Sawyer & Stetson Reborn: A Library for the New Millennium
This photo-essay is too late for news, too soon for history, so it’s less reportorial or scholarly than celebratory, one person’s response to the newest Williams College library, backed up by a modicum of research, and a lifetime in the business of books, as bookseller and librarian.
I got my first job, in the neighborhood public library branch, more than fifty years ago. For six years – during college terms, summers, and after graduation – I worked in Stetson Library. For seventeen, I ran Either/Or Bookstore in Pittsfield, and for the past twenty I’ve been book buyer for the museum shop at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown.
Safe to say I have spent my life surrounded by books, and I’ve found few spaces that surround books more delightfully than the new Sawyer Library and revived Stetson Hall. I intend to describe with words and pictures the magnificent final result of well over a decade of hard work, in planning and construction.
I was recently sitting in the corner office of the Director of Libraries at Williams, on the fourth level of the new Sawyer, enjoying spectacular views out on hills ablaze with fall color, and listening to head librarian David Pilachowski recall how he arrived on campus back in 1999, with a project for new faculty offices underway, to which he brought the emerging needs of the library and the liabilities of the existing building from the early 1970s.
After so many years of effort, and several years of waiting after the financial crash of 2008 delayed construction, he is justifiably pleased by the result, not just the tangible beauty and functionality of the building, but its embrace by faculty and students, leading to a 58% increase in gate count during its first year of operation, while circulation of physical volumes increased for the first time in five years. So the book is not yet dead, after all! He modestly cited the involved process of College community input and feedback that led to the final design, but his steady, sustained leadership certainly deserves a large measure of the credit.
I was tempted to subtitle this piece, “A Library for Millennials,” but while the new Sawyer certainly caters to the current generation, it clearly remains open to the future. Not for a thousand years, of course, but well into the middle of the 21st century — since if history is any guide, the college library will have to be re-invented in forty years or so, in keeping with educational, technological, and cultural changes.
I began this blog more than seven years ago, with a tour of Stetson as it was before the building project, and rereading that essay now demonstrates how fully the planners, architects, and builders have realized their plans, and achieved the library’s destiny to be, as I then concluded, “not simply a repository of old books but a primary portal to a world of information and a meeting place for the community of ideas, an axis of access essential not just to education but to democracy itself.”
So now let’s take another tour, to see how things have worked out, starting from the crowning attribute of the whole project, the new library quadrangle, for which I foresee some vernacular designation like “The Common.” Picking up from the “axis to access” I pictured in an earlier post, we again approach the west front of Stetson Hall.
This view of the handsome neo-Georgian façade with recessed arcade has never been available before, at least in the fifty years I’ve known the place, since before old Sawyer was built the space was occupied by the Van Rensselaer mansion. Straight through the central doors, we enter the refurbished entry hall of old Stetson and directly face the imposing portal to the access atrium of the new Sawyer.
When Stetson opened in 1922, this was known as the “delivery room,” where a desk in front of closed doors barred access to closed stacks, from which books were delivered by library staff upon (not-too-frequent) request.
Now, instead of facing that closed door, we are invited through a wide, tall opening into a light and airy space, an architectural grace note that serves as a metaphor for a complete change in one’s approach to the sanctum of the library collection.
In what will be a constant refrain of this tour, take note of how the architects (Bohlen Cywinski Jackson) have imaginatively reused features of the historical building. In the original Stetson, the stacks supported the floor, rather than the reverse, so structurally it was relatively easy to remove the top six tiers to create a tall access atrium beautifully illuminated by a skylight. What was closed is now impressively open, to visitors and to the light.
Before we pass through that portal, let’s take a look around at what has become of venerable Stetson Hall. Turning back to the west, we see two rooms in which I used to be employed, at the former circulation desk and in the acquisitions department, the oaken lintels still engraved with their original designation for “Williamsiana.” Now both have been converted into small group study rooms, open at all hours, with adjacent space turned into restrooms.
To the north, the gracious old Reference Room, subsequently the Faculty Lounge, has been meticulously restored to its original function as an elegant reading room, also open 24 hours a day. Life-sized portraits of Francis Lynde Stetson and John Edward Sawyer face each other above opposite fireplaces, secretly sharing a smile over their conjoined legacies.
And I smile to think what the stern reference librarian of my student days, the feisty bantam ex-Marine Miss Terry, would make of students being allowed in this finely-finished room round the clock, with no supervision at all, and — horrors! — permitted to bring in food and drink. Dave Pilachowski is happy to confirm that students have taken responsibility, both here and in the new library, not to spoil these freedoms. So the College has no reason to exclaim, in loco parentis, “See – this is why you can’t have nice things!”
