A Revived West Union Blends Old and New

It's a place where students want to linger.
Writer: 
October 20, 2016

The last of the beeping trucks have backed up and growled away; the plywood fence has come down. The quad looks like the quad again. Grass has filled back in, shrubs grow against the comfortable old Duke stone, and you approach West Union looking for something to eat.

You walk along the pavers past familiar features: the four-story entry tower at the northeast corner; the portico midway along the east wall; the jutting window near the back, with leaded glass beneath stone tracery. You walk through the three limestone gothic arches leading to the Bryan Center Plaza behind West Union, and you turn to face the building’s south wall.

And then you stare. Probably for a long time.

“It’s sort of like The Wizard of Oz turning color,” says Duke staff architect and project manager Bill McCraw. “People say, ‘Wow—this is so different!’ But in a good way.”

“Different in a good way” is pretty much what Larry Moneta, vice president for student affairs, and Steve Nowicki, vice provost for undergraduate education, had in mind when they first brainstormed the years-long project. Rick Johnson, associate vice president in the Student Affairs division, and Robert Coffey, executive director of Duke Dining Services, led the process of rethinking the food service.

And yes, different. That Duke stone south wall? Gone (the pieces saved at the quarry, of course, but excised from campus). In its placeand in place of the rabbit warren of dim hallways and spaces that had filled the courtyard from its earliest days in the mid-1930s—stands a gleaming four-story box of glass and steel, windows reflecting the Kilgo Quad and the Bryan Center Plaza and the newly created Crown Commons, the passing students on the walkway, the trees, the sky, and clouds. vice president in the Student Affairs division, and Robert Coffey, executive director of Duke Dining Services, led the process of rethinking the food service.

And yes, different. That Duke stone south wall? Gone (the pieces saved at the quarry, of course, but excised from campus). In its place—and in place of the rabbit warren of dim hallways and spaces that had filled the courtyard from its earliest days in the mid-1930s—stands a gleaming four-story box of glass and steel, windows reflecting the Kilgo Quad and the Bryan Center Plaza and the newly created Crown Commons, the passing students on the walkway, the trees, the sky, and clouds.

Below the walkway, on ground level, tables and chairs provide a place to eat and study outdoors, some open to the sky in the broad open space between the walkway and the building but many directly beneath the walkway, illumination provided by circular cast-glass light wells that channel sunlight into the shade.

The glass south wall stretches upward for three stories—the indoor space a three-level atrium covered at ground level with tables and couches where students eat, study, and sleep. At either side of the center restaurant (Au Bon Pain is the only chain among West Union’s thirteen restaurants), open stairways lead up to the plaza level, itself an open two-story space beneath glass ceilings that connect the sides of the central box to the tops of the original segments of the U-shape of the building—the Great Hall on the west, the Cambridge Inn on the north, and the main tower entry hall on the east. With glass ceilings, walls, and even stairways, with windows old and new providing unexpected sight lines, West Union is a festival of light and image.

Of course, it provides a more traditional feast, too. On the plaza level a central core houses kitchens for four restaurants. Diners walk the square around the core as they decide what to eat, with five other options lining the other side of what you might call the street—two in the old Cambridge Inn, two more in the Great Hall, and another in what used to be the alumni common. Indian food, Italian food, vegetarian food, sushi, crepes; traditional Southern comfort food.

The smell of spices fills the air, and tables line the walkways. “You’re walking through old Rome or Venice,” says director of the Office of Project Management Paul Manning, explaining the concept the designers adopted for the new parts of the building. “You’ve got the sun above and restaurants or cafes on the left and right.”

One more level up—the stairs glass now instead of stone—you find the Chef’s Kitchen, a teaching kitchen surrounded by eating and study space; it also hosts pop-up restaurants. Skywalks lead across to new balconies in both the Cambridge Inn and Great Hall, allowing diners to eat in intimate spaces among the wooden rafters and arches, the shields adorning the corbels freshly painted.

The top floor—called the mezzanine, because does “3” sound fancy enough for a $90 million-plus renovation?—houses the higher-end Commons dining room, a sort of update of the old Faculty Commons, including outdoor seating on the roof of the atrium. From there you can look out over Kilgo Quad and the leafy new Crown Commons in one direction; in the other you can see the chapel tower. A final skywalk leads across to the top level of the east side of the original building, where an unassuming hallway progresses beneath a ceiling that angles up beneath the original peaked roof. It’s an intentional holdover, and it’s perfect: a tiny detail that may simply be pretty, but it also rewards your eye. If you’re paying attention, it says, “You are here—you are in the top-floor hallway of West Union, which has the tile-covered peaked roof you gaze at from the quad.” In fact, you can gaze at tiled roofs right up close now, through the glass from the mezzanine walkway. For anyone familiar with the old West Union, these details maintain the continuity a college building has to provide. It’s new—but it’s the same West Union that makes alumni of a certain age grow misty-eyed about the Dope Shop.

