The college library as an ‘intellectual commons’: Smith’s Neilson Library reopens to campus community after massive renovation 

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  • Susan Fliss, Dean of Libraries at Smith College, walks amid the stacks on the second floor overlooking the central hall of the renovated Neilson Library at Smith Collegey, March 24. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Susan Fliss, Dean of Libraries at Smith College, walks past the oculus descending through the skyline reading room on the fourth floor of the renovated Neilson Library at Smith College. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • A view toward Chapin Lawn from the north wing of the renovated Neilson Library at Smith College. In the foreground is one of the “live-edge” tables created from a 125-year-old elm felled for the project’s construction. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • A view from the ground floor to the top of the four-floor atrium in the Ruth Simmons wing of the renovated Neilson Library at Smith College. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Casual seating amid the stacks on the second floor looks over the first floor in the open central hall of the renovated Neilson Library at Smith College. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Casual seating amid the stacks on the second floor overlooks the first floor in the open central hall of the renovated Neilson Library at Smith College. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • The Phoebe Reese Lewis ‘51 courtyard reading area in the north, or Ruth Simmons wing of the renovated Neilson Library at Smith College. The sunken courtyard itself is named for Julia Chang Lin ‘51, mother of designer Maya Lin.  STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Contemplative study spaces are featured on the second and third floors of the north, or Ruth Simmons wing of the renovated Neilson Library at Smith College.  STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Compactible stacks on the ground floor of the north wing of the renovated Neilson Library at Smith College. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • The north wing, named for former Smith College President Ruth Simmons, is the more social area of the renovated Neilson Library, with a cafe on its first floor. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • A slightly off-round opening known as an oculus extends from a fourth-floor skylight to the ground floor to light the central core of the renovated Neilson Library at Smith College. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Susan Fliss, Dean of Libraries at Smith College, says the changes at Neilson Library have been designed to give students improved means for study, scholarship and collaborative learning. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • The south wing of the renovated Neilson Library at Smith College, named for former president Mary Maples Dunn, is across from Washburn House, at left. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Lockers for students’ belongings will store items before students enter the Special Collections Center on the third floor of the south, or Mary Maples Dunn, wing of the renovated Neilson Library at Smith College. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • A view looking west from Neilson Lawn of the renovated Neilson Library at Smith College. The original 1909 structure is flanked on the left and right, respectively, by the Mary Maples Dunn wing and the Ruth Simmons wing. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • A view into the sunken courtyard extending from the north wing of the renovated Neilson Library at Smith College. The courtyard is named for designer Maya Lin’s mother, Julia Chang Lin, a 1951 alumna of Smith. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • A view from Neilson Lawn at Smith College of the newly renovated Neilson Library, with the original 1909 building at right, the new Mary Maples Dunn wing, center, and the Alumnae Gynasium, which is part of the library system, at lower left.  STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • A view of Neilson Lawn from the third floor of the north wing, or Ruth Simmons wing, of the renovated Neilson Library at Smith College. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • The third floor of the original 1909 central core of the renovated Neilson Library at Smith College is dominated by an oculus skylight that extends through all floors.  STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • The grounds on the west side of the Ruth Simmons wing of the renovated Neilson Library at Smith College have been terraced into an amphitheater that opens onto Burton Lawn. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Two pigeons sit below specially coated glass used on some of the windows in the newly renovated Neilson Library at Smith College. The coating is designed to appear solid to birds so they don’t attempt to fly through them. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • The renovated Neilson Library at Smith College with the south, or Mary Maples Dunn wing, at left. In decreasing the library’s footprint, designer Maya Lin placed the two new sections slightly back from the original front building line so that the 1909 central core, at right, remains prominent. The Ruth Simmons wing, at the north end, is not visible from this angle. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • A view of the central hall of the renovated Neilson Library at Smith College. An oval-shaped opening known as an oculus extends from a fourth-floor skylight to the ground floor to light the central core. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Susan Fliss, Dean of Libraries at Smith College, pulls back the curtain surrounding the oculus in the skyline reading room on the fourth floor of the renovated Neilson Library at Smith College. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • A view of the west side, or rear, of the renovated Neilson Library at Smith College from Burton Lawn. The original 1909 structure is flanked on the left and right, respectively, by the Ruth Simmons wing and Mary Maples Dunn wing. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • The skyline terrace offers views to the north, south and west from the fourth floor of the renovated Neilson Library at Smith College. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • The Special Collections grand reading room, on the third floor of the Mary Maples Dunn wing of the renovated Neilson Library, offers a 270-degree view of the Smith College campus. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Published: 3/28/2021 7:26:31 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Several years ago, after she’d been chosen by Smith College to redesign the school’s aging Neilson Library, artist and architect Maya Lin visited the school and told a packed audience at Sage Hall that her vision for revamping the library involved reducing its overall footprint and making it a better fit for the campus.