To the south, the Mabie room — originally a gentleman’s library (no studying allowed!), then the current periodicals room, then the Special Collections reading room – is now a fully-wired classroom with antique wood finish, another metaphoric blend of old and new. Across the hall, the so-called Mabie-not room, once the head librarian’s office, is now devoted to video conferencing.
We head up the grand old marble staircase past the Chapin Library (to return later), up to the fifth and sixth floors of Stetson, where old faculty offices and classrooms have been restored and brightened with skylights, adding a modern elevator, and picture windows into the access atrium, where the stacks used to be.
This fifth-floor view of the circulation desk shows the marble flooring that was saved and reused from the stacks of old Stetson. Samples of the old shelving fixtures have been adapted into display cases and seating. Let’s go back down and get a closer look.
Passing again through the Stetson entry hall, I have to pause a moment to drink in the restored splendor of this elegant wood-paneled space, which has always been the center of my Williams experience, and to relish its present centrality to the overall campus plan. As an erstwhile English major, it’s all I can do to resist taking flight on some phoenix metaphor.
But let’s move on, into the access atrium. In the old Sawyer the circulation desk loomed at the top of a flight of stairs, an image of authority and security blocking the way in. In the new Sawyer the circulation desk sweeps to the side to allow passage straight through the building, and into the great beyond.
Right away, the new Sawyer has remedied one problem of the old, which was turned in on itself, like a bunker, presenting obstacles to entry and turning its back on the world outside. The new Sawyer turns itself inside out, striving for transparency and permeability. The “security envelope” is much more subtle, and the sole entrance ushers the visitor in with an immediate feeling of expansion and welcome. You enter directly onto the main floor, which in this case is the third level up from the base of the building.
This pair of photographs, taken from a review of the new Sawyer Library in Metropolis Magazine, gives a sense of the unimpeded through-axis. In the view on the left, you are looking back from the “Research Commons,” past the Reference Desk just to the left of the entryway, through the exterior back wall of the original Stetson Hall, then through the access atrium where the Stetson stacks used to be, and out the west entrance (in the foreground, note the glass-enclosed group study rooms cantilevered above).
The view on the right is 180 degrees to the east (with perspective squeezed slightly), showing the main Sawyer atrium, taken one level up from the main entrance, with the glassed-in Special Collections Reading Room to the right and the stacks area to the left behind the maple planking. (By the way, the same photos were used in a “Library Design Showcase” in the Sept/Oct 2015 issue of American Libraries.)
That’s the big picture orientation upon entry, now let’s go back and look at some of the details, starting with the floor plan of the entry level. Here in the access atrium is the circulation desk, and here are samples of the old book stacks recycled into display fixtures and seats. Looking up at the west wall, we see a perforated metallic facade that sheathes the elevator shaft, and rises to the picture windows on the fifth and sixth floors of Stetson.
Turning to the east and proceding from old Stetson to new Sawyer, look up to see one skylight leading to another, illumination from above passing from one building to the next.
Coming out of the shell of old Stetson onto the main level of new Sawyer, we see a Recent Acquisitions display to the north. To the south, the Research Commons has Reference Desk to the right and Research Services offices in the background. (Please note that some of these photos are unnaturally depopulated, taken between semesters.)
I’ve heard the color of the north wall referred to as “periwinkle blue,” and I take it as the architects’ announcement, along with the red and purple chairs, that this building is not going to have the subdued color palette you might expect from a library.
The decorative flourish of the sawtooth wall fixture above also signals the exuberant aesthetic of the building. It provides indirect lighting and creates symmetry with the opposite side of the passageway, where the same fixture covers the exterior of the Special Collections gallery on the fourth level.
I imagine the architects being presented with an “all-things-to-all people” program and coming to the realization that there was no way to unify the whole through design, so why not diversify? Take it to the max, anything goes, have fun with it. Something for everybody. Jazzy, yet still contemplative.
As we step into the center of the building, the onslaught of diverse materials and design gestures seems a little overpowering. This is where the first-time visitor may have the instant impression that it is all too much. Or rather the second impression, since the first has to be wonder at the four floors of glass looking out on the North Berkshire landscape, as impressive in its own way as a stained glass wall in a Gothic cathedral.
