Moving Forward with the Athenaeum

(As written by Head of School Brian Easler in the Fall 2018 edition of Academy World)

If you had asked me a few years ago what I thought the first Master Plan priority would be . . . a new library would have been furthest from my mind. With all of the facilities needs for  a historic campus like ours, it just was not on the radar. This highlights the real value of the master planning process: the involvement of the community in setting objectives and priorities and recognizing the most logical short-term actions within the context of a long-term plan. Through the master planning process, however, the construction of a new library quickly rose  to the first priority.

This discovery process and the resulting clarity of direction has been truly enlightening. What is most exciting, however, is that this  one creative facility addition alone will begin to radically transform the community experience on the WMA campus and will directly address several of the Master Plan objectives.

As the literal and metaphoric heart of any academic institution, a library is perhaps the most fitting first priority for any school. In our case, additionally, the new library is the first necessary key to unlock the potential of the Master Plan. The word library, however, is too lacking a description of the building we have designed and the impact it will have on the WMA campus. What we are building is a community gathering space dedicated to academic inquiry and scholarly collaboration. It will have plenty of books, for certain, but it will also have a lot of open space with tables and soft seating for students, faculty and community members to meet, engage with one another, study in groups, do research or study quietly alone. Because of its central location on campus, the design is intentionally open to take full advantage of the stunning views across the green to Rich Hall and the academic buildings on The Hill, and also includes independent and supervised study rooms with few distractions. The versatility of the design will accommodate all of these needs, and the building will serve as a visually striking architectural accent on our historic campus, incorporating subtle lines and accents from the bordering Chapel and Smith Hall, without competing with either.

The square footage is only slightly larger than  the current library, though its layout is significantly different and has been carefully and intentionally designed to serve our community specifically in this role. Additionally, the location will actually provide more than double the square footage of  either space independently because the new library will be directly attached to the current one  which will continue to serve, as it has for decades, as quiet library space for students to study.

As outlined in the spring edition of Academy World this year, one of the primary objectives  of the Master Plan is to increase community space on campus, thoughtfully and strategically, for students and adults to study, converse, challenge and generally engage with one another as part of the educational and social fabric of the WMA community. This library will represent an enormous step toward providing just that . . .  and it’s only the beginning.

Beyond these intuitive library functions, this new space presents a unique opportunity. With the use of completely modular furniture in an open format space, the square footage of the main room will accommodate roughly 300 folding chairs. Between that and the acoustic design of the room, it will make a superb occasional small/medium-sized performance or lecture space which would address another Master Plan objective.

Just as you have heard me say that the new Rich Hall roof represents so much more than simply a new roof, so too does the new library represent much more to the WMA community than simply a new library. This critical first step on our path will be a tremendous addition to our beautiful and historic campus and will still be making us proud at the other end of our 30-Year Plan.