Preserving Sweet Briar’s history

Posted on September 07, 2021 by Dana Poleski


On Sept. 22, 2017, as President Meredith Woo strode purposefully toward the Quad for inauguration, the paint in Sweet Briar House was still wet. In and of itself, that might not be remarkable. After all, homes are often painted when someone new moves in. But in this case, the rehabilitation of one of Sweet Briar’s most significant historic buildings had only just been completed.

As President Phillip C. Stone worked to restore Sweet Briar after the attempted closure in 2015, he named a historic preservation task force and charged the group to oversee the rehabilitation of Sweet Briar House.

Sweet Briar House circa 1910 Sweet Briar House circa 1910

After the work at Sweet Briar House was complete, the task force turned its attention to the rest of Sweet Briar’s historic campus. Of course, anyone who’s ever owned an antique house knows the challenge of maintaining it—a difficulty that is compounded 22 times over at Sweet Briar, with its National Register Historic District and architecture of renowned architect Ralph Adams Cram.

One of the first things the group did was hire a firm to assess the state of the College’s buildings. “The stewardship of our natural and built environment is a central pillar of President Woo’s vision for the College,” says Mary Pope Hutson ’83, vice president of alumnae relations, development and communications. “We knew we needed a well-known and highly regarded architectural firm to help us begin the work of that stewardship.” In October 2019, the architect of the National Trust for Historic Preservation advised the College after a thorough RFP process that Mesick Cohen Wilson Baker Architects (MCWB) would be an excellent choice to conduct a conditions assessment of Sweet Briar’s historic buildings. The last historic buildings assessment was conducted in 1976 and MCWB—based in Albany, N.Y., with an office in Williamsburg, Va.—is well known for its work on historic buildings. The firm has done work at historically significant buildings around the country including several of Virginia’s presidential homes including Monticello, Poplar Forest, Montpelier and Mount Vernon.

Eric Kuchar Eric Kuchar with MCWB

MCWB compiled a historic structures assessment and stewardship plan, which was submitted to the College’s leadership in February 2020. The 300-page document is the result of months of detailed inspection of the campus, including drone photography and 3-D modeling. The document will guide the College’s work to steward its historic buildings.

In fact, some of the necessary work has already begun. MCWB’s meticulous review of Sweet Briar’s structures found that some of the vegetation and trees around campus were causing drainage issues leading to water and foundation damage in some buildings. The first work to remove the vegetation causing the most damage took place in December 2020. The most obvious was the removal of the tree in front of Grammer Hall and the tree leaning against the Pannell Center.

As part of their work to complete the assessment, MCWB partnered with 2RW Consultants, Inc., an engineering firm located in Charlottesville, Va., to review the HVAC systems on campus. Sweet Briar is currently heated by a steam plant that was state-of-the-art—in 1938. Unsurprisingly, the components of a system that age are inefficient and some of them simply aren’t used anymore, so replacements can’t be found. “This is one of the biggest issues,” says Eric Kuchar, MCWB’s manager on the Sweet Briar project. “We have to determine what to replace it with. It’s difficult to just insert a new system into buildings of this age.”

The consultants and College administration must determine the most effective way to upgrade the systems in a way that is sustainable—both financially and environmentally. “Initial reports are that the consultants will propose a geothermal option to the College, which they believe is most suitable and consistent with sustainability priorities of President Woo and her vision,” says Mary Pope. Using geothermal heat is not new for Sweet Briar. In fact, Sweet Briar House and the Fitness and Athletic Center are currently serviced by geothermal wells.
Making geothermal heat work

In essence, geothermal means using the Earth’s core to heat buildings.

Although such systems can be pricy up front, they have many long term benefits. For one, a geothermal system uses no fossil fuels, making it environmentally sustainable over the long term. In addition, once the system is built, it’s practically invisible, allowing the viewsheds envisioned by Ralph Adams Cram to shine through, and helping to retain the classic look of Sweet Briar’s campus. It can also be built in stages, allowing the cost of the system to be spread out over several years—even decades, if necessary. Plus, systems in buildings don’t have to be updated all at once. As buildings are renovated on a sensible schedule, new HVAC systems can be added as part of those renovations.

To build a geothermal system, you must first locate a site for a bore field. The site needs to be big enough to support needs both now and in the future and also relatively close to the buildings you need to heat. Once the bore field has been drilled, you can use the site for other things like athletic fields or outdoor entertainment spaces, but you can’t construct buildings on top of it, so possible future expansions of campus also need to be taken into consideration.

“It’s not cheap, but this is a long term initiative,” says Eric Kuchar. “It can be built in steps so you can add wells as you add precincts down the road. It’s a logical approach that the College can start implementing sooner, rather than later. Your campus is ideal for something like this.”
Finding buried treasure

The first step of any conditions assessment is to look at every building from basement to attic and evaluate every single space from common areas to closets. To make that assessment easier, MCWB always asks if there are existing drawings of the buildings. When MCWB asked for Ralph Adam Cram’s drawings, nobody was entirely sure except that there were some in the collection of the Boston Public Library, which is currently undergoing renovations; the BPL Cram drawings would not be accessible for two years.

Undeterred, Eric and his crew decided they would go with whatever drawings they could find, including the emergency evacuation drawings that are placed all over campus. They reasoned at least those would give them something to aid the process.