But once the outward gaze turns inside, the interior seems at first a jumble of colors and shapes, materials and form – wood and glass; exposed and painted girders; metallic cables and stainless railings; marble, brick, and concrete; furniture of all hues and contours. The maple planking on the left curves to the ceiling, the fuselage-shaped plywood constructions on the right contort erratically. Look over the railing, and the bright green carpet of the first level leaps to meet your eyes.
On first exposure, it may take a minute to get over the dizzying profusion. But this is where the countervailing attribute of the architecture begins to take hold, its logic and legibility. From here you can take in the basic building blocks of the architects’ concept, the “people cube” to the south, the “book cube” to the north, and the “service bar” running alongside both to the west, with staircases, elevators, and two restrooms on each floor (another lesson learned from old Sawyer).
The other unifying design feature is natural light, pouring in from the wrap-around clerestory above to the abundant windows on three sides of the structure. Whichever way you turn, you are looking at the light, with prospects in every direction, a good subliminal impression on all students and library users.
And upon examination, each of the seemingly random elements turns out to have rhyme and reason. The bleached maple planking is meant to flood the interior with reflected light, and also to offer sound baffling in tandem with the wooden constructions opposite. For each, the architects have contrived to create seating at desks or counters on the back side, with stools that look out into the light well.
Let’s take a circuit of the main level of the people cube, which is the beating heart of the library. This view toward the southeast shows the happy combination of diverse elements, as well as their intense usage.
The low shelves of reference books betoken their shrinking usage in an era of online resources, but more importantly keep sightlines open to the outside. Note the range of seating options, which will be another constant refrain. One positive lesson learned from old Sawyer, whose architect boasted that he designed the building around the furniture, was intensive consultation with students over seating preferences, with samples and mock-ups for comments and recommendations in advance. All the favorites of the past find some analog in the present, and then some.
So you see the round tables, either with or without frosted glass partition; behind them there’s seating much like a diner booth, and behind that there’s a slightly lower level alongside the windows, known as the “romper room,” with playful furniture options. Here, in reverse angle, you can see some of them.
Along the south side of the building, there are four group study rooms with outside windows. Group study rooms are a changing preference for students, confirmed by the experience of the Schow Science Library, and a key mandate in the move from old to new Sawyer. We’ll see them scattered about the building in ingenious variety.
Circling back into the Research Commons, we see the ranks of public computers, and beyond that a tucked-away corner with various kinds of seating reminiscent of a coffee house, notably the tall-backed armchairs pointed privately out the window toward the rear of Thompson Chapel. Looking back from this far corner, one sees that there is no open space in the entire building without a line of sight to outdoors.
Now let’s go up a level to begin exploring the “book cube,” pausing on the stairs for a reverse-angle glimpse of where we’ve just been, another example of the jumble and bustle of the building, which still manages to provide spaces for serenity and seclusion.
Also pause to consider the stairs, one architectural compromise it’s possible to quibble with. Bohlen Cywinski Jackson might have gone for a floating staircase, with see-through risers, such as they designed for the Apple flagship store, but that was deemed too disorienting, and with artful re-use of the marble from the old Stetson stacks, what we end up with seems massive and impressive, but also a bit oppressive, light in color but heavy in tread.
But nonetheless, it marks a marvelous correction of one of the signal disappointments of old Sawyer, the featureless, closed-in stairwell at the center of the building. In new Sawyer one moves between levels out in the open, taking long views. (Even the stairways at either end of the “service bar” have floor-to-ceiling windows with outside views.)
Reaching the fourth level at the top of the stairs, we see two group study “skyboxes,” coveted real estate in the new domain (as will be discussed later). To the left is the Special Collections reading room for the Chapin Library and College Archives, which we’ll also come back to later. So we turn right into the book stacks, and immediately a library user can apprehend and appreciate the logic and legibility of the arrangement.
The book cube is truly that, four floors of foursquare book stacks, organized coherently, top to bottom, by Library of Congress call letter. In old Sawyer, especially as it adapted over the years, organization was scattered, and to find a book you had to consult maps twice, to find which floor the subject was on, and then to figure out by the un-intuitive floor plan which shelf the book might be on. In new Sawyer, once you’ve got your LC number, you can go straight to floor and stack without wandering around or wondering where you’re going.
And let me say a word in praise of the compact shelving, which compresses the cube. The stacks slide on rails with little effort or sound, increasing capacity with no inconvenience. The highly-visible signs at the ends of the stacks make orientation a breeze. I’ve never seen a more intelligible library arrangement. And best of all, no matter how deep in the stacks you are, you’re likely to have a sightline to an outside window.
