by Nat Frothingham
MONTPELIER — A crowd of writers, readers, friends of literature and the arts streamedthrough the doors of the newly transformed Alumni Hall at Vermont College of Fine Arts in Montpelier on Saturday evening, September 26 to celebrate at least two events.
First up was the launch of the Vermont Book Award from the Vermont College of Fine Arts — a celebration in essence of the wealth of writing talent in the Green Mountain State with confetti and applause to the first award winner, poet Kerrin McCadden from Plainfield.
The second thrill of the September 26 gala was that the Book Award was the first event in the dramatically transformed old Alumni Hall, a building that has been repurposed as a lustrous exhibition and performance space.
This is the first big architectural step the college has taken toward realizing its long term goal to transform the campus to reflect its mission as a National Center for Arts Education.
Was it the confluence of these two events that produced the sort of excitement that the college’s senior vice president Bill Kaplan could only describe as “electric”?
Several days later Kaplan offered to walk through the new space and explain the details to a Bridge reporter.
Kaplan started out talking briefly about the history of Alumni Hall, a building that was constructed in 1933 at a highly visible location at the top of State Street — where State Street ends at its intersection with College Street. If you’re driving up to the College along East State Street from downtown, you have to come to a stop at College Street. And when you stop, there in front of you is what amounts to — in Kaplan’s words — “a beacon for the arts, the college’s new performance and exhibition space.
As first conceived and built, the Alumni Hall was a big rectangular gymnasium with brick walls, high ceilings and a hardwood maple floor with lines painted on it.
As described in a preliminary application to determine the college’s eligibility to be placed on the National Register of Historic Places (October 2014), the entry to the building on the west passes through “a monumental projecting portico supported by six Doric columns.”
Beyond that entryway is Alumni Hall with natural light pouring through five windows on the south wall that face five windows on the north wall. These windows are described in the application as “five, evenly-spaced, tall, arch-topped windows” reminiscent of the Palladium style. Again as described in the application, the height of the building with its hipped roof “is supported by massive exposed metal trusses.”
All told, the gym in Alumni Hall was a gymnasium for basketball, volleyball and indoor tennis.
That was the building’s principal function in 1933 when the campus was home to the Montpelier Seminary, a Methodist-based academy for students of high school age. But the Seminary gave way to Vermont Junior College in 1941. And the Junior College became Vermont College in 1958. And in 1972 Vermont College became part of Norwich University and the two colleges became fully integrated in 1993.
It’s likely that the old Alumni gym was principally a gym during the Montpelier Seminary and Vermont College years. But more recently with the growing popularity of the low residency model, the gym has less and less been used for indoor sports and more and more used for a variety of other activities — meetings, conferences, exhibitions, performances and the like.
When noted professor Richard Hathaway died in the fall of 2005 his well-attended memorial service was held in the Alumni Hall Gymnasium and for a number of years — very recently — the twice-a-month winter farmers markets of the Capital City Farmers Market have been held at the gym.
Over time, the building, once an active gym, had become something like an optional space — useful at times — empty at other times, often unusable.
What was needed for the entire campus and the gym in particular was an architectural plan that would repurpose the space and make it relevant to Vermont College of Fine Arts.
As good fortune would have it — about two years ago Susan T. Rodriguez and Don Weinreich, two partners at the New York City architectural firm Ennead, a firm with a worldwide practice, were connected to the college through a college board member. Weinreich was looking at a job nearby and opted to pay a visit to the campus.
Out of this visit from Weinreich and with the collaboration of local architect Jay Ancel of Black River Design — an architectural plan was created for the campus and the first move involved Alumni Hall. As created and carried out the architectural plan called for a series of bold but precise strokes that respect the history of the Alumni Hall and transform the building into an exhibition and performance space.
The Ennead design as carried out by all local builders completed these specific steps.
- The old arch-topped windows were taken out and rebuilt and a sheet of energy-efficient glass was added to the outise of each window.
- The maple floor was refinished.
- The big blowers that carried steam heat into the old gym and were a prominent feature inside the building were removed and replaced with a new and quieter, high-efficiency gas-fired heating and cooling system.
- The roof supports were strengthened.
- The building was made accessible in accordance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
- And this change made a dramatic visual impact — the big, opaque façade — meant to keep basketballs inside the gym has been opened up and invites the community into what is in Kaplan’s words “a new beacon of the arts at the head of East State Street.”
As part of a dramatically reconceived entry to the building the Ennead design has added five glass panels from the base of the building to the base of the pediment seen through the space between the building’s six Doric columns.
The result both outside and inside the building is stunning in its effect: From outside anyone can look through the glass panels and see what’s lit up and happening inside the building; and from inside anyone can look out through the glass panels and see daylight, people, trees, the college green. It’s all clearly in view. Or as Bill Kaplan said during the walk-through: “Take outside inside; take inside outside.”