Bennington College to renovate historic Commons building

Bennington College
Artist Helen Frankenthaler, who studied at the college, is shown on the campus at the opening for an exhibit of her work in 1978. She is one of many famous artists, writers, dancers and other performers who studied or appeared at the Commons building, which will soon be fully renovated. Courtesy photo

BENNINGTON — Bennington College is planning the first complete renovation of the core historic structure on campus, the Commons building.

As part of a multi-faceted construction project, the renovation is expected to cost more than $20 million and stretch into early 2019. Dining and other services will be shifted to other campus buildings during that period.

“A full gut renovation” of the 45,000-square-foot, three-story Commons will begin after the close of the spring term, said Andrew Schlatter, associate vice president for facilities management and planning at the college, but related work in other buildings already has begun.

That includes renovation work at another campus building so it can accommodate the student health center, now located in the Commons. Later this month, work will begin at the Student Center so the main dining facilities on the second floor of the Commons can be transferred there, and other work will allow a student mail center to be moved during the construction.

A June ground-breaking for the Commons renovation is planned, and the building is expected to reopen in February 2019.

Because the Commons is one of about 30 structures on campus creating a registered historic district, Schlatter said the college and the contractors will work with state historic preservation officials to ensure the structure continues to meet registry standards.

He said the mostly brick exterior, the imposing porches and the windows will be restored, along with the clock face and cupola, while the interior will be restored although reconfigured in some instances to allow more open spaces. The third floor, which now is closed off and unused as teaching space, will be restored and reopened.

The mechanical systems will be replaced and updated. Heating, plumbing, electrical and other systems have not been replaced since the Commons was built in 1932, one of the original buildings when Bennington College opened that year.

The entire building also will undergo a technology upgrade to facilities in line with 21st century educational standards.

Since 1985, Schlatter said, the third floor and its 15,000 square feet of space have been closed off because it no longer meets fire code or Americans with Disabilities Act accessibility requirements. That space will be renovated for classrooms and other learning spaces.

“There is a lot of history associated with the third floor,” said Alex Dery Snider, director of media relations and public affairs.

Among many examples, influential artist Helen Frankenthaler studied painting on the third floor of Commons with the college’s art department director, Paul Feeley, beginning in the late 1940s; Martha Graham, in August 1940, gave the world premiere of her legendary dance “Letter to the World” on the third floor of the building, and Bob Dylan and Joan Baez once performed there.

After the Commons renovation, kitchen and dining facilities will return to the second floor, and the public spaces on the first floor will have been fully renovated. The building will contain the new classrooms and other learning spaces on the third floor, modernized dining facilities on the second floor, and a new bakery and cafe, bookstore, post office and additional social spaces.

One of the most important changes, Schlatter said, will be to reorient how the south-facing Commons — once the centerpiece of the 440-acre campus — relates to the newer college buildings that have been built to the north.

New access points for the Commons, including a three-story glass-enclosed addition and entrance on the north side, will direct the building toward the newer campus structures.

The goal is to “remake the building as a true center of the campus,” Schlatter said.

The Commons is an interesting building, he added, in that it “reflects the way students live and learn at Bennington College.”

Schlatter said he can think of no other structure on any college campus that “performs so many functions in one building,” referring to the social, dining, academic, health and other roles the Commons has encompassed.

To allow the construction, the Student Center will be closed April 12 for renovations to allow for temporary expanded dining facilities while the Commons is closed. That work, which will include an addition to the west side of the building, will allow the center to take over all dining services at the start of the fall 2017 term.

The student health center will be relocated from the Commons to a new Student Health Center, created through renovation of another of the campus’s original buildings, which had been used for offices and more recently for faculty housing. That construction began in December is expected to be completed by August.

Bennington College
The historic Commons building at Bennington College, which dates to the school’s founding in 1932 and served as the core of campus life, will soon undergo its first major renovation as part of a $20 million project. Courtesy photo
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