Since 1999, St. Edward’s University in Austin has embarked on an ambitious plan to make good design a foundational part of the educational experience. Working with Massachusetts-based architecture and planning firm Sasaki, the school’s leadership established a plan for the 160-acre hilltop campus — home to some 4,400 students and 1,000 faculty and staff — that calls for enhancing “the image and identity of the campus through excellence in design and sustainability.” Today, a campus tour includes not only the red-roofed Victorian-era buildings designed by Galveston architect Nicholas Clayton, but also work by Austin architects including Andersson-Wise, Mell Lawrence, Pollen, and Specht Harpman; buildings by Sasaki and Moore Ruble Yudell; and a geode-like dormitory building designed by Pritzker Prize winner Alejandro Aravena.
This design-forward strategy was a bold response to what might be perceived as a dark age of campus architecture. Melba Whatley, until recently the chair of the St. Edward’s Facilities Committee, describes the moment when then-incoming president George Martin asked her to serve. “I remember asking him, ‘What kind of buildings do you want to build?’ Someone answered that they wanted workaday buildings. Dr. Martin said, ‘No; we want beautiful buildings!’ So I said, ‘Well in that case I’m your woman.’ And he has held to that standard.” From big picture questions like traffic flow and energy efficiency to design details, the goals of the campus plan are both practical and refreshingly lofty: to provide an orderly plan for growth (undergraduate enrollment has doubled since 1999) and to inspire students to be responsible citizens of the world.
The most recent testing ground for this educational strategy is Baldridge Architects’ transformation of Holy Cross Hall into a new home for the School of Arts and Humanities and hub for tech-related faculty guidance. While the firm now works on a wide variety of projects, Baldridge’s roots are in residential design, and it shows. The baseboard trim that lines the long hallways is walnut, and with the simple white walls and the longleaf pine of the floors, it helps to create an impression of thoughtful domesticity.
As with the floors, the trim looks as though it could have been in place since 1903, when Holy Cross was constructed as a companion for the slightly showier Main Building. In fact, however, by 2015, most of Holy Cross Hall’s original details had been removed or buried. The building was in serious disrepair after a century of wear. With historic preservation firm Architexas primarily responsible for repairing the building exterior, Baldridge focused on the interior and exterior interventions, striving to balance the historic context with modern demands of program and energy efficiency on a tight budget. “St. Ed’s liked our idea of a modern intervention within the historical context,” Baldridge says, “not drastically altering the building, so much as tailoring a new suit for it.”
Tailor they did; but first, the building had to be stripped of a century’s worth of temporary solutions to the logistical and mechanical challenges of an evolving campus. At the basement level, structural brick arches along the axially loaded hallway had been infilled, creating a dark warren of offices for the campus police department. An exploratory excavation of the ground floor concrete revealed the lack of a vapor barrier, which contributed to what Tim Toney, who oversees construction for St. Ed’s, drily refers to as “the funk.” Upper floors were an incoherent jumble of partition walls and dropped ceilings. Single-paned windows, a lack of insulation, and sagging floors made for comically uncomfortable offices.
Baldridge’s solution was to largely gut the building down to the structure, then build an endoskeleton of steel to support new and existing floors and mechanical systems. The basement concrete was removed, a vapor barrier installed, and insulation added inside the steel frame. This process revealed some happy surprises: The structural Austin Common brick, hidden under drywall, was in good enough shape to leave exposed. Subfloors in the upper hallway were found to be of longleaf pine. Painstakingly removed, refinished, and reinstalled, they give the building the warm feel of an old house. The big move, however, was to bring in light. Once-dark hallways are illuminated by interior transom windows, while an open central stair shares light from a skylight and from windows, creating a dramatic focal point for the building.
The domestic tone of the interior is enhanced by another programmatic requirement: spaces for “creative collision.” Sofas and tables sheltered in the arches or in the bend of the stairwell provide space for students and faculty to study and meet, and walnut enclosures at each end of the hallway frame a view of the trees and sky.
As for how the renovation has been received, Baldridge jokes that the campus police now have a new problem: They have to sweep the building every night to make sure the students have left. Whatley describes a more emotional reaction: At a ceremony for the Edwin Waller award, she says, “a young man jumped up and threw his arms around me and said, ‘Thank you for making my school beautiful!’ That was one of the highlights of my life. It really struck me then that these things enter into students’ consciousness. That’s called a sense of place, I think.”
Jessie Temple is an architect and writer in Austin.