Sweet Briar College’s newly renovated and expanded library is 1929 minus 1967 plus 2014.
The school wanted more natural light and more space for students, but they also wanted to preserve and highlight the beauty of the building’s original architecture.
So they tore down a 1960’s addition that housed stacks, and replaced it with a new north wing with plenty of seating for students. Giant glass windows in a gray slate façade look out over “Uplift,” a new earthwork sculpture designed by 2001 graduate Catherine Peek. To the west, another new wing houses a vending-machine café.
On Friday, the school held a dedication for the $8.8 million renovation project. Student Charlotte Hopkins, who also works in the Mary Helen Cochran Library, helped give tours for the event.
Hopkins was an expert on the history of the building and the renovation and her enthusiasm was infectious.
“I keep saying, ‘everything is a favorite, everything is a favorite,’” she said, at a point when she was showing off some of the study spaces. “I know I sound like a broken record, but really, students are obsessed with these rooms.”
During the dedication ceremony, Peek told the assembled guests about the inspiration for her sculpture, a rolling landscape of concrete and dirt that’s built into a small hill.
It’s meant to evoke the geography of the land, but as stated in the event program, it also pays homage to “generations of women lifting themselves and their families through education.”
Peek pointed to self-education efforts among 1800s and 1900s African-American women as part of her inspiration.
“It is that spirit of getting strong and paying it forward that is deeply rooted at Sweet Briar,” she said.
Eventually, the sculpture will be painted the color of red clay and its dirt portion will be planted with “creeping Jenny” ─ a ground cover plant.
Lisa Johnston, the associate director of the library, said that renovation of the building began in 2012. The last portion to be completed was the renovation of the 1929 portion of the building, which included updating the lighting, among other changes. That finished in September, she said.
Other benefits of the changes include more wheelchair access and better heating, cooling and air-conditioning.
The library has always been a popular place, but it’s even more so with the update.
Not only is the library seeing more students, she said, they’ve even seen an increase in their book circulation.
She’s personally thrilled with the changes, which she said improve the light and the flow of the building, while preserving and showcasing the original 1920s-era design by Ralph Adams Cran.
“If you are going to spend most of your life somewhere it should be somewhere beautiful,” she said.