The essential core of the library’s book cube is impressive, but where the architects have really outdone themselves is in the array of seating options that surround it.
The east wall is saw-toothed to create niches for pairs of carrels looking northward. I find it emblematic of the architects’ approach that in each pair, one desk is open to outside and one is closed – some students like to gaze out at the landscape and some don’t want to be distracted by the view, each is accommodated. Continuing to the northeast corner of the building, the view of Pine Cobble from here must make these among the most desirable carrels of all.
The northern end of the building is floor-to-ceiling glass, and this view shows the variety of seating in this prime location. (And here’s the view from outdoors.) On either side are remembrances of favored furniture from old Sawyer. On the right the old “monkey carrels” are recalled, and adapted to offer further seating choices, including tatami mats. On the left, a page is taken from the sunken carrels that surrounded the light well in old Sawyer. But that view of the landscape – that’s something totally new!
Turning the corner, we see the brick facing of the service bar along the right, where restrooms and other amenities can be found, and beyond which library offices are stacked logically – administration, systems, and conference room here on the fourth floor, access services and a library instruction room on the main third level, acquisitions and cataloging on the second, mail room and staff lounge on the first, all spacious with ample fenestration and good sightlines.
Continuing along this north-south axis, we come to one of the architects’ most cunning design solutions. These steps lead to a mezzanine atop more group study rooms, created when a fifth floor was cost-engineered out of the project. The mezzanine restores lost carrel seating, and the rest of the phantom fifth floor is surrounded by the clerestory that pours natural light into the whole building and offers spectacular views out.
As Thoreau said of Williams College and its Purple Valley: “It would be no small advantage if every college were thus located at the base of a mountain… Some will remember, no doubt, not only that they went to the college, but that they went to the mountain.”
Descending to the second level, we find the book cube essentially the same as on the third and fourth levels, but here the people cube houses the Center for Educational Technology, a warren of wired study spaces, computer project rooms, and various A-V studios, as well as offices and even a Makerspace. We’ll come back for a more extensive look at a later time.
On the first level, the central atrium is given over to the “Forum” (seen here from above — note the avoidance of rectilinearity), a space whose ultimate function is still contested. It was supposed to be suitable for public events, but the noise and disruption of groups have proved inhospitable to the silence required by the rest of the library.
It’s a popular study space, especially given its proximity to the Café — another feature that has not yet attained full functionality, with only vending machines currently installed. The “News Center” similarly seems not completely realized yet.
Behind the windows in the background of the photo above, you can find another appropriation from old Stetson, with the elegant wood paneling from the displaced Preston Room re-purposed to create a current periodicals room reminiscent of the Mabie Room (note old card catalogues used as tables). Perhaps reflecting the perilous status of printed periodicals, this room also seems under-used, though it makes one more distinctive refuge within the library. The whole building is designed to adapt over time, but I suspect this ground level will be the first to evolve.
Now let’s go outside and look at the exterior, circumnavigating the building counterclockwise, starting again from the refreshed west front of Stetson Hall. Besides removal of ivy and new entry plaza, note the added skylights and the new slate roof, the material and color of which will picked up on the exterior of new Sawyer. As you can see in this view, where the architectural slate façade of the western wall of Sawyer, defers to the red brick of Stetson, receding into the background. At first glance, it may seem like another extraneous material, but we shall see the ways in which it actually ties the architecture together.
This wide-angle view from the south (click on picture to enlarge) must be a Bohlen Cywinski Jackson composite of photo and architectural rendering, since there are elements that have not yet existed together. It shows the context of all three BCJ buildings on the Williams campus. On the left are the academic office and classroom buildings, Schapiro and Hollander Halls, that formed the first phase of the overall project, with the design vocabulary picked up in the new Sawyer on the right, to surround the south front of Stetson Hall in the middle.
This view shows the seam between the old and new library buildings, and this view delineates the three vertical layers of new construction. In front is the “bar” faced in slate, which contains staff offices and workspaces to the north, and here on the south, the Reference Department on the third level, and the Special Collections instruction room on the fourth. Behind that is the service bar, between parallel walls of brick, with the window wall of the staircase behind metal sunscreens for climate control. Beyond that, you can glimpse the similarly screened southern wall of the people cube. Here’s the view from the other side.
This perspective from the southeast corner of the building shows the sun-side window treatment giving way to slate shingles on the east side, in echo of Stetson roof on the west. Here the slate runs into the glass wall of the atrium.
