The Lawrenceville School’s Abbott Dining Hall Embraces the School’s Heritage and Tradition

Often, the goal of a retrofit is turning an old building new again—turning a disused warehouse into loft apartments, for example, or a historic library into a multi-use community learning space. The core challenge of these projects is preserving a sense of history while designing contemporary interventions that support innovative programs, attract new user groups and make the building feel of-its-moment.

Abbott Dining Hall’s primary façade has been reimagined in masonry and accentuated with arched windows, inlaid brick medallions and jack arches, visually linking it with the historic Fifth Form residence hall to which it is attached.

However, when The Lawrenceville School—one of the nation’s most historic and renowned boarding schools—approached Voith & Mactavish Architects (VMA) LLP to retrofit Abbott Dining Hall, school representatives had something entirely different in mind. Rather than make old new again, they wanted to remake a relatively recent building on campus into one that embraced the school’s heritage and tradition—all while equipping it for a growing student body.

Embracing Tradition

Abbott Dining Hall was a 1960s addition to a dormitory designed by Peabody & Stearns in the historic campus core. This core of Lawrenceville’s campus is a landmarked district in Mercer County, N.J., designed in the 1890s by landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead and architect Peabody & Stearns. Abbott Dining Hall, with its modernist brick-and-glass design, felt out-of-place among the beloved Queen Anne and Romanesque Revival structures nearby.

Adding to the frustration was the design of the main dining hall. The Lawrenceville School follows the traditional British house system: students in a given class reside together for their first and fourth (final) years but live with other members of their assigned house for their second and third years. Abbott Dining Hall is reserved for Fifth Form students (in their final year of school), but the interior was bland, uninspiring and unrepresentative of the traditions of the campus—undercutting it as a setting for students’ last memories of their classmates and Lawrenceville as an institution.

Add to these aesthetic challenges a practical one: Abbott Dining Hall’s outdated systems and equipment could not keep up with growing operational demands, making it difficult to feed the growing student body.

VMA’s challenges were three-fold: First, re-envision the 1960s hall as part of The Lawrenceville School’s historic campus. Second, carry the heritage and traditions of the school through the interiors to create a signature place where Fifth Form students could enjoy their final year together. Third, introduce innovative systems and optimize the layout to turn the underperforming building into a state-of-the-art dining facility.

To enhance the character and presence of Abbott Dining Hall on campus, VMA turned to the historic building it is attached to: Upper Dorm designed by Peabody & Stearns in 1891. That building is a handsome red-brick hall defined by its stately procession of round arches and bold projecting bays. These historic features now are carried across Abbott Dining Hall’s primary façade, which had been an unremarkable glazed curtainwall without distinguishing features. This side is now reimagined in masonry and accentuated with arched windows, inlaid brick medallions and jack arches, visually linking Abbott Dining Hall with the historic Fifth Form residence hall for the first time.

BEFORE: Abbott Dining Hall was a 1960s addition to an 1891 dormitory designed by Peabody & Stearns in the historic campus core. PHOTO: courtesy Voith & Mactavish Architects

A new tower-like entry vestibule features a beautifully executed complex curved eyebrow arch, helping to frame an outdoor dining area that overlooks the historic circle designed by Olmstead. The large awning, clerestory windows and dormer windows fill the deep interiors with natural light, enhancing the dining experience. The U-shaped footprint maintains that of the original building for the most part, save for a few exceptions necessary to accommodate the expanded dining program.

A Sense of Belonging

A significant challenge to the transformation was replacing the dining room’s original flat roof with a new slate shingle-clad pitched roof that further links the building to its context and makes the hall feel more expansive.

To overcome this, the redesign uses contemporary techniques to achieve a style that honors the historic surroundings. The new pitched roof is supported by glued-laminated beam trusses. Additional steel columns build upon the existing steel skeleton, and a unifying perimeter wrapping beam provides the necessary support to accommodate the hefty glulam structural roof trusses. The additional height, shape and materiality of the roof—combined with the grandeur of the primary façade—creates the impression that the dining hall shares the pedigree of its neighboring buildings. The new roof transforms the main dining hall from an unremarkable space into one defined by its soaring ceilings and exposed wooden beams.

PHOTOS: Jeffrey Totaro unless otherwise noted

About the Author

Daniela Holt Voith, FAIA, LEED AP BD+C, IIDA
Daniela Holt Voith, FAIA, LEED AP BD+C, IIDA, is founding partner and director of design for Voith & Mactavish Architects LLP.

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