Vassar Today

Returning to a “New” Swift Hall

By Lance Ringel

Swift Hall, built in 1900 as Vassar’s infirmary, has been home to the college’s History Department since 1941. Thanks to donations from alumnae/i during the Vassar 150: World Changing campaign, the venerable building recently underwent a long-overdue and much-needed updating.

But anytime one makes changes to a beloved building, it’s a risky proposition. When faculty returned to the “new” Swift this summer, and then students returned in the fall, everyone wondered what the response would be.

The Old Laundry Building (where History was housed during the renovation) was a great temporary space, says Professor Nancy Bisaha, the department chair, “but we all longed for Swift, and felt its absence in our lives. We were able to use Swift for Reunion and hold a reception here. The alums were so excited
to see the conversion. It feels very good to be back home.”

Echoing a widespread sentiment, Professor Rebecca Edwards says, “One of the things I really love is how the building has kept its character. You can still see the bones of the old infirmary, but my office is now a great space to meet with students, and the classrooms are great spaces in which to teach.

“It was wonderful to have been able to work in my office in summer,” Edwards adds. “I couldn’t do that before, because the old building really couldn’t add one more air conditioning unit. If I left newspaper clippings in my office, by the end of the summer they looked like they were from the 19th century.”

Vassar students can often be the toughest of critics, but their comments on the changes are thoughtful and positive. “I’ve never been in a Swift classroom before where the professor actually had room to walk around and talk,” says Michael Renner ’14, commenting on a more spacious feel.

“It really has become bright,” says Kyle Sullivan ’14, referring to the palette of light yellows with dark brown accents where gray and off-white once reigned.
One of the most conspicuous improvements has been the creation of designated areas for students waiting to meet professors in their offices, thus bringing an end to a longtime, unlamented Swift tradition of standing about the hall or sitting on the stairs for minutes on end.

Improved technology has been a key facet of the renovation. “The renovations allow us to use the latest technology,” says Professor Robert Brigham, “but more importantly, they are creating a teaching and learning community with a warm atmosphere in a professional setting that is welcoming to the students.”

“Trying to retrofit technology is really hard, but by opening up the walls and reconfiguring, they were able to set things up in a more user-friendly way,” says Bisaha, who cites one example: “You can take odd-size documents—the kinds of things we frequently use to bring history to life, like posters—and from the ceiling a document camera will project it so that everyone can see.”

“It’s cool to have the History Department not be a piece of history anymore,” Sullivan says.

Bisaha is quick to note: “We are still in a lot of ways a hard copy department. The nuts and bolts—the seminar tables and the whiteboards—are still used. We still like our books and magazine racks. I like the way the old and new technologies have blended, and we have adapted in a way that we are making it our own. And the accessible ramp makes the first floor much more welcoming to students with disabilities. We have updated a lot of the old technology while keeping what we value.”