This is a profile of the whole building from the east. The slate continues along the saw-toothed exterior of the book cube, in what might even be an echo of those mysterious wall fixtures inside the main entrance. The rhyme is even clearer in this night view. In this detail, you can see the clerestory roof almost saluting the chapel tower, in another example of how the new building meshes with older campus structures. From a similar angle but further back, at night:
This is a jewel-box alight with the love of learning that is its purpose. A closer daylight view shows all the window seating of the book cube, the glass sides of the sawtooth carrels looking toward the northeast, and the sunken carrels alongside the glass wall on the north.
Completing our circuit, we look back to see the north end of the building, with the slate and brick “bars” extending to this side. Behind the slate, the staff offices are organized much more efficiently than in my day, I especially note contiguity of Acquisitions and Cataloging, two departments between which I used to shuttle up and down stairs in old Stetson. That’s part of the reason why the new library can accommodate so much more space and usage with virtually no increase in staff.
Here I want to thank the librarians who took the time to talk with me about their experience of the new library, and to relate a few of their comments. Each of them was delighted by the beauty of their new workplace, and those who had been around through the planning process were happy to have their input realized in the result.
That was the case with Robin Kibler, Head of Collection Management, which incorporates Acquisitions and Cataloging, now efficiently together on the second floor. Among the features of the building she highlighted were a dedicated shipping & receiving area on the first floor, enough stack space to accommodate twenty years of growth in book collections, and windows that open in staff areas.
Walter Komorowski, Head of Library Systems, noted some of the difficulties in keeping ahead of technological developments. With more than a decade between original plans and opening, it turned out more provision was made for future wiring than was really needed, as wireless connections became the norm. And while the library’s wireless connections are first-rate, all the weather-proof glass in the building is not conducive to cellular connections. The natural light that is one of the delights of the building turns out to create an occasional problem of glare on computer screens – a fair trade-off, I would say, when the library offers so many different options in study spaces.
Library Administrator Sue Galli supplied me with some impressive statistics on the new library’s usage in its first year. Relative to the last year in old Sawyer, the first in new Sawyer saw an increase in gate count from 236,012 to 373,446. Even more striking was the ratio between the two years in terms of usage relative to the Schow Science Library — with old Sawyer attracting 18% fewer users, and the new 50% more (the planners having learned as much from the successes of Schow as from the deficits of old Sawyer). With seating for 900 in the new library, and 256 in Schow, the College is almost 50% above the minimum seating target for university libraries.
Another telling number is that new construction (131,704 square feet) represents a 30% increase in size over the building that was torn down, and when Special Collections and CET are included, the new building is 60% larger.
Talking with Christine Ménard and Nicole Prokop, respective Heads of Research Services and Access Services, and compilers of an extensive survey of student responses to the new library, I learned that one of their greatest challenges in the new building was the development of usage policies and space planning, amongst all the different types of carrels, group study options, and instruction rooms, given the high demand for each. And even with self-monitoring by students, some guidelines had to be set for sound management.
From their survey, headed “How is Sawyer Library working for you?”, the preponderance of opinion was against events in the Forum, for a more extensive Café, definitely appreciative of the furniture. When asked “What is your favorite space in the library and why?” students responded with at least a score of different places. While opinions were mixed on reserving or claiming of spaces, 94% reported they “can usually find a place to study.” The diversity of the building matches the diversity of preferences.
This view from the northwest completes our tour of the Stetson/Sawyer complex. I notice in this photo, taken an hour before the library was closing for the holidays, the lights are on in the fourth floor office of Director of Libraries Dave Pilachowski, to whose accomplished work so much of the success of the new building is owed.
In the move from old to new Sawyer, the College Library has gone from monolith to multiplex; from plain brick box to dazzling variety of shapes, colors, and materials; from spaces difficult to adapt to those with built-in flexibility; all reflecting the diversity that has become a hallmark of Williams in the fifty years since I arrived on campus. To this changing mandate, the architects have brought qualities of transparency, permeability, and legibility that bode well for the future.
From my perspective at the Clark Art Institute, I am struck by the comparison between Bohlin Cywinski Jackson’s new Sawyer Library and Tadao Ando’s new Clark Center building. Starting at opposite poles of minimalism and maximalism, each successfully creates a memorable and inhabitable space, a space that is functional and yet somehow sacred.
To wrap up, I return to that Metropolis Magazine article on the library, which concludes by quoting Peter Bohlin, founding partner of BCJ architects: “No matter how hard you try, you can’t predict it all. What you can do is make places that people will love that also will permit change. That’s probably the most sustainable thing you can do.” I believe he can consider that mission accomplished.