By Edie Gross
Jacki Richards Sowers ’69 still recalls the first time she laid eyes on Willard Hall in the fall of 1965. Its stately brick walls and column-lined entrances made the first-year student from Petersburg, Virginia, officially feel like a college girl, she said.
“Of all the dorms on campus, that was the grande dame of them all,” she reminisced. “It just looked so regal.”
The residence, the oldest one on campus, looked considerably less regal when Sowers toured it during the summer of 2019, after it had been stripped down to its floor joists for a massive renovation and restoration project. Still, she had no trouble locating the triple where she spent her first year at Mary Washington, Room 302. On Saturday nights, she said, the entire floor smelled like a salon as girls prepared for their dates, who waited patiently in the first-floor parlor under the watchful eye of the house mother.
“There was something magical about Willard, and I think it had to do with the friends I made there. But the dorm itself had history seeping from every corner,” said Sowers, who now lives in Midlothian, Virginia. “I couldn’t have started off in a better place.”
Honoring that history while providing much-needed upgrades were the goals of a recently completed $19.3 million refurbishment of Willard Hall, which first opened to residents in 1911.
The window panes on the first floor are original to the building. But the light that passes through them now floods several spacious lounge areas and a large contemporary kitchen with granite countertops, a flat-top stove, and two stainless steel convection ovens.
New plumbing, mechanical, electrical, and fire-suppression systems have been installed, and the building boasts a new elevator. But in a nod to Willard’s early grandeur, the vinyl mats that covered the stairways were peeled away to reveal the original stone steps, and the interior hallways – narrowed and carved up over the intervening decades – are once again wide and airy. Twenty-first century touches, like double-glazed energy-efficient windows on the second and third floors, mean the project can seek LEED-silver certification from the U.S. Green Building Council. But a healthy respect for the building’s past means that Willard’s newest arrivals walk across the same maple floorboards, recently refinished, that its first residents did nearly 110 years ago.
“There’s a lot of character still in this building,” said resident assistant Shaun McBride ’23, one of 165 students who moved into Willard at the start of the spring 2020 semester. “And the fancy kitchen, the community rooms, they’re the bomb-dot-com.” (McBride and others lived in Willard until mid-March, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit.)
Originally known simply as “the dormitory,” the building was sort of a catch-all in its earliest days, housing at various times a dining hall, an infirmary, a gift shop, a parlor, and a post office in addition to the students who attended what was then called the State Normal and Industrial School for Women. In 1915, the residence hall was named after Frances Willard. The New York educator was a college dean and president, but she is best known as a 19th-century suffragist and temperance advocate. The building underwent a number of cosmetic changes over the years: The first-floor dining hall was converted into bedrooms after Seacobeck Hall opened in the 1930s. Ramps and larger bathrooms were added in the 1970s. And a new roof was installed in the ’90s. In July 2017, campus officials were debating how best to renovate the hall for 21st-century residents when a steam tunnel beneath Willard ruptured. The first floor buckled and the building, which by then was reserved for upper-level students, became uninhabitable.
That made its renovation a top priority, said Gary Hobson, UMW capital outlay director. By November 2017, Train Architects of Charlottesville, Virginia, had won the design contract. Kjellstrom and Lee, a Richmond-based construction management firm, oversaw internal demolition the following April and began full-scale renovation in December 2018, Hobson said.
Wide-open community spaces, study areas, and natural light were among the most-requested amenities from the 1,600 students and alumni who responded to a university-sponsored survey about the project, said Hunter Rauscher, associate director for Residence Life and Housing. As a result, the first floor of the first-year-only residence hall offers a 16-seat seminar room and several smaller conference rooms, where students can hook up laptops, cellphones, and gaming systems to big-screen monitors. The large kitchen is a popular gathering space, as is a nearby movie room. And each residence floor features cozy study nooks and spacious TV rooms.
“You have spaces to get loud in,” said Fairfax, Virginia, resident Sophia Ferens ’23, “and spaces to get serious in.”
Like Ferens, most of the Willard students moved over from Virginia Hall in January. To allay concerns they might have had about their upcoming transition, campus officials hosted an open house in early December 2019 so residents could take a peek.
“Every student who walked in, their jaws just dropped,” Rauscher said. “It was awesome to see the joy on their faces.”
While the dust has settled at Willard, work is just getting started on Virginia Hall, which opened in 1915 as the third building on campus after Willard and Monroe halls. An $18 million renovation, which also includes significant repairs to the Palmieri Plaza fountain and the relocation of a main underground steam line, is expected to be completed by August 2021, Hobson said.
Jasmine Coppola ’23 of Prospect, Connecticut, said she missed the larger room she had in Virginia Hall, but she loved her deeper closet and the huge windows in her corner room in Willard. She and her friends call the dorm “Hotel Willard” because of its high ceilings and colorful “IKEA-esque” furnishings in the common spaces.
Resident assistant Maggie McCotter ’20 said her second-floor residents particularly enjoyed gathering in one of the common rooms on Monday evenings to watch The Bachelor. Spaces that encourage togetherness are particularly important in a first-year dorm, she said.
“It really fosters community, and that’s what UMW is all about. You’re all going through a lot of the same issues, and you’re able to bond through that,” said McCotter, an English major from Louisa County, Virginia.
Former Willard residents agree that the bonds forged in a first-year residence hall can last a lifetime. Chesterfield, Virginia, resident Barbara Bishop Mann ’66 said some of her favorite memories from Willard include evening dancing and doing the limbo in the hallway with her floormates after mandatory study time. In those days, she said, coming and going from Willard meant checking in with the house mother. To avoid having to explain herself, she once tugged on a trench coat over her pajamas, shinnied out her first-floor window, and headed down the hill toward Sunken Road and the source of the tinkling music that heralded the evening arrival of Mister Softee.
“You could hear him coming, and I was like Pavlov’s dog,” Mann recalled, noting that no one had air conditioning in those days, so the dorm windows were almost always open. “At the first ding, I was on my feet.”
Mary Fredman Downing ’59, who lives in Reston, Virginia, and serves on the Alumni Association Board of Directors, recalls playing endless games of bridge in Willard Hall between classes. When one resident had to leave for class, another would take over her cards. It’s important to take advantage of the kind of camaraderie a place like Willard Hall inspires, she said.
“Really involve yourself as much as you can with the people you’re living with. Do things together, even learn to play bridge. It’s a wonderful experience,” she advised students. “I met a lot of wonderful people in that hall, some of whom are my dearest friends to this day.”
You can help preserve special buildings and spaces like Willard Hall by giving to the Campus Preservation Fund. Find out more by calling 540-654-1024, or visit giving.umw.edu.