Council of Independent Colleges Historic Campus Architecture Project

 

 
Mary Helen Cochran Library

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Institution Name: Sweet Briar College
Original/Historic Place Name: Mary Helen Cochran Library
Location on Campus: 605 Sweet Briar Dr.
Date(s) of Construction:
1928original construction Cram, Ralph Adams
1967addition of two-story brick wing
Designer: Ralph Adams Cram
Type of Place: Individual building
Style: Beaux-Arts classicism, Other (Glossary)
Significance: architecture, education, history
Narrative: see below
References: see below
Materials:
Foundation: poured concrete
Walls: brick
Roof: flat
 
Function:
1928-present (2006)library
 

Narrative:
When Meta Glass became the third president of Sweet Briar College, she recommended that a building program be initiated. Her plans included a library, an auditorium and a gymnasium, and these buildings all became part of the 1928 development plan. Construction of a new library was top priority. The prospect of a new library was met with great enthusiasm by the campus, and the president eagerly involved herself in seeing the plan to fruition. At the time, the main library was housed in a small hut built by the YWCA during the First World War, and the space was so cluttered that not more than a few students could use the facility at a time. Five additional departmental libraries were housed elsewhere. In Glass's opinion, the tiny library was unacceptable. Hoping to use the building's deficiency to solicit funds, President Glass renamed the building The Little Beggar. Her plea was soon answered by the generosity of Mr. Fergus Reid (The Sweet Briar Story, p. 174).

Mr. Fergus Reid was an accomplished businessman who eventually served on the Board of Trustees for thirty-six years. Reid gave the library in memory of his mother, Mary Helen Cochran. In October 1929, the new library was opened and "The Little Beggar" was hauled away, in the words of President Glass, "by two men who hitched it to a mule with a shoestring" (The Sweet Briar Story, p. 165). The old structure was set on another foundation near the beginning of Elijah's Road and was used to house the music department. The structure is still there and is called The Music Box.

The library, designed in 1928 and built in 1929, was the last major work of Cram and Ferguson to be built at the college. The Library is the most formal and ornate of Cram's buildings on the campus. Composed of a large central block with a smaller wing to either side, the two entrances to the building are located in the side-wings, and consist of double doors topped with semi-circular fanlights and elaborate limestone Georgian revival style decorations. From Ionic pilasters flow broken elliptical pediments with cartouches with crests and swags in the centers (Ralph Adams Cram as College Architect: An Historicist's Approach, p. 43). The interior is also elaborately decorated. The main reading hall has a plaster ceiling with garland and swag decorations, a two story gallery on the south end, and paneled reading rooms on the first and second floors. The reading rooms feature fireplaces with Georgian-style mantels and floor-to-ceiling bookcases.

The abundance of ornamentation was unusual for Cram and was not part of the original early design. Sketches of the proposed library showed a building that resembled the Refectory in both its setting and its relationship to neighboring buildings. An article in the "Sweet Briar Alumnae News" reported that Cram was in Italy when the firm began work on the library. The early plan was, according to President Glass, "only half-way satisfactory." In a conversation with President Glass in Boston, Cram declared, "I don't like this library. Let's throw it away." Glass agreed, "I never liked it and you can throw it as far as you please." After that conversation, Cram and Glass came up with a rough sketch of the present day structure (Ralph Adams Cram as College Architect: An Historicist's Approach, p. 43-45).

The library is situated between Fletcher and Academic Halls behind a small grassy courtyard west of Benedict Hall. The original plan also had a plaza in front with a pool and elaborate landscaping to enhance the architecture. The building cost approximately $200,000. Enclosed within the cornerstone is a set of the building plans, different copies of "The Sweet Briar News" containing articles about the library, the catalogue for 1928-1929, "The Briar Patch" 1928-1929, a picture of Mary Helen Cochran, an English penny, and copies of the addresses for the occasion ("The Sweet Briar News," May 1929).
 

References:

Harnsberger, Douglas. Historic Structures Report. Sweet Briar, VA: Sweet Briar College, 1997.

Henry, Geoffrey B. Sweet Briar College Historic District. National Register of Historic Places designation report. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of the Interior/National Park Service, 1995.

"The Library, from the Upper Terrace, Sweet Brier [sic] Institute, Amherst Co. Va. Cram, Goodhue & Ferguson, Architects." American Architect and Building News 77 (August 30, 1902).

Sasaki Associates Inc. Master plan. [Watertown, MA: Sasaki Associates Inc.], 1997.

 

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Last update: November 2006