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Jen Bleich, Danielle Rose (center) and Glenn Andres review drawings and blueprints. Photo by Ari Joseph

What do tombstones, graffiti and French living rooms have in common?

January 18, 2006

MIDDLEBURY, Vt. - What do tombstones, graffiti and French living rooms have in common?  They all contribute to the architectural heritage of Middlebury College that senior Jonathan Ellis and junior Danielle Rose are documenting.  The two students' research contributes to a preservation plan that will promote the conservation of the college's historically significant buildings.  To compile a digital database with information about each building, Ellis and Rose have pored over historical documents, inspected roofline structures, cataloged architectural eccentricities, and delved into bits and pieces of information on the more than 170 buildings owned by the college.

Under the direction of Glenn Andres, the Christian A. Johnson Professor of Art at Middlebury College, and Jennifer Bleich, the college's project manager for planning, design and construction, Ellis and Rose have worked on a one-of-a-kind resource for college planners and students of architecture.  According to Andres, the study, which is designed to thoroughly document all the buildings as well as highlight those by noted architects such as York and Sawyer of New York City, will also provide a significant resource accessible online to architects and researchers nationwide.

"To my knowledge, Middlebury is the only institution that is conducting so comprehensive a program of stewardship that deals with all of its buildings, both old and new," said Andres.  "We are custodians of a special place.  On a visit to Middlebury in the mid-1980s, the renowned post-modern architect Robert Venturi said, 'You have here what everyone thinks an American campus should look like - only they almost never do.'  He left us with that rallying observation, but with a warning as well: it is very fragile, easy to mess up.  The work these students are doing on the project will help safeguard an important slice of local, state and national educational history."

Detail of decades-old, student-generated graffiti in Old Chapel's cupola. Photo by Ari Joseph

Initiated in 2004, the architectural heritage grant funded by the California-based Getty Foundation provides Andres the opportunity to hire student researchers, such as Ellis and Rose, with backgrounds in architecture and history to conduct the exhaustive research.

Ellis, an art history major who began work on the project during the fall 2005 term, investigates historical records of the buildings, examining information of all kinds, from 19th century blueprints to modern utility diagrams.  He organizes the original records, segments of manuscripts and other miscellaneous scraps of information, and then scans and catalogs them for incorporation into the extensive database.  "It's impossible to understand a building without learning about its surrounding community," said Ellis.  "This project has been a wonderful learning experience, an opportunity to discover not only the history of this campus, but also of the broader Vermont community that surrounds it, and helps to power it."

Rose, a pre-architecture major who began work on the project during the summer of 2005, focused on the physical assessment of each building.  In cooperation with Bleich and the campus facilities management team, she examined the buildings from foundation to roof, creating a wealth of information and photographs.  "It's amazing to be able to crawl through the rafters of buildings like Old Chapel and see incredible architecture mixed with 19th century graffiti from students generations ago," said Rose.  "It really gives you a sense of the history of the campus."

A marble tombstone serves as a lintel for a Painter Hall basement window. Photo by Tad Merrick

The project reflects through its catalog interesting stories about the college's heritage.  "We've documented a number of beautiful architectural details that one wouldn't otherwise notice when just going about daily business," said Bleich.

For example, Painter Hall, the oldest extant college building in Vermont, was erected in 1815 by Middlebury townspeople using donated materials such as lumber, rock, glass and even an engraved tombstone converted to serve as a lintel for a basement window.  Painter Hall is part of the college's Old Stone Row, three stone buildings that remain one of the purest examples of a classic architectural grouping popular on early college campuses, based on Yale's former Old Brick Row.  "Complementing the personal touch of the tombstone lintel, the exterior courses of limestone block were contributed by many different sources when the building was constructed.  The resulting variety of block creates a strikingly striated pattern of stone that speaks of the college's historical roots," said Andres.

Le Château is modeled after the Henry IV Pavilion of the Château de Fontainebleau. Photo by Dennis Curran

Another example is Le Château, a distinctive classroom and residential hall designed by architect J. Layng Mills in 1925.  "Mills modeled this first purpose-built maison francais in America after the Henry IV Pavilion of the Château de Fontainebleau," said Andres.  Ceiling-to-floor panels and doors, given to the college by the Hôtel Crillon on the Place de la Concorde, Paris, graced one of the building's salons; they have since been removed from Le Château for safer keeping in custody of the college's museum.

More recently constructed college buildings also have significant relevance to an evolving architectural heritage.  McCardell Bicentennial Hall, opened in 1999, is the largest academic facility in the country with finish work composed of local "green certified" wood - timber that has been harvested and processed through ecologically sensitive means.  The largest window in Vermont is housed in the building, and not only provides a natural light source that spans four floors through its 42 sections of triple-pane glass, but also creates a stunning visual interface between the indoors and miles of open, pastoral countryside.  "McCardell Hall is a pioneering structure for the college's sustainable building history," said Andres.  "A contemporary, state-of-the-art science facility, the building uses stone and slate traditional to the college, and has architectural features that resonate historical components found elsewhere on campus."

Also indicated by the students' research are connections of various architects' work on the Middlebury campus with works elsewhere.  "The college's 1909 master plan designed by W. Nicholas Albertson and three of his buildings have been placed in context with his earlier work under the influential architect and campus planner John Mead Howells," said Andres.  "Similarly, the ecologically friendly design by Gwathmey Siegel Associates for Middlebury's library, opened in 2004, gains significance in conjunction with the firm's work for the likes of the New York Public Library and the Guggenheim Museum."

Ellis plans to continue on the project until his graduation from Middlebury in May 2006, and then will pursue graduate work in American studies.

Rose will participate in Middlebury College's study abroad program during the 2006 spring term to examine European architecture at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark.  She hopes to study architectural design in graduate school after her graduation from Middlebury in 2007.