Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Longwood University and the Demolition of the Historic Cunningham Residence Halls

Longwood University has a rich history. The college, first known as the Farmville Female Seminary Association, was established in 1839 and is the third oldest public institution of higher learning in Virginia. It is also the first state institution of higher learning for women in Virginia. Longwood has always cared about its history and traditions and has shown good stewardship of its historic buildings.

That is why I was surprised to find out that Longwood University’s Master Plan called for the  demolition of the Cunningham Residence Halls in order to build a new student union. The Cunninghams have been a central part of Longwood for over 80 years and many students, faculty, and alumni clearly do not want them demolished.  College campuses are home to many of our oldest buildings, and these historic buildings contribute tremendously to their character. 
Cunningham Residence Hall

Below are two very articulate quotes on this subject from Gale and Associates, an Engineering and Planning Firm from Herndon.

“It’s the historic buildings that dominate marketing materials and draw students to campus. They convey an image of a solid, lasting institution appealing to both the students and the parents paying tuition. These iconic historic buildings are often what alumni think of as they remember the campus.“


“While it may seem that older buildings require more work compared to newer buildings, the reality is that these buildings were constructed to last and now having aged a century or more, are in need of maintenance. Buildings much younger (post‐War to present), on the other hand, are exhibiting premature failure due to inferior design, materials, and workmanship and may require as much, if not more work, than historic buildings. As universities consider new construction projects, they need to ask themselves, will the proposed assemblies and construction details last 100 years or more?" Link

Why Demolition?
Longwood’s Master Plan is somewhat perplexing because while it calls for the proposed demolition of an important historic building on campus, it also establishes several guiding principles for itself including: “keeping Longwood ‘like Longwood’; architectural compatibility; a compact, convenient campus; on-campus student life; gathering spaces; making the campus more pedestrian friendly; preserving, enhancing, and expanding campus green space and lastly, including sustainability.”

Demolishing the Cunningham Residence Halls does not fit into several of these guiding principles especially “keeping Longwood like Longwood.” It also doesn't fit with  the “sustainability” guideline. One of the most often undervalued methods of achieving overall resource efficiency is to adaptively reuse our older buildings. Unlike demolition, reuse does not produce the tons of wasted building materials that end up in landfills each year.

A new student union seems to be needed, but why demolish a historic building (and incur the costs) to do so? Why not build it somewhere else?  The reason given to demolish the Cunninghams in the Master Plan is, “The cost of retaining and renovating these buildings was judged to be excessive, and the choice was made to explore other uses for the site.”  However; I saw no financial analysis of demolition verses reuse in the Master Plan, so how do we know if the cost of renovation will be excessive?  

Architectural drawing of new student union

2011 Endangered Sites Listing
Preservation Virginia has invested a great deal of time and effort into encouraging the reuse of historic college and university buildings.  In 2011, after receiving several nominations that highlighted threats to historic structures on college campuses, Preservation Virginia listed “Historic Structures on Virginia’s College and University Campuses” to our annual Most Endangered Sites list.  

In 2006, five years before the Endangered Sites listing, Preservation Virginia supported legislation calling on the Virginia Department of Historic Resources to provide a tool for recognizing and assessing the critical needs of state owned historic buildings including those on colleges and universities.  Because of this legislation, public colleges and universities now have additional information to help them meet stewardship goals for historic buildings while maintaining their functionality.

Examples exist in Virginia and elsewhere of successfully renovating and reusing historic campus  buildings. Also see.

Some Quotes
Some quotes I have read by students and teachers include: “The Cunninghams are a part of Longwood history that should not be forgotten. Longwood students have a connection to their residence halls that is hard to explain, and the connection to the Cunninghams is apparent when you talk to alumni, and you hear the genuine love of their ‘home’ when they tell stories about the fun they shared with friends. So, yes, it is sad to see them go.”   

“I have an emotional attachment to this building. It was the first building that I lived in as a freshman, and now I’m an RA for the same hall that I was a freshman on. This building pretty much houses the majority of my college career” 

“It’s upsetting to know that we have to say farewell to the Cunninghams, but again, I understand why they can’t remodel them. But overall I will be sad that I am losing one of the most important and integral parts of my college career.”

“I’m going to miss the Cunninghams, but I understand the reasons they have to tear it down.”

I have a feeling that the “reasons they have to tear it down” have not been fully vetted, at least not by the students and alumni who seem to genuinely care about their former dormitory. 

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