Hundreds of excited Randolph community members packed into Main Hall Lobby in February, buzzing with excitement as they eagerly awaited their first glimpse of the new Student Center. After a 20-month, $6 million renovation, a special grand opening ceremony was all that stood between the students, faculty, and staff, and the much-anticipated facility.
Immediately following the ribbon cutting, students flooded Randolph’s new Student Center to experience its jaw-dropping views, student-focused amenities, and unique blending of the historic with the modern. The facility, which was designed by Craddock-Cunningham Architectural Partners of Lynchburg, positively impacted campus life almost immediately.
“Most of the students on campus enjoyed the space well into the morning hours the first night it opened,” said Matha Thornton, vice president for student affairs and dean of students. “Every floor was filled with students reading, studying, playing pool and ping pong, dancing, gaming, you name it. They had 18,000-square feet covered. The 20 months the students patiently waited were well worth it.”
The recent renovation project transformed Randolph’s Student Center from a dark, aging, and largely unused building to a bright, modern, and open facility with dining areas, a new gaming center, a 74-seat performance theatre, fitness equipment, and more.
“This building is going to change the campus and student life in dramatic, positive ways without taking away important historic ties,” said John E. Klein, president. “When the design came together, we could see this was going to be exciting for our community. This is an important moment for Randolph College.”
The project was funded completely by generous contributions from alumnae and their families, including Sadie “Puff” Gravely Hampson ’41, Byrd and Alice Hilseweck Ball ’61, Tom and Sally Maier Rowe ’67, John and Mary Davis Nichols ’37, and two alumnae who wished to remain anonymous. Other alumnae also provided support for specific spaces in the building. The commitment of these alumnae signaled strong confidence in the future of the College, Klein said. “Thanks to these alumnae and their families, we now have a facility that fully meets the needs of our students today, but is also designed to meet the needs of the College far into the future,” he added.
Students said the new space has something for everyone. “It is going to be an opportunity for everyone to be a lot more social than just in the dining hall,” said Thomas Heynen ’15. “It will be a great place to come together.”
The Student Center building is one of the oldest structures on campus. It was constructed along with Main Hall shortly after Randolph-Macon Woman’s College was founded in 1891. During the Depression in the 1930s, the “Annex” was added to the north side of the building. A major renovation occurred in the 1980s. Throughout its history, the building has provided space for many purposes, including dining rooms, a chapel, a coffee shop, and offices.
When the College adopted its Facilities Master Plan in 2008, only the first level of the Student Center was being fully utilized, and the upper floors were hampered by a multi-level design. The plan identified the Student Center and Lipscomb Library as top priorities. The main floor of the library was renovated, and planning for a major Student Center overhaul began in 2010.
While College administrators knew a new building would take less time and cause less disruption to campus, they also realized it would take up valuable space needed for Randolph’s growth, and it would not utilize the beautiful elements of the existing architecture.
“Had we built a new building, it would have been devoid of the character that this space has, and that is really going to set it apart from other student centers,” said Chris Burnley, former vice president for finance and administration. “A new building is always going to look like a new building. We now have a space that is truly remarkable. It really looks like an extension of Main Hall.”
College administrators worked to make the design process as collaborative as possible, and expertise from many in the community helped make the Student Center a success. Victor Gosnell, chief technology officer, and his staff helped with the installation and purchase of technology; Susan Klein, the wife of the president, led many of the interior design decisions; and students added input to ensure their needs were met on the second floor gaming areas and in the Student Government offices.
The Student Center is one of the biggest construction and renovation projects completed by the College in the last 35 years. The project incorporated important elements of existing architecture on campus, such as the wooden vaulted ceiling beams in the Student Center and spiral stairs (“curlies”) found throughout Main Hall. These historic ties were incorporated into a modern, student-friendly design that not only utilizes the entire space, but is also open and filled with light, thanks to the large windows now found throughout the facility. Artwork from the College’s collection is also displayed prominently throughout the building.
“It really is wonderful to have such a beautiful facility to fill with art,” said Martha Johnson, director of the Maier Museum of Art at Randolph College. “There were some pieces that seemed almost destined to hang where they are in the new Student Center. There are over 40 pieces installed, many of them quite large. It is great to hang so many high quality, original works of art in spaces where students live, study, eat, and play.”
Bobby Bennett, director of capital projects, said the College was able to preserve a part of the College’s history. “That is what it boils down to: the ability to preserve the past and move it into the future,” he said.
For instance, the fitness center features a trendy, industrial, and historic atmosphere created by the wooden beams in the ceiling and steel beams supporting the mezzanine.
“It all meshes together,” Bennett said, “but most people actually miss it because they are so stunned with the view.”
A 20-foot wall of windows dominating the fitness center reveals a panoramic view of back campus and the Blue Ridge Mountains that was not previously visible. It is a dramatic difference from the three tiny, awkwardly placed windows originally in that spot.
“People always said Randolph was in the Blue Ridge Mountains, but that wasn’t really in evidence,” Klein said. “Now, it is a highlight of campus.”
A three-story entry vestibule with floor-to-ceiling windows is filled with natural light and contains a spiral staircase from the first floor to the second floor. The first floor, which is connected to Main Hall Lobby, features Gravely-Hampson Commons, where students spend free time and professors occasionally hold class sessions; a new and improved Skeller grill/café; and “The Street,” a main thoroughfare that runs from south to north through the building. An outside deck wraps around the west side of the building and the back of Main Hall, providing outdoor gathering spaces.
On the lower level, the architect turned an old bake shop kitchen into the new Chandler Student Lounge, an arts and crafts-styled room with a rock fireplace and ample seating for students.
Located on the second floor, Alice’s E-Cade features pool tables, ping pong, foosball, and electronic gaming. The WWRM deejay booth overlooks the commons space below. The second floor also features the Heath Student Government Suite, which includes modern-looking student government offices and a conference room.
The focal point of the third floor is a two-level fitness center with the mezzanine level, state-of-the-art cardio equipment, and a dance and aerobics room. The third floor’s arched, wood beam ceiling, which many alumnae remember from its old use as a chapel, also adds historic elegance to the John W. Nichols and Mary D. Nichols ’37 Theatre and two large conference rooms located on the floor.
“The Student Center is a statement not only of what Randolph is and will be, but of what Randolph has been,” Bennett said. “For a lot of us, that is probably one of the most important things. This project has allowed us to cherish our past while also looking forward to the excitement of Randolph’s future.”