by Nat Frothingham
A few days ago, Bill Kaplan, senior vice president at Vermont College of Fine Arts, walked me through the new Louise Crowley Center for Faculty & Alumni.
The new center, a white (glass and aluminum) two-story building glistening in the sun makes an architectural statement that is uncompromisingly modern. And yet — though the center is architecturally unlike any other building on the VCFA campus — it manages both to be modern and at the same time to relate very positively to the college’s newly renovated exhibition and performance space at the top of East State Street.
Historically, that exhibition and performance space with its formal columns and pediment was the Alumni Gym. But when it was recently renovated it was repurposed and transformed into a luminous exhibition and performance space. It is the light from both of these buildings, one a renovation, and another a completely new structure, that makes them function almost like two bookends — two bookends that suggest a college both anchored in the past and poised for an adventurous future.
The new Crowley Center is one of three buildings in a row that will accommodate the college’s visiting faculty and alumni. These three buildings are at 29 College Street, 31 College Street and 33 College Street. The middle building is the Crowley Center and all-told, the three buildings will provide 27 guest rooms. The complex is ADA-compliant.
Here is how Kaplan explained the inspiration for the new Crowley Center.
As anyone who is familiar with Vermont College of Fine Arts knows the college — with its range of MFA programs in writing, visual art, writing for children and young adults, writing and publishing, graphic design, filmmaking, music composition and art and design education — operates almost exclusively on a low-residency model.
The low-residency model has great appeal for artists who can pursue an MFA program while continuing with their careers and regular lives where they live.
VCFA students can and do live across the United States and often in other parts of the world. They pursue their studies one-on-one with faculty. But they also assemble twice a year for face-to-face intensive VCFA residencies in Montpelier. At these residencies, they meet other students, share their own work, benefit from the work of others, and come in contact with distinguished faculty.
Or as Kaplan explained it to me, “We fly faculty in from all over the world” — from places as diverse and far-flung as Japan, England or South America. “We can’t pay them enough for their work. Their talent is priceless,” And the new Crowley Center and adjoining buildings “are a way of rewarding (the visiting faculty) and of showing them our appreciation.”
The entire complex including the Crowley Center will also benefit the college’s alumni. “Our alumni will have social weekends in the space,” Kaplan said. “Or alumni will come and stay for up to a week to focus on work. They could be finishing a novel, working on an exhibit, any number of things,” he suggested.
During our walk-through of the Crowley Center, Kaplan showed me the guest rooms with their burnished hardwood floors, their custom-made bedsteads and furniture, their large windows. These were more than ordinary accommodations.
The focal point of the new residential center is a large ground floor space that looks out onto the campus through floor-to-ceiling windows. This space is at once a kitchen with elegant appointments, an open dining area and a social space — plenty of room to gather, talk, drink, dine and relax.
The New Center Honors Louise Crowley
The new faculty and alumni center at Vermont College of Fine Arts has been named in honor of Louise Crowley who has served for 35 years with the MFA in Writing program.
Crowley started off with the MFA in Writing program in 1981 when that program was part of Norwich University. In 1997, she became the program’s director. In 2001, Norwich sold the MFA in Writing program to Union Institute & University. Then in 2007, Union decided to sell the Montpelier campus.
Said Crowley to The Bridge, “That’s when a bunch of us with Tom Green and Bill Kaplan decided to make an independent fine arts college.”
Talking about that brave decision, Crowley said, “I think it’s quite an incredible story.”
About the early days of the new college, she said, “The economy was really tanking. It was not only a bold, but perhaps a foolish decision to move forward. But we had tremendous support and some of that critical support,” she said, “was from local banks (Community National Bank).”
Turning to the MFA in Writing program, here’s how Crowley accounted for its continued success. “Certainly, it’s history,” she said. “It was one of the first and one of the strongest and most stable and well-cared-for (writing programs in the country). And our faculty have everything to do with the strength of the program. Students come from all over the world.”
Many of the College’s 2,000 alumni have gone on to remarkable success in publication, she said. “That’s added to the reputation.”
When asked if she herself was a writer, Crowley said almost casually, “Nope, not a writer.”
But when asked if she was a reader, she said enthusiastically, “Oh, gosh, yes! Yes, my entire life I’ve been a voracious reader. By osmosis, I feel I’m a writer.”
When I asked her to remember the exact moment when she learned that the new faculty and alumni center was to be named after her, she said. “I was in my office. It was probably more than a year ago. When (College President) Tom Greene came up to see me, I had been warned in advance. It took Tom 10 minutes to convince me that he wasn’t pulling my leg — that this was true. It’s just an amazing honor I couldn’t have expected,” Crowley said.
Reflecting on the building that bears her name, she said, “The building of course is very different. I absolutely love it and the design. Our faculty who lived in it, fell in love with it.” Then she went on to describe the new building with these three words: “Warmth and light and community.”
“They were cooking for themselves,” she said about the way that visiting faculty have made the new center their own.
Returning to the admittedly modern design, she said. “I’m a real traditionalist. I’m glad the campus is starting to look like a fine arts college. I just think it’s a wonderful blend, a smart and appropriate blend between the traditional and the contemporary.”
Ennead Architects and Black River Design
The ideas and concepts incorporated in the building were the product of Ennead Architects. Montpelier based Black River Design Architects was the architect of record, producing the construction and permit documents from which the building was constructed and overseeing construction.
According to its website, Ennead Architects is a 175 person studio with headquarters in New York City and an office in Shanghai. The firm undertakes projects ranging from museums and performing spaces to complex laboratory, research and teaching facilities. Susan Rodriguez, who designed the Crowley Center, is one of 11 Ennead partners.
In the company’s website, Ennead’s services are said to include: new building design, renovation and expansion, historic preservation, interior design, programming and master planning as well as pre-design advisory services.
These words describe Ennead’s mission and governing beliefs: “Ennead Architects is an anomaly: our name and structure are new; our (hi)story is rich and nuanced. The people who have made that story and lead the firm are an intergenerational alliance of architects, who engage architecture as a humanizing force and optimistic endeavor. We value the past but reach for the future; our rich heritage allows us to choose invent and experimentation, to navigate uncertainty and ambiguity.”