January 20, 2010

Award-winning Cummings Campus Center

Veterinary school hub recognized for excellence in renovation

By Catherine O’Neill Grace

At just about any time of day, the Agnes Varis Campus Center at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine hums with activity. You might hear a faculty member playing the new Yamaha concert grand piano, a group of students quizzing each other for an upcoming anatomy exam or clients of the school’s animal hospitals ordering a meal at the Elms Café while waiting for news about their pets.

The Agnes Varis Campus Center features a cafeteria and bookstore, as well as faculty offices, meeting areas, student lounges, a 1,000-square-foot fitness center and a 173-seat auditorium. Photo: Alonso Nichols

Since it opened in fall 2008, the meticulously renovated red-brick and fieldstone Craftsman-style building, a former dorm at the old Grafton State Hospital, has become the heart of Tufts’ Grafton campus. Now it’s an award-winner, too.

In December, the center received a Silver Hammer Award from the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce, which recognizes renovations of noteworthy properties in the region. The building also garnered a 2009 Award of Excellence from Associated Builders and Contractors, a national organization representing the construction industry.

The $10 million campus center features a cafeteria and bookstore, as well as faculty offices, meeting areas, student lounges, a 1,000-square-foot fitness center and a 173-seat auditorium—home of that concert grand as well as state-of-the-art audiovisual equipment. Bowdoin Construction Corp. of Needham Heights, Mass., did the renovation, and the architects were Finegold Alexander + Associates of Boston. The building is named for Agnes Varis, H03, a longtime benefactor of the veterinary school, a member of the Cummings School Board of Overseers and a trustee emerita of Tufts University.

“There was a need for a real venue for students, staff and faculty,” says Jean Poteete, senior campus planner for the Cummings School. “Our cafeteria used to be in a double-wide trailer, and there was really no central place for students to gather. Now the campus center has become the hub of student activity and exchanges between faculty, staff and visitors.”

The 1913 building was originally a dormitory for male nurses at the Grafton State Hospital, a mental institution that occupied the site from 1901 to 1973. Tufts purchased the hospital’s 634-acre parcel from the state for $1 in 1978 to establish a veterinary school. Today the campus is listed on the Massachusetts Register of Historic Places.

The former dorm was “horrendous,” says Poteete. “It had been mothballed for 30 years.”

In addition to replacing all the windows, repairing the building’s slate roof, repointing the brickwork and fitting an entirely new interior into the space, the architects and builders added a 7,200-square-foot lecture hall in a new two-story wing that uses the same brick and fieldstone materials as the original structure.

“The Silver Hammer is a lovely acknowledgement of the contribution of the school to the aesthetics of the region,” says Poteete. “It is a regional acknowledgment that we’re contributing to historic preservation.”

Catherine O’Neill Grace can be reached at catherine.grace@tufts.edu.

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