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West Hall, circa 1875
Tufts Digital Collections and Archives

  West Hall in 2005, after extensive renovations
Laura Ferguson
Bold by Design
As Tufts restores the beauty of a Victorian dorm, architects work solar technology inot the university's first "green" residence hall

Students boarding in West Hall in the 1870s subsisted on crackers and oatmeal, warmed their rooms with coal, and drew water from an outdoor pump.

Those moving into the new Sophia Gordon Residence Hall in September 2006 will have their own kitchens, comfortable suites with Internet hookups, and water heated by solar panels on the roof.

Dorm life certainly has changed at Tufts in a century and a half, a point underscored by two projects under way this summer.

Venerable 133-year-old West Hall on the academic quad is receiving a $2.5 million facelift that will restore the Victorian landmark to its old splendor.

At the same time, the Sophia Gordon Residence Hall under construction on Talbot Avenue is being built to exacting environmental standards as Tufts’ first “green” structure, and will anchor an envisioned “Arts Corner” with a new music building across the street.

“The renovation of West Hall and the construction of Sophia Gordon Hall demonstrate the university’s commitment to both maintaining our existing facilities and adding new facilities in a thoughtful manner that will enhance the Medford/Somerville campus well into the future,” said Vice President for Operations John Roberto.

Energy–Conscious Architecture
It’s not easy being green, but the pains being taken to make the Sophia Gordon Residence Hall environmentally friendly are worthwhile, say those involved in the $19 million construction project adjacent to Stratton Hall on Talbot Avenue.

The new 126-bed dorm for upperclassmen is to be Tufts’ first “green” building constructed according to LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) voluntary standards developed by the U.S. Green Building Council to guide environmentally friendly construction.

The LEED guidelines promote the use of energy-efficient technology and of recycled and renewable construction materials: Steel used to build Gordon Hall is more than 90 percent recycled, for example, while rooftop solar panels will help heat water and generate a small amount of electricity.

The dorm is named for Sophia Gordon, wife of benefactor Bernard Gordon, H97, trustee and member of the Board of Overseers for Engineering.

The two wings of the five-story sandstone-and-brick residence hall blend into the terraced hillside, leaving the vista from Professors Row unobstructed. A walkway will lead from the hilltop campus to an “Arts Corner” formed by the new dorm and the new music center being built adjoining Aidekman Arts Center across the street.

The sense of integration into an interconnected campus is an emphasis of the project architects, William Rawn Associates, of Boston, the award-winning firm that also has been commissioned to develop a 10-year master plan for the Medford-Somerville campus.

“The combined new construction of the Sophia Gordon Hall and the music building work together to create a vibrant new center of gravity at Tufts,” said Douglas Johnston, principal, William Rawn Associates.

“The Tufts’ master plan emphasizes the importance of enhancing campus centers as well as identifying ways to improve the sense of arrival on campus,” Johnston said. “These new buildings respond by forming a gateway for Talbot Avenue that strengthens the approach to campus from Powderhouse Square.

“The development of shared open spaces creates a ‘hillside meander’ that allows for greater connections between the uphill and downhill parts of campus. Working within this context, the new buildings provide spaces that assist in fostering academic and cultural interaction across the Tufts community.”

Gordon Hall will be readily recognizable by the photovoltaic louvers resembling glass awnings on its façade that will simultaneously offer shade and convert energy from sunlight.

“For Tufts, this building is a milestone, a first step toward a commitment to sustainable design,” said architect Randy Wilmot of William Rawn Associates.

“The sustainable design is the hallmark of this building. The louvers are iconic to the way the building is viewed.”

The architects were challenged to design a residence hall that not only would be environmentally friendly, but would be an inviting on-campus housing option for upperclassmen who traditionally have had to live off campus.

Gordon Hall, with its suites and central community room for concerts and movies, will offer “apartment-style living far more attractive than an apartment two or three blocks off campus,” Wilmot said.

