W&L Lewis Hall Library Renovation

The American college campus saw significant expansion between the 1950s and mid 1970s,  giving rise to a generation of campus buildings now referred to  as “mid-century modern.”  These structures came in a variety of forms and styles and are sometimes revered, often reviled, often discontinuous members of the campus community.   Much of the work ahead for today’s higher education architects and planners is in the renovation and adaptive reuse of these buildings- trying to better integrate them into the campus and to transform them into spaces appropriate to contemporary learning.

One such opportunity is Sydney Lewis Hall of the Law School at Washington and Lee University.  Designed by Marcellus Wright Cox & Smith Architects in 1972 and expanded in 1990, the building is an adaptation of the “Brutalist” style of architecture popular in the early 1970’s.  These structures featured heavy concrete frames, deep “waffle-slab” concrete floors and equally deep and heavy brick masonry walls.   Windows were eschewed in favor of more building mass and “energy efficiency.”  Experiencing these buildings is more akin to entering a fortress than an inviting building for education and community.

In 2013, Washington & Lee engaged the BCWH team to reposition the plan and appearance of Lewis Hall to better serve their innovative legal curriculum.  Over the years, the building had lost its appeal and diminished in functionality.   This decline can be attributed to dated interiors and shifting tastes as well as changes in the Law School’s curriculum and teaching methodologies.

The main body of the renovation was centered in the third floor of the Law Library, the functional and symbolic center of the ambling yet cavernous interior of the building.   The design goals were to provide the Law School with a variety of inviting, well-equipped contemporary study environments that would also facilitate better circulation and orientation while respecting some of the distinctive architectural features of the space.

The BCWH team developed a “loop” around the third floor and relocated the primary circulation desk to the center of this loop. The new circulation pattern enhanced orientation in the space by connecting the library’s different functions including the office spaces, reading room, classrooms and career strategy offices.  This loop also ties together the entry lobby, the elevator from the lower level entry and the Powell Suite at the end of the main reading room.

W&L Law Floor Plan


The loop concept was established through  finishes, lighting, and carefully coordinated views into, through and out of the spaces.  The following design strategies were applied:

1. Views. The original building was disorienting,  as its horizontal and vertical circulation had  a labyrinthine character and lacked helpful views to the outside.   In an attempt to open up the views, The design team gave the main axis of the loop views out from the “citadel” into the surrounding woods.  They also provided new or enlarged windows throughout the building.  Almost sixty windows were added or enlarged, enhancing the quality of light throughout the study areas and enhancing orientation.

W&L BeforeAfter Entrance

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2. Brick. To diminish the fortress-like quality of the Library, most of the interior brick was removed from partitions, balustrades and parapets.  Greater  “lightness” — once defined by Italo Calvino as a force that propels and regenerates — was the leading idea here, and was achieved through  the abundant use of glass in place of many of the brick walls.  Glass enhances visual connections and the likelihood of  greater communication and collaboration.  The team drew on contemporary academic library design, thinking about the ways in which architecture can create opportunities for students and researchers to work together, to exchange knowledge and produce ideas.  The remaining brick walls, in strategic locations to connect the exterior with the interior, or to define volumes, were painted white.   Both the glass and the white treatment reinforced the intended lightness while giving new definition to the architectural form of the space.

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3. Lighting. A continuous treatment  lighting fixtures defines the entire loop.  The lighting design guides users from the entrance to either the library or the classroom wing of the building.  In the main lobby, the lights split in two directions and guide the user to the main reading room where the lights break up into a directional pattern of fixtures at random lengths.  To break one’s perception of a long corridor,  the team created a series of breaks in the primary lighting pattern with wood ceiling panels and fixtures perpendicular to the loop.  These elements highlight special functions housed beyond those points (e.g. classrooms).

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4. Ceilings. Exposed concrete is a defining feature of the buildings’ adapted Brutalist style. The team chose to celebrate the rhythm of light and shadow in the existing concrete waffle slab by hanging fixtures from the slab that provided uniform indirect light.  These lights helped to give depth and vitality to the ceiling and define various spaces and functions.   Along the loop,  the ceiling is clad with white linear tiles and provides a continuous, almost monolithic appearance that highlights the loop and contrasts with the  waffle slabs to both sides.   Areas that lacked concrete waffle slabs were given metal slat ceilings, a material that, like the slabs, has texture and depth.  The wood ceiling panels interrupt the long corridors and added a warm material that would match the wood bookshelves, casework  and other furniture.

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5. Finishes. The use of a neutral palette reinforced the concept of lightness, it aided in orientation.  Changes between darker and lighter greys in the flooring highlight the loop.  The texture and directionality of the carpet provide subtle cues that further enhance orientation.  The corresponding east/west orientation of the ceiling tiles and the lighting within the offices all contribute to the coherence of the library’s spaces.

W&L Law library finishes

6. Details. The new bookshelf at the main entrance of the library is a sculptural element that acts as a welcoming feature for students and faculty.  Even in these seemingly small details, the concept of lightness helped define the design.  The visual lightness of the cantilevered white metal shelves contrast with what is known as “heavy” (e.g. books and bookshelves).

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Working closely with faculty, students and staff of the Law School, and W&L Facilities staff, BCWH has given new life to this mid-century modern structure, providing, as described by former Dean Nora Demleitner, a “welcoming and professional environment.” The library is “a place that projects the professional world” and “takes advantage of the surrounding natural resources” of the site.  The building is much less like a fortress, but instead is a more inviting place for the Law School community, more open and full of light.

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