Speaking of people familiar with the old West Union, “I am absolutely blown away,” said Mahsa Taskindoust ’15, now a research assistant at Duke University Medical Center who spent time in the old building during her first year. “I keep texting my friends: ‘You just wouldn’t believe it.’ I think it’s really cool to see them blend the old with the new.” She’s not alone. “I do think all the glass here looks beautiful,” says Hanna Feibus, a senior majoring in mechanical engineering, while working on a sandwich at a picnic table beneath the plaza walkway. “But what I really love are the high ceilings and all the arched windows everywhere”—all, by the way, restored to their original form and function.

That blending of old and new is, of course, vital. As the third renovation of West Campus’ most iconic spaces—including the chapel and the library—West Union had the most complex job. “When we renovated the chapel, the goal was to make it look exactly the same,” says Mc- Craw. “With the library, the goal was to keep the look but to make it better. With West Union, the goal from the beginning was to make it transformational. To make it a place students want to stay and to gather.”

To that end each floor has not just eating spaces but also lounges and multipurpose rooms. Two lounges on the east hallway center on fireplaces, now working for the first time in decades; two others retain the limestone mantels but only for detail, not function. Every spot in West Union serves multiple purposes. You can study—Manning, McCraw, and Taskindoust all mention how happy they are to see students not just eating or socializing but also studying, often at eating tables and in spaces the designers never expected to see that use. “The big phrase we used throughout the design process was ‘sit and stick,’ ” Manning says, and a glance around the building shows students do.

As for spaces designed mostly for meetings or study, Manning laughs: “One of the first things we’ve learned is that food will go everywhere.”

The renovation had more complexities than balancing respect for tradition with the need for new function. Dropping a glass cube into the middle of a standing building meant shoring up old walls while there was nothing in the middle to hold them up, and figuring out not only how to keep them standing but how to get through them to connect new spaces with old, where to run electricity, plumbing, air handling. It meant using elements in ways they weren’t designed for. In the vast atrium space at the building’s south, for example, the glass-curtain wall actually hangs from the top of the building. Lateral stability comes from horizontal glass shelves dotted with frit—little ceramic spots meant to provide dappled shade—that were designed for the outside. Shelves outside would create enormous cleaning and maintenance problems, so the designers put the shelves inside instead. The frit thus provides shade but no cooling—as any first-year physics student knows, once the photon comes in the window, the heat is there to stay. But the shelves now bounce the sunlight back up to the wood-veneer ceiling, warming the look and, not incidentally, keeping the atrium bright enough that your vision doesn’t suffer as your eyes readjust to the indoor light.

Not everything has worked perfectly. Smoke and heat sensors above the grills and ovens of thirteen kitchens were at first regularly tripped by the steam from things like boiling pasta and lentils. A change—vetted by inspectors—to pure heat alarms seems to have solved the problem. On the other hand, the fans above the kitchens exhaust 140,000 cubic feet of air per minute from the building (about a thousand times the strength of the one in your kitchen). This keeps air moving through the building so quickly that hanging those glass shelves outside would have provided a mere 1 percent load savings. Plus, on the inside the horizontal shelves more overtly echo the slanted shelves of the cedar dividers that lend privacy to second-level diners overlooking the floor.

Those conversations among building details happen everywhere. Replacing walls with glass does more than let the sun in; new windows now offer surprise glimpses of the chapel tower, connections from one space to another, two floors and two walls away. Stand halfway up the stairway in the tower entrance and you can look through a window, newly created, down the length of the Cambridge Inn, at the end of which an enormous arched window opens into the Great Hall. Stand in a second-level lounge surrounded by lime-green beanbag chairs and you can see back into the tower lobby, down onto the lunchtime flaneurs on the plaza level walkway, over to second-level seating, and even all the way across to the walkway to the Great Hall balcony.

That balcony shows how the renovation not only retains what was best about the old West Union but also draws new attention to its details. “Look at that ‘D’ in the spring point of that arch,” Manning says, pointing to a stylized letter on one of the wooden trusses holding up the roof of the Cambridge Inn. The arched wooden truss work always has been breathtaking—but never before have diners been able to gaze at it at eye level. The renovation even improved the Great Hall, which with two ceiling heights and two styles of wooden truss work never quite worked as one long room.

“Gothic is all about length, width, and height, and they didn’t get that right” when they built the Great Hall, Manning says. Now, though the long sight line remains visible from the balcony, a kitchen more completely separates the two halves of the hall: “Now the proportion actually works.”

And for the first time in four years— better than it ever has before—so does the building.

 

  • Scott Huler is the senior writer at Duke Magazine.