The Colgate Scene
November 2003

A village green on campus
The O'Connor Campus Center is transformed

Colgate's focus on internationalism and diversity inspired the architects at QPK Design to incorporate the large globe light fixture that is suspended over the stairwell in the main lobby. [Photos by Timothy D. Sofranko]

The Office of Student Activities has a new name plus new digs in the refurbished Coop.
It's 2:30 p.m. on a late September afternoon. Although the lunchtime rush is over, a continual stream of students passes between limestone-clad columns and through the twin set of double doors at the newly renovated O'Connor Campus Center. For those entering, the foyer's glass walls frame the view of the main lobby. The hungry ones veer left, to grab a calzone or a smoothie in the reconfigured Coop. Others head to the right, to study in the new lounge area, visit the Center for Leadership and Student Involvement (CLSI) and SGA offices, or shop in the C-Store. Many traipse down the wide staircase to pick up their mail and the New York Times, or work in the computer center.

Since it was built in 1967, O'Connor has served as a hub of sorts for students -- with the mail and computer centers, check cashing, information tables, and the Coop as an alternative to the dining halls and a late-night snack destination, as well as the university bookstore. But finding better ways to support student life programs as well as the need to update the building have been points of discussion within the Colgate community for more than a decade. The relocation of the bookstore to downtown Hamilton last year finally presented the opportunity to make some major improvements.

A committee of representatives from the dean of the college office, administrative services, the faculty, and students participated in the research and planning that went into the redesign, making several presentations to the Student Government Association along the way.

Through surveys and focus groups, it became clear that many students felt the campus lacked a common public space where they could relax with friends, chat informally with professors, or study in between classes. As Dean of the College Adam Weinberg put it, "we needed, essentially, a village green on campus."

Also needed was a more centrally located space for the student activities office. With the department's focus on helping students gain the skills necessary to manage their own activities, the office's location down the hill in the Student Union building, out of the usual student traffic pattern, prevented frequent interaction between student organization leaders and the staff.

"This is an interesting generation of young people," said Weinberg. "They're very bright, ambitious, and entrepreneurial. They're also joiners, and they want real mentorship. We needed a space where our staff could mentor our student organizations better." [See "In the thick of things"]

Greater visibility for the Student Government Association and more space where student organizations could hold meetings and conduct their business became two other goals.

Another common student request centered on dining. "We consistently heard that students wanted healthier, higher quality food in the Coop," remarked Mark Spiro, vice president for administrative services.

A comfortable space
"The building looks nothing like it originally did," said Nick Palmieri, project manager for the renovation. "It was an outdated facility, it needed a facelift, there were some mechanical problems, and life safety system updates were needed to bring the building up to Colgate's recognized building standards, so the scope of the project was a full renovation of the space." While the footprint remains the same (except for a new outdoor terrace that runs along two-thirds of the front), both the exterior and the main floor's interior of the timber frame and masonry building were completely transformed, with most of the work completed during this past summer.

The interior style, by QPK Design of Syracuse, N.Y., speaks of a modern interpretation of arts and crafts era (popular in the early 1900s) design, with stone and slate, patterned ceramic tile in area rug-like groupings, cherry trim, bronze and copper fixtures, and paint colors of pale green and café au lait. Throughout the main floor, the soaring wood-beam ceilings house new paneled skylights that bring natural light into each distinct space.

In the main lobby, three students sit at a long table, taking signups for a Red Cross blood drive. On opposing walls, flat panel color screens continually cycle advertisements for campus events. Wall nooks house computer terminals for checking e-mail. The C-Store sells small convenience items previously carried in the bookstore and maintains a suggestion box just outside. The stairway leading downstairs has been doubled in width to accommodate the high volumes of people moving through the building.

"I think that the architecture and the design is going to have a big impact on visiting students' first impressions of Colgate," said Preston Burnes '06. "In terms of utility to the students, the plasma screens are a benefit to advertising stuff on campus, and they work well grabbing people's attention, especially given the traffic."

In place of the old bookstore entrance, a wide archway leads into an open lounge. Students are eating and chatting at café stools and tables, others read or work on laptops in wing chairs (made possible through the addition of wireless technology), their feet propped on the raised hearth of the dramatic circular fireplace, which forms the focal point of the room. "The intention was to make it comfortable," said Palmieri.

