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Rebirth In Stone

Trinity College's Oldest Buildings, Built When Students Needed Rooms For Their Valets, Get A Makeover

By THERESA SULLIVAN BARGER | Special to The Courant

July 08, 2008

The sculpted stone faces outside an entrance to Jarvis Hall evoke literary characters, and the stained-glass windows in a classroom in Seabury Hall could easily be displayed in an art museum.

But the nicks and gouges visible in an ash banister remind visitors that, however historic and beautiful, these buildings on the Trinity College campus in Hartford have housed generations of students and been tested by the passing of time.

In August, Trinity is set to complete a two-year, $33 million renovation of the Hartford campus' oldest buildings along what the college calls the "Long Walk" the original building complex consisting of Seabury, Northam Towers and Jarvis that was constructed in the 1870s and 1880s.

The extent of needed renovations quickly became apparent a couple of years ago when a worker was performing routine maintenance on the slate roof of the Long Walk buildings. The worker, taking a break, leaned up against a dormer and the dormer moved.

After some emergency repairs to ensure the safety of students and faculty, the college decided to embark on a top-to-bottom makeover that would become the largest renovation in its 185-year history. The renovations are being funded by the college and a $7.5 million fundraising campaign.

The goal of the project was to "try to make late-1800s buildings workable for 21st-century expectations," said Sally Katz, Trinity's facilities director.

The three brownstone structures that make up the original section of the Long Walk were designed by famed English architect William Burges and adapted by American architect Francis Kimball. The buildings are prime examples of High Victorian Collegiate Gothic and had a profound influence on American architects of the period.

Burges designed an extensive collection of buildings forthe Trinity campus, but Seabury and Jarvis, completed in 1878, and Northam Towers, completed in 1883, were the only parts of the plan thecollegecould afford to build. They are historically significant because their design was the only commission Burges carried out outside the United Kingdom.

Students who live in Jarvis or take classes in Seabury this fall won't see the cables installed between brickwork that had to be carefully cut into to make room. And they won't see the heating and cooling system hidden in closets, the basement and, in one classroom, behind built-in cabinets that replicate original glass-door bookcases topping built-in drawers.

Wherever possible, the original woodwork was stripped of years of paint and stain and was refinished, but craftsmen retained the nicks, slashes and dings that give the woodwork character. New doors were designed to replicate doors that had to be replaced. The Smartboards, video conference capabilities and other state-of-the art features can be managed from the professor's podium, but while they're not in use, the classroom looks much as it did more than a century ago.

Katz said the college could have just repaired the 120-year-old slate roof and dormers, but the importance of the buildings to the history of the college demanded something more.

After a year of planning, work began the day after graduation ceremonies in May 2007 and will be completed before students return to campus this fall on time and on budget. Crews of more than 100 tradespeople worked six days a week to clean, rebuild, re-point and renovate the buildings.

While 166 students were displaced from their dorms and professors had to move to temporary quarters, the work crews completed a new 925-foot-long walkway and removed the construction fence so that this year's graduates could continue a long-held tradition and pass in procession down the Long Walk.

Working from Burges' original drawings, the architects added modern elements such as vents on the roof but hid them in dormers that were part of the original design, said architect Craig De Jong of Hartford-based Smith Edwards Architects, the project's architects.

"On a signature building, you hope there would be drawings like this," De Jong said. "We were very lucky that we did have them because they have proved invaluable."

For example, originally the dorm rooms were designed for male students and their valets, but 1950s fire code laws requiring multiple exits prompted the installation of a hallway through what had been the common room of each suite. The original concept has been restored, so suites in Jarvis include two bedrooms, a bathroom and a common room.

The team took maintaining the 81,000-square-foot building's character to heart in dozens of ways both big and small. They bought black slate roof tiles from a quarry in Canada that were cut from the same geological vein as the original tiles from Maine in 1881, said Chris Dabek, project manager for Consigli, the project's construction company.

They bought terra-cotta ridge caps for the roof from England to replicate existing tiles. (Even with the added shipping cost, they were cheaper than any alternative manufactured in the U.S., Dabek said.)

And the 900 original cast-iron windows and 300 leaded and stained-glass windows were taken out, abated for lead, cleaned, re-glazed and re-installed for a cost of nearly $2 million.

Tyler Smith, co-founder of Smith Edwards, estimates that the attention to architectural detail added another $5 million to the renovation price tag.

But Smith said the $300-per-square-foot cost for the renovations was still below the $350-per-square-foot price paid to build new academic buildings in the state.

"There is added value to renovating a building versus demolishing it and replacing it," Smith said. "The quality of the original building is better. The architectural significance is priceless."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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