Destination Ham Smith
Destination Ham Smith
The rendering above shows the design plans for the new Hamilton Smith Hall.
If you’re an alum or a current student, you’ve probably had at least one class in Hamilton Smith Hall—first-year writing. Ham Smith, as it’s known, is home to the English Department, one of the largest departments on campus, but it actually serves more students from other disciplines. Over 20 different departments hold classes in its halls, and the building has more classroom seats than any other. Beyond function, it claims a central geographic location. Its classical columns, ornamental windows, and hip roof are an historic and iconic façade on Main Street.
But this grand building is feeling its age. Plumbing problems have sent sewage running down walls. Heating failures have caused floods that displaced classes and destroyed faculty books. The electrical system is not adequate nor is the building ADA accessible. The fire marshal probably has sleepless nights ruminating on the outdated alarm systems and dangerous dead-end hallways.
Thankfully, help is on the way. The University System of New Hampshire Board of Trustees recently approved a $37 million renovation of Ham Smith. Construction will begin in 2015, to be completed in summer 2017. The front part of the building will be restored to its former glory and new additions to the back will bring more classroom seats, informal meeting areas, hi-tech classrooms, and improved office space.
“Renovating Hamilton Smith has been a top priority for the College for years,” says Ken Fuld, dean of the College. Several cycles of fiscal belt-tightening have made the project a nonstarter, he says, adding “I am so very pleased that the trustees both share this priority and have now found a creative way to fund the renovation.”
The funding will come through internal borrowing against strategic reserves. As board chair Pamela Diamantis noted in the Campus Journal, this project will not use state money nor will it impact the University’s two-year commitment to freeze in-state tuition.
One of the most important considerations in the Ham Smith renovation design is access, according to Doug Bencks, university architect and director of campus planning. ADA access within the building is certainly a big concern, but so too is access to Ham Smith from other core campus buildings.
“Think about the way the library connects to the academic buildings to the west—Conant, Hewitt, and Demeritt. But once you are past the library, the connection disintegrates. The only route to Hamilton Smith, the Memorial Union Building, or the residence halls beyond is around the front of Ham Smith—it’s not very direct,” says Bencks.
To solve this problem, the design includes a footbridge that connects the two areas, running behind the Thompson Hall parking lot, with a walkway through Ham Smith that exits near Hood House. According to Bencks, it’s an idea that’s been in the master plan since the early 1990s.
“This is a fundamental piece that we think is going to transform the way students move across campus,” says Bencks. “It’s going to create a major pedestrian way not only to and from Hamilton Smith but through it.”
The through-way is designed to be accessible while the building around it remains secure, so the route will likely be open long after offices close.
Flow within Ham Smith has also been carefully planned. The current angular back addition to the building will be taken down and replaced with a central architectural bar attached to two new structures on either side. In the front part of the building, the original two-story-high central atrium will be restored. The front wings will return to large classrooms with restored WPA-era murals. The effect is that traffic will flow directly and seamlessly from a grand entrance at the front to the new back areas. Classrooms and offices will be situated to ensure optimal access and flow.
“With all of our projects, now,” says Bencks, “there’s also a real focus on informal learning spaces—places for students to sit and talk or work.”
A large informal gathering area with floor to ceiling windows will look out onto a green lawn. Smaller informal meeting nooks will be situated throughout the building.
Kevin Sousa, the college’s academic affairs coordinator, is chair of the building committee for Ham Smith. The committee—which includes representatives from departments housed in Ham Smith, the registrar’s office, and facilities—has been active in the pre-design phase for two years.
“We want the building to become a destination,” says Sousa, “not just a building that you go to and then leave after class. We want students to remain, study, interact with faculty, feel comfortable, and identify with the building.”
Students Weigh In
Though he really only can speak for himself, says Tim Quinney ’14, he senses that when students saw the new Paul College, they realized how important to learning a state-of-the-art building could be. Ham Smith, already obviously deficient, further sank in his estimation.
As a member of the Student Senate, Quinney served as the University System Student Board Representative and had the ear of the trustees. Ham Smith had been a student priority for years, he says—anyone walking through the building could see why. So, with the full backing of the Senate, he attended his first board meeting prepared to make the case for renovation. But he quickly learned that the project was also a priority for both the board and the administration. He happily added the support of the student body.
Student Senate executive board member Elizabeth Barker ’14 says that, as an English major, she might be a little biased, but she’s thrilled about the new plans, especially the new hi-tech classrooms and informal study spaces. In her senate role, she had raised the issue of Ham Smith renovation with President Huddleston in the past.
“For a building that houses one of the largest departments on campus, this move is exciting and smart,” says Barker. “Plus a commitment to Ham Smith underscores UNH’s commitment to the liberal arts. The new building will be beautiful and truly epitomize the iconic New England campus that UNH so represents.”
THE BLUSH OF YOUTH
This image shows Hamilton Smith Hall as it was in its earliest days, prior to 1923, when the University was known as New Hampshire State College. Hamilton Smith Hall served as the University library from 1907 to 1958.
A Brief History
Hamilton Smith Hall was built in 1907, named after Hamilton B. Smith, who generously bequeathed starter funds for the building.
Smith was born in 1840 in Kentucky. When his mother died five years later, Smith was shipped off to Durham to live with his grandfather. He spent his formative years in Durham before moving west to work in his father’s coal mining company. The younger Smith thrived in the mining business and founded companies in the U.S., London, and Africa. In 1889, he retired to Durham with his wife Alice Congreve and bought the house known as the Red Tower, which he subsequently built into a 70-acre estate.
In 1900, Smith met his end on Little Bay, one day before his 60th birthday. He was boating with his sister when their craft ran aground on Sandy Point. Attempting to free the boat, Smith had a heart attack and died.
Smith’s will specified that $10,000 be given to the university to help build a library. In June of 1907, Hamilton Smith Library was dedicated. The building was used as a library for over 50 years until 1958 when the much larger Dimond Library was built. Ham Smith then transitioned to the academic purposes it serves today.
Hamilton Smith Hall has seen some changes over the years. It was first renovated in 1938, when east and west wings were added. When it became an academic building in 1959, two floors were added to the rear for office space. The 1938 wings were later subdivided into smaller classroom and offices. In 1965, a large irregular shaped addition was built on the back to house the university’s growing need for space. Though walls have been patched and flooring replaced since, no major renovations have occurred in nearly 50 years. At long last, its time has come.