknowledge my sources for this story.  As usual, my first recourse was to Whit Stoddard’s Reflections on the Architecture of Williams College and R. Craigin Lewis’s Williams 1793-1993: A Pictorial History, but the Sawyer story was brought to life for me by interviews with a number of eyewitnesses to its creation, including former President of the College John Chandler, Professors John Hyde, EJ Johnson, and Charles Fuqua, as well as current College Librarian Dave Pilachowski.  Sylvia Kennick Brown and Linda Hall of the College Archives were helpful to me in unlocking the riches of the Williams Oral History Project, conducted by Charles Alberti, as well as the online sources to which I link in the body of the text.  The files of the Williams Record were also valuable, especially coverage of the controversy that raged over the building throughout the Spring of 1973, when nearly every issue of what was then called the RecordAdvocate added fuel to the fire.  Last but not least, College reference librarian Nick Baker provided most of the photos illustrating the text.  Thanks to all.



Midsummer update

Thanks to Michael Brown, professor of anthropology and co-chair of the Stetson/Sawyer Project building committee, I was able recently to tag along on a tour of the soon-to-open North and South Academic Buildings, and I found them breathtaking, both in contrast to the old warren of faculty offices in Stetson and in forecast of what the architects — Bohlin Cywinski Jackson — will do in the New Sawyer Library.  As soon as the finishing touches are complete and faculty starts to move in before the start of the school year, I will go back with a camera and post an illustrated report here.


Meanwhile, the Library Shelving Facility is filling up off Route 7 North, with all the Library collections formerly shelved in the old Stetson stacks, as well as the collections of the College Archives and Chapin Library.  In September the Archives and Chapin will re-open in a limited capacity in temporary quarters in the old Southworth School, for the duration of construction of the new library, planned for 2011 opening.


I am currently engaged with research and interviews on the building of the old Sawyer Library, and hope to compose an entertaining and informative history in the next fortnight.  Now that I am incorporating first person testimony, I will want to run my copy past a number of those involved before posting here, so there may be a delay.  Earlier this week I had a most enjoyable conversation with President Emeritus John Chandler, whose appointment was announced simultaneously with the publication of plans for the new library in 1973, so he was well-positioned to offer a unique perspective on the controversy over the building.  I have also been in touch with one of the leaders of a student movement against those plans, whose well-reasoned objections were the focus of campus debate throughout the spring of 1973, some of which seem prophetic now that the building is to be demolished.


In the meantime, I have been groping toward a better integration of text and pictures on this website.  I suspect that few readers were following the graphic links, so from now on I will incorporate thumbnails within the text itself, which can be clicked to see photographs at full size.  Retroactively, I am in the process of changing the look of prior posts and pages.  I welcome feedback and suggestions to:

History of Stetson now online

Maybe you’re like me, walking in and out of Stetson Hall hundreds of times without ever noticing for whom the building was named.  But with my newfound interest in Williams history, I was amused and intrigued to discover that Francis Lynde Stetson, Class of 1867, was J.P. Morgan’s lawyer, among many other attributes of success, and became a principle benefactor of William College in the early 20th century.  Alfred Clark Chapin, Class of 1869, also made a name for himself in law, business, politics, and benefactions to his alma mater.  These gentlemen would come together and create a library fit for the “gentleman’s college” Williams had become, to appropriate the terminology of Prof. Frederick Rudolph’s bicentennial essay, “Williams College 1793-1993: Three Eras, Three Cultures.”  The Stetson and Chapin libraries shared a building and defined an era, whose story is recounted in the “History 02” page now posted to this site.