A little more than a week into the process of looking at every nook and cranny on campus, Eric and his colleague, Patton O’Rourke, were starting to get a little tired. They made their way down to the power plant to get a basic understanding of what was down there. “ On the wall, behind glass, is a huge, detailed site plan that the folks in facilities use.” Eric observed. In an office nearby, they found even more helpful drawings. Patton and Eric thought they’d hit the jackpot. They knew these drawings would be a great help to them as they prepared the final report.

Little did they know.

Blueprint archives

Continuing their tour, they went to a back room where they opened a closet door. “When we opened it and turned on the light, it was like the hallelujah song played,” Eric recalls. There were flat files and hundreds of rolled drawings. They opened the drawer of a brown cabinet and pulled out what was on top: a 1915 blueprint by Ralph Adams Cram. They soon realized that this unassuming closet in the back of the power plant was home to literally hundreds of Cram drawings—in addition to thousands of other drawings from across the decades.

The tight schedule to complete the historic building assessment meant that there wasn’t time at that moment to explore everything that was in those files, but after the assessment was complete, MCWB submitted a proposal to look at the drawings, triage them and make a determination about how best to catalogue, store and conserve them. Since then with the help of the Physical Plant staff, the drawings—between 5,000 and 7,000 in total—have been moved to the basement of Fletcher Hall where there is room to store and view them properly, in a room that is climate-controlled and secure. MCWB hired a paper conservator to ensure that the most historically valuable drawings are restored and cared for properly. These drawings will allow the College to ensure that any future capital or landscape projects are in keeping with Cram’s original vision.

For an architect like Eric, Sweet Briar’s ability to stay true to Cram’s original vision is important. “This campus is a hidden gem,” Eric says. “The integration of the landscape like it is at Sweet Briar is paramount.” In other places, he observes, buildings and additions are constructed wherever there is space without thinking about the continuity of the architecture, but that’s not true at Sweet Briar. “When you walk on Sweet Briar’s campus now, in many regards it feels like it’s 1924 and there’s something that’s really special about that,” he says. “The viewsheds and the scale of the buildings are intact and just how Cram envisioned them. It’s a masterpiece.”

Historic prints

Where we go from here

Archival drawings
Phase 1 of stewarding Sweet Briar’s campus buildings was to conduct the historic assessment. Phase II includes conserving the Cram drawings and assessing the buildings that make up the core campus, but which are not part of the historic district—buildings like Babcock and Guion. In addition, the College would like to engage a landscape architect to review the vision of Charles Gillette and how we might implement some of his vision. MCWB has also recommended a study of Sweet Briar’s campus to ensure that students, faculty, staff and visitors of all abilities are able to successfully navigate this American landmark campus. Of course, now that the assessment is done, the list of possible projects—including adding geothermal heating— is long. Now comes the work of determining which projects get done and in what order as well as how to pay for them. The Sweet Briar Board of Directors will discuss the College’s energy systems at its May meeting and make a decision.

In addition, with the re-discovery of the Cram drawings, now is the perfect time to look at how Sweet Briar can become a center of learning about historic preservation, not just for current and future students, but for people around the country. The College is currently in discussions about building a partnership with the American College of the Building Arts in Charleston, S.C., and other partners to develop a summer program on historic building crafts where people from the Commonwealth and around the country would come to campus for two weeks each July to study crafts like carpentry, plaster work and brick masonry.
Meet Ralph Adams Cram

Bell tower blueprint
John McBryde may be better known for his position as the 5th president of Virginia Polytechnic Institute, but the Sweet Briar College community knows him as a member of the first board of directors for the Sweet Briar Institute. His work on the board has proved to have long-lasting significance to the College in a number of ways, not least of which is that it was McBryde who chose the 38-year-old Ralph Adams Cram to design the campus buildings.

Cram’s connection to the College would last the rest of his life, in part because he became personal friends with Meta Glass, Sweet Briar’s 3rd president. Cram’s firm proposed a total of 17 buildings for the campus, though in the end, he designed only 13. Although Cram is best known for his work in the Collegiate Gothic style, his design for Sweet Briar College was Georgian to ensure that the buildings would exist in harmony with the landscape.

Cram’s work at Sweet Briar helped establish his firm in architectural circles and over the course of his career, he became well known for his work on a large number of churches and religious buildings as well as his work on libraries and academic buildings.

In addition to Sweet Briar, Cram and his firm are known for their design of the United States Military Academy at West Point, which they designed in 1902. He was the supervising architect of Princeton University from 1907- 1929 and was also head of the architectural department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for a number of years. He designed the Boston Public Library in 1931 and his work can also be seen at the University of Richmond, Phillips Exeter Academy, Rice University and the University of Notre Dame, to name just a few.

Sweet Briar College circa 1910 Sweet Briar College circa 1910

What can you do to help?

Sweet Briar’s alumnae have a longstanding tradition of involvement in historic preservation. Many have been involved in such initiatives at the College since the Tusculum Institute was begun in the 1990s. Preserving our architecture, lands and cultural history is an important part of our future as well as our past. As of now, the College seeks to raise funds to support these projects and to create an endowment to ensure that Sweet Briar is able to continue to maintain and steward its historic campus. If you want to support these efforts, please reach out to the Office of Alumnae Relations and Development at 1-800-381-6131 or make your gift online.

This article was originally published in the spring 2021 issue of Sweet Briar Magazine.