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Emma Willard School: “Catalyst for Culture Change”

Friday, 14 July 2006

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In the words of one of its officers, Emma Willard epitomizes “Hollywood’s idea of a traditional European campus.” The spectacular Tudor and Gothic campus has been the setting for studio movies, the venue for a fictional contemporary private secondary school and for Oxford at the turn of the last century. In reality, recent use of the campus presents a very different picture. Despite a curricular emphasis on fitness and engagement with nature, students rarely ventured out in bad weather. Based upon a culture of “coat-phobia,” they avoided the cold New York winter by navigating the campus in flip flops through a network of utility tunnels.

When a new master plan and building renovation were approved, a spirited process of consensus-driven design challenged this subterranean culture. With a series of facilitated sessions and road trips with students to other campuses, a vision for bringing community life into the landscape began to emerge. Once renovated, the ground level would become a concourse of community activities and the social heart of the campus. The tunnels were closed in 2005 as the first step in this direction.

Today students have undergone a culture change, adapting quickly to a day invigorated with fresh air and engaged with one of the country’s most beautiful campus landscapes. Today students meet each on the ground floor and pour out of the buildings in all weather, taking part in Emma Willard’s rich intellectual life. However, it is not an uncommon to see students walking outdoors, bundled in coats and scarves and still sporting their flip flops. Some fashion statements die hard.

Susan Hoadley, AIA


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