The 62,000-square-foot Gordon Hall will be composed of two wings, East and West, containing 30 suites and 126 beds. The typical suite will have four bedrooms, as well as a kitchen, living room, and bath. An indoor connector with mailboxes and laundry room joins the two wings on the first-floor level.

A pedestrian pathway bisecting the two wings will connect Talbot Avenue with Professors Row and the uphill campus. “The college is on a hill—a pretty steep hill—so accessibility is a challenge," said Wilmot. A one-stop elevator, open to the public, will convey pedestrians from an upper plaza to the music center on Talbot a flight below.

A multi purpose assembly room seating 150 will be a social center for Gordon Hall and a campus venue for debates, Super Bowl parties, or musical performances.

“It’s going to be a space people enjoy being in,” said Wilmot. Lawn space and benches along the terraced walkway will create a place to socialize, and a southerly orientation will leave the path flooded with light in the winter months.

American elms are to be planted along Talbot Avenue. Northern catalpa and hackberry trees are to be planted along the east and west elevations, and apple serviceberry trees along the pedestrian path between the wings.

LEED guidelines followed in the building's construction encourage the use of recyclable and renewable materials to minimize the amount of waste sent to landfills, and limit the trucking of construction materials to a radius of 500 miles, to reduce fuel emissions.

“We worry about recycled materials, and where they came from,” said Elizabeth Davis, project manager for contractor Linbeck Construction, herself a LEED-accredited professional.

“We also track where the materials are manufactured, to comply with the 500-mile radius requirement. It increases the complexity, and increases the headaches, for sure—but to a good end.”

A $500,000 grant from the Massachusetts Energy Trust carried a challenge to incorporate renewable-energy technology creatively in the project. Hence, solar thermal panels atop the west wing are seen reducing by 30 percent the energy needed to produce hot water.

“It’s a really innovative design,” Davis said. “The dorm of the future.”

This Old Dorm
“This is the history of Tufts, and we need to preserve it,” said Rudi Pizzi, manager of the university’s deferred maintenance program recently as he handed a visitor a hardhat and led the climb up seven levels of scaffolding to West Hall’s ornate roof, where shingles are being replaced with original-style slate.

A rigging allowed roofers to navigate sharp angles and jutting dormers while laying decorative strata of alternating rectangular and octagonal slates. “The roof on this building is very complicated,” Pizzi said. “There are a lot of peaks and valleys.”

Built in 1872 in the Gothic Revival style, West Hall was one of the earliest buildings to crown the hilltop, and originally housed divinity students on the upper floors, while its ground level was used for classrooms and a chapel.

West remains the oldest dorm in continuous use at Tufts, and certainly the most ornate. But it needed a facelift. Weathered sandstone in the arches was crumbling, and ornamental woodwork in some places seemed held together by generations of paint.

The current project will restore West Hall’s exterior brick and stone work, entryways, gutters and downspouts, and roof. Masons are re-pointing the bricks, grinding out the old mortar and replacing it with new. Four arched entryways that had deteriorated are being restored as well.

“This is the most architecturally ornamental building we have,” said Pizzi. “We’re trying to bring those elements back.”

“Not a lot of work has been done on the building over the years. We’re trying to salvage everything we can, while replacing some elements that have deteriorated too far.

“We have some of the best masonry contractors and roofing contractors on this job. Each facet of the work has its own problems. But we’ve got to do this stuff in timely fashion. It needed tending.”

McGinley Kalsow & Associates, a Somerville firm specializing in historic preservation, is the project architect. The firm’s previous assignments have included the restoration of St. Mary’s Church in Newport, R.I., where John and Jacqueline Kennedy were married.

The West Hall renovation was scheduled for this summer under the university’s deferred maintenance program, which also included exterior restoration of the Mayer Campus Center and the Cabot Intercultural Center.

The work on Goddard Chapel was completed two years ago, and Paige and Miner Halls and the archway joining them received extensive restoration last year, Pizzi said, while the cupola on Carmichael Hall is due to be restored next year.

“It is satisfying to get the exteriors of these buildings back to good condition,” said Pizzi. “There’s a sense of preservation here. This is the history of Tufts. This is where Tufts came from."