Project Inman Admissions Welcome Center at Elon University
Architect Robert A.M. Stern Architects
Elon University, the private liberal arts institution in the namesake North Carolina town, takes great pride in rolling out the red-brick carpet for prospective students. As some 75 percent of the school’s 7,000 undergraduate and graduate students are from out of state, first impressions are of premier importance.
For many years, the university, which was founded in 1889, had been welcoming students to its 656-acre suburban campus in a humble manner—introductions were made and tours departed from a small house. When the university decided to build a new admissions/welcoming center, it commissioned New York City-based Robert A.M. Stern Architects to design a larger building more in keeping with the historic character of the campus.
“Like most colleges, Elon University had a welcome center that was an afterthought,” says Kevin M. Smith, AIA, the Robert A.M. Stern Architects partner in charge of the project. “Elon’s decision to build a purpose-built admissions center was part of a general trend among institutions of higher learning to give prospective students and parents more considered introductions to their campuses.”
The university asked the Robert A.M. Stern Architects team—in addition to Smith, the leaders were senior partner Robert A.M. Stern, FAIA; partner Graham S. Wyatt, FAIA; and project manager Silas Jeffrey; along with architect of record CRA Associates of Chapel Hill, North Carolina—to help select a new, more prominent site for what came to be christened the Inman Admissions Welcome Center. “We were asked to consider how this building would relate to the others on campus,” Smith says. “And we were asked to help define a new green space that would become a future quadrangle.”
The Inman Admissions Welcome Center was moved to the northeastern part of the campus and erected on what had been a parking lot. “There was no old building to tear down,” Smith says, “so, essentially, we had a blank canvas.” Nor were there any other historic buildings close by. Its south façade faces the main library, a utilitarian red-brick building that dates to the 1980s. “The library is not a beauty-pageant winner,” Smith says, adding that neither are the fraternity houses farther north. “As part of the project, we planned a potential extension to the library.”
Spare Brick Georgian
The team chose what Smith calls a “spare brick Georgian” style of architecture that is in keeping with the oldest buildings on campus. “After a fire in the 1920s destroyed the original buildings, Elon rebuilt in the Georgian manner on a budget,” Smith says. “One of the beauties of spare Georgian, then as now, is that it enables you to build handsome buildings cost-effectively. It doesn’t require a lot of fancy brickwork, and the Inman Center’s roof is asphalt, not slate, another feature that saved money.”
The two-floor, 30,000-square-foot red-brick building, austere and elegant, features a central rotunda topped with a cupola. It is framed by wings anchored by open loggias that were inspired by others on campus. “There was no single historical model for the building,” Smith says, adding that the bow bay that overlooks the campus is fancier than any other architectural elements at the university. “Even though the materials are humble, it projects a feeling of quality.”
Yet, it’s designed to attract attention. “It’s the first building people enter when they arrive for tours,” Smith says. “It had to have enough presence to hold its own. The building creates a whole new approach to the campus. The cupola is visible from a distance—it catches the diagonal view.”
He adds that because the building presents all four sides to public view, special consideration had to be made for mechanicals. The building doesn’t have a back or a basement, so the air and heating systems were placed in a well on the roof where they cannot be seen. Trash receptacles were sited alongside those of neighboring buildings, again, out of sight.
To make prospective students and their parents feel right at home, Smith says the Inman Admissions Welcome Center was designed to look like “a nice English country house.” Visitors drive up to the building, park, and enter the atrium, a soaring double-height space that is impressive yet intimate. Resembling a comfy living room, it’s furnished with sofas that invite visitors to sit and stay while sipping iced tea on a hot day.
Student guides greet them and lead them along a sun-drenched gallery, complete with window benches where they can sit and take in the views, to the auditorium to view a film about the campus. The windows in the screening room are designed to frame the landscape. Two pairs of double doors lead outside to the lawn where the tours begin. The second floor houses the financial aid and admissions offices.
“The Inman Admissions Welcome Center is designed to send a message that Elon will be a good home for your student,” Smith says. “The whole campus has a somewhat domestic feel, particularly the older parts. The interiors of the other 1920s buildings are utilitarian; the interiors in Inman, in a traditional-contemporary style, are designed to be welcoming.”
Smith says that he’s received a lot of good feedback from staffers about the design of the building. “Everybody loves it,” he says. “I’m proud of the fact that we have shown that, with a limited budget, Georgian can be used to impress and speak eloquently to what Elon is all about.”
While the work for the Inman Admissions Welcome Center was underway, Robert A.M. Stern Architects was asked to design the new business school building, Sankey Hall, which, along with the Inman building, will frame the new quadrangle.
In the southwest corner of the campus, the Stern team designed a glass pavilion for Elon’s School of Communications. It links McEwen Hall and the firm’s new Schar Hall, which includes a 250-seat movie theater to showcase student productions. The separate Steers Pavilion, to the east of Schar Hall, houses a media lab. It will be mirrored by another pavilion that will become the commons for a neighborhood of existing residence halls.
These projects, Smith says, have the same sense of graciousness as Inman, an attribute that he hopes is carried forward in the university’s future buildings. “We like to say that we do portraits of our client institutions, not self-portraits,” Smith says. “In this case, with Inman, we have accomplished that. It may not be John Singer Sargent, but it’s pretty darn good.”