Graham-Lees Renovation: Gutting Tradition?
By Camille Hunt
With 110 years of tradition and memories surrounding Graham-Lees Hall, it is no surprise that many students and alumni are concerned about this year’s large-scale renovation of the iconic freshmen dorm. The entire campus has been asking questions regarding how drastically the building’s interior will change, what new modern features will be installed, and whether or not Graham-Lees will remain the same quirky, legendary place we all know and love. To gain some insight and make up for the lack of communication surrounding the project, The Spectator spoke with David Leonard, Washington and Lee’s Dean of Student Life, in pursuit of some well-deserved answers for our community. Dean Leonard was able to shed some light on both the physical and emotional aspects of the remodel that have influenced construction, and what you can expect to see once construction ends.
The drive behind the project is to modernize the building, which last underwent a large-scale renovation in 1982. Modern installments will include state of the art technology, fully renovated student bedrooms and bathrooms, laundry rooms on each floor, a new mechanical room to boost energy efficiency, and, most notably, air conditioning. Halls will also feature common rooms as well as meeting and study rooms, all equipped with TVs. These renovations, Dean Leonard explained, are based on student feedback on what kind of living environment works best for sleeping, studying and hanging out. The goal is to provide students with ample space to socialize and study outside of their rooms, much like the recently completed Gaines renovation. Leonard stressed the importance of putting Graham-Lees on par with Gaines. The University hopes that with both dorms on an equal playing level, students will be just as proud to live in either one (we’ll see).
Unfortunately, it appears that the rumors of Graham-Lees dorm rooms being made uniform in size are basically true. Dean Leonard stated that equity and industry standard motivated this change. In addition, Graham-Lees will see an increase in doubles due to higher student demand for roommates. All of this leads to the knocking down of nearly every wall in the building. Yes, some rooms will be demolished. And yes, it is true that the bragging rights of having the smallest room in the building some of us so proudly hold will soon become irrelevant. Feel free to mourn because the stories of removing your (insert article of furniture here) because it wouldn’t fit into your puzzle-piece shaped room will now most likely disinterest future incoming freshmen.
To ease our distress, many rooms are being made to slightly vary in shape and size, and Leonard insists that much of what gives Graham-Lees’ its character, such as the slanted ceilings on the fourth floor, will be preserved. Room numbers will change, but non-freshmen can expect to have a pretty good idea of where their rooms were. “You can’t walk through the exact same threshold,” Leonard says, but makes it clear that the University is focused on maintaining Graham-Lees’ identity and character. In addition, the exterior of the building is set to remain the same. Sentiments, it seems, are at least being considered, and construction plans aim to be sensitive towards the history and popularity of the building.
With the number of student generations that have lived in Graham-Lees, legacy students often take pride in that their parent, grandparent, or beyond lived in the same building their first year at W&L. The history behind the dorm has left many wondering whether or not “their” Graham-Lees will remain. Though it is upsetting that we will no longer be able to walk in and sit on a rusting radiator for a quiet moment, try to think of the renovation as a way to ensure that Graham-Lees that will last for more generations to come. Of the usual 250 students that live in Graham-Lees, only 88 occupy it this semester, confined to the side closest to The Lee House. Between Thanksgiving and Christmas, these 88 students are expected to move to the other side of the building, which will make them the first students to experience the new Graham-Lees. Construction is expected to end before the 2015-2016 school year, when the dorm will again be able to hold its usual capacity of over half the freshmen class.
As for future plans for the freshmen dorms, the administration has radical changes in the works. Although the date is uncertain, Gilliam is planned to be demolished. Davis will be repurposed, but it is still up for debate on what it will be. Gaines and Graham-Lees will ultimately become the only two freshmen dorms on campus, and the goal will be to create a common green space between the two. The administration envisions a park-like atmosphere to create a central area for people to congregate with trees, fireplaces, and a walkway (think Canaan Green with more landscaping). The LGBTQ House and the Women and Gender Studies House that currently sit behind Gilliam across from the Warner Center will be demolished to ensure that the area serves as a sightline connection between the two buildings. One thing we can all be sure about is that the Graham-Lees renovation is only the first of a long string of construction projects planned for W&L’s campus in the next few years.