A wave of additions to the early 20th-century building had ended up forming what was in effect an “aggressively bad” wall in the middle of campus, Lin said, as laughter rippled through the audience, the Gazette reported at the time. But, Lin added, the initial library design “had flow. It’s going to come back so easily, you’ll see.”

A little less than six years later, the remodeled Neilson Library, closed for the better part of the past four years, is now reopening to the campus community. And Lin, who first gained prominence in 1981 when she won a national design competition for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. — while still an undergraduate at Yale University — clearly seems to have made good on her promise.

The once hulking wings added to the north and south ends of the original library, which opened in 1909, have been replaced by curved, light-filled wings of “jewel box” construction, made from a mix of masonry, wood and glass; they both feature extensive windows that offer impressive views of the campus and surrounding woods and hills. The removal of the old wings has also opened up passage across the campus grounds in front of and around the library.

And the original Neilson building, also known as the Central Hall, has retained its brick facade but been extensively remodeled within, most notably through the addition of a four-story oculus that functions as a sort of giant skylight and a central architectural framework.

Overall, the new library seems awash in light and feels more spacious than the older version — though it’s actually slightly smaller — with outside light increased and interior sight lines expanded, in part through the use of glass in place of inside walls for various rooms and spaces.

Even more importantly, campus officials say, the library has been reimagined as an “intellectual commons,” a center for scholarship, study and collaborative learning. Some new features include media production studios where students can record videos and podcasts; classrooms and flexible-use spaces for special projects and for working with archival materials; and a central repository for all of the college’s special collections, which previously were housed in different places on campus.

Susan Fliss, Smith’s Dean of Libraries, says the revamped Neilson will also be a place where students will be encouraged to work directly with librarians, writing coaches, technologists, Special Collections staff, and student tutors.

“We want students to feel they can always get their questions answered here,” Fliss said during a recent tour of the library.

Lin served as the project’s architectural designer. The principal architect was Shepley Bulfinch, a Boston-based firm founded in 1874 that also has offices in Connecticut, Texas and Arizona. At a cost of $120 million, the library renovation is the biggest construction project on campus in years, and it’s the biggest project Lin has worked on in years as well, according to Smith.

There’s one reason in particular Lin took the project on, according to Stacey Schmeidel, the school’s senior director for news and strategic communications. Lin’s mother, the late Julia Chang Lin, was a 1951 Smith graduate who came to the school after narrowly escaping the Chinese Civil War in 1949; a writer and scholar, she later played a key role in establishing the field of Chinese Studies in U.S. colleges and universities.

As Maya Lin recently told The New York Times during a visit to the nearly finished library, “I owe my existence to Smith…. I just really wish (my mother) were alive to see this now.”

Building to fit

Lin’s designs have reflected her interest in environmental issues and sustainability, in particular how buildings are balanced with a landscape and constructed in the most efficient manner possible. Smith officials say Lin has incorporated those ideas in the Neilson Library through means such as the use of natural light and by using some locally sourced materials, including limestone.

In addition, windows on the upper level of the west side of the building have been given a special coating that makes them appear solid so that birds don’t attempt to fly through them.

One other point: a 125-year-old elm tree that had to be taken down outside the library because of utility work has been returned, in some fashion, to the new building in the form of several tables and benches that were made by Gill wood craftsman Sam French (see accompanying story).

Fliss, the Smith library dean, says she’s also impressed with the variety of furniture the new library has. Different-sized and shaped chairs, tables and study carrels are located throughout the building to accommodate a variety of students and the manner in which they want to study, she says.

And in a curved room outside the Special Collections Center, whose wide windows offer an expansive view of the south side of the campus, she pointed to a table that can be lowered or raised at the touch of a button to accommodate people of different heights, whether sitting or standing at the table.

From both an aesthetic and pragmatic perspective, Fliss said, the mix of varied furniture “gives students a lot of options.” With a laugh, she added that it’s not yet clear which areas of the library might end up being most popular for students who come to study: “We’ll see where they drag the furniture.”

Schmeidel, the college communications director, says she favors the third floor of the north wing (named after former Smith President Ruth Simmons; the south wing is named for former President Mary Maples Dunn). Fliss suspects the fourth floor of the central building might prove especially appealing, at least in good weather, as the expansive space includes an outside terrace with fine views to the south, west and north.

The revamped library also includes a cafe with a range of magazines for browsing, an exhibition area for student projects and other displays, and a “Reflections” room for meditation, prayer or quiet time.

The latter space, as well as the addition of more natural light in the library, became part of the design in part because of student feedback in the early design phase of the project, Fliss notes.

“We’re still waiting to see how these new spaces will be used and how we can best accommodate students,” she said. “But I think we’re all going to appreciate the changes that have been made.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.


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