"This building brings people into a common space that allows them to interact with each other in important ways."
To the right of the lounge is a study room. Scattered around are comfortable armless lounge seats and office-type chairs, as well as modules of high-backed, upholstered single and double benches arranged around small tables to form semi-private nooks where groups can work together on projects. For flexibility, everything is on wheels. At one end, someone's working on a laptop and watching the Yankees game on a wall-mounted television.

Behind the main lounge, a large multimedia-equipped conference room provides space for student or departmental meetings, seminars, or special events, or where student leaders can seek impromptu advice from CLSI staff members.

At the left side of the old bookstore is the suite of offices for the CLSI and the travel agency, as well as the Student Government Association, which for SGA President Bart Hale '04 makes his job easier and better serves his constituents. "Students can drop in, log a complaint, or get something done, all on the way to the mail room or to lunch," he said. "That symbolizes the close interaction between students and SGA and is something we have been striving to have more of."

The public portions of the ground floor, which was not significantly reworked, received the same finish treatments to maintain consistency throughout the building. In addition, a sprinkler system was installed and the building was brought up to meet Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) standards with the installation of a passenger and freight elevator, ramps, and accessible bathrooms.

Spiro praised the staff of the campus departments housed in O'Connor, including printing services, mail services, and a portion of information technology services, whose employees had to work under noisy, dusty, and other difficult conditions throughout the renovation project.

A "diffuse" student center
In the Coop, where students can now eat using their meal plans, Mongolian wok and brick oven stations for customized entrees replace the old cafeteria-style lunch line. Ready-to-go wraps, salads, pudding, and the like in large display coolers await students on the run, and specialty coffee drinks and smoothies are also available.

"I eat here a lot for lunch because it's a nice change from Frank [Dining Hall]," said Luke Janson '07. "And I do come up here late night to study and hang out and get something to eat."

Of course, as with any renovation, not everything works perfectly from the start, so there are kinks to be worked out over the next several months. Students expressed disappointment with the new menu, for example.

"The set up is awesome and the food is better and healthier," said Matt Drummond '06, "but there's not much variety."

Amanda Terkel '04 said that "the new Coop has definitely encouraged people to come up here to study and have meetings. It feels like a more central location now that the CLSI is up here." But, she misses the traditional grilled items. Sobby Arora '04, SGA vice president, agrees: "At least for upperclassmen, that's what they truly miss: cheap, greasy food." Both Weinberg and Hale noted that the SGA would be polling students for feedback on ways to make improvements.

Nevertheless, every day nearly twice as many students have been eating lunch at the Coop as last year, and the 10:00 p.m. to midnight traffic has nearly doubled as well. In fact, soon after the Coop reopened, three additional cash registers had to be installed to accommodate the larger-than-anticipated volume during the lunch hour, and the maintenance staff is servicing the building with trash removal three times a day, as opposed to once or twice a day in past years.

"I think the new Coop has brought a lot more students in here on a regular basis for eating, hanging out, studying, having meetings, and more," said Hale. "The `fireplace room' has become a great lounge, a place to come in between classes."

Many institutions today are engaged in what Clare Cotton, president of the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, called in an October 5 New York Times article an "arms race" to attract students by building ever-more opulent spaces such as waterslide parks, room-sized golf course simulators, or 53-person Jacuzzis, spending upwards of $140 million, or more, for student life facilities. Colgate has been on a different track of rehabbing smaller, individual structures over a period of time -- an affordable approach, whereas building from scratch a huge all-purpose student center, according to Spiro, would have been prohibitively expensive. Spiro also noted that, thanks to "the conscientious oversight of project manager Nick Palmieri," the project came in well under budget at $5.7 million. O'Connor joins other facilities such as the Palace Theater, Barge Canal Coffee Company, Hamilton Movie House, and Colgate Bookstore to create what Weinberg calls a "diffuse" student center that accomplishes more than just providing a hangout space.

"One of the real goals we have been talking about is providing more opportunities for students to engage in original scholarship and to do that in teams. These spaces allow us to do that," said Weinberg. "Another thing we know about Colgate and the liberal arts in general is that people learn within communities, and this building brings people into a common space that allows them to interact with each other in important ways."

Jess Buchsbaum '03 contributed to this story.
Top of page
Table of contents
  Next: In the thick... >>