By Sophie Foster
This article was originally published in the Oct. 26, 2023 digital edition of The Elm.
If there were an award to give out for most campus renovations in a given year, Washington College would probably make at least the longlist.
Since 2022, the College has successfully undertaken renovations to several buildings and on-campus locations, including the Publications House, Minta Martin Hall, Reid Hall, the Western Shore dormitories, the Casey Academic Center, and the Clifton M. Miller Library terrace. These renovations have largely been received by students as near-universal successes, with minimal complaints lingering in their aftermath.
An unanswered question remains, though, of whether or not the renovation-happy College aims to extend that intention to East, Middle, and West Halls, collectively known as the Hill dorms.
Situated directly across from Hodson Hall Commons on the Cater Walk, this trio of buildings are the oldest on campus. Built between 1844 and 1854, they were granted spots on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979. A fire in 1827 destroyed the then-oldest Common Building, therefore making East, Middle, and West Halls the oldest surviving buildings on the campus, according to the register.
This historic element, while interesting as a talking point, is almost certainly a component of the issue with approaching renovations to the buildings, which have now retained historical status for almost 45 years.
According to the Maryland Historical Trust Act of 1985, the duty exists “to consult with [the] Trust on state-financed capital projects” in order to “determine whether the project will adversely affect any property listed in or eligible for listing in the Historic Register.”
Fundamentally, this means that in many cases, proposals for renovations to historic buildings and landmarks statewide are met with a higher probability for resistance than those made to newer buildings. Should a renovation concept pose a threat to the maintenance of the historic foundations of a building, there is a significant chance that the work would be time-consuming to approach or otherwise challenging to earn approval for.
According to previous Elm coverage, the Hill dorms were originally set to remain vacant for the 2022-2023 academic year “due to year-long renovations,” citing students residing in the dorms during the 2021-2022 year as hopeful for crucial improvements to the housing.
According to junior Asia Elliott, who lived in these dorms her freshmen year, they were far from accessible, and made reaching her room inconvenient. Conversations with peers have illuminated these circumstances as a commonality beyond the standard expectations for freshmen housing, according to Elliott.
“It’s absolutely possible that these dorms could be offered again, but they could be improved the way Minta Martin or Reid has been improved,” Elliott said. “While you can argue that it’s important to preserve the history of the college, it’s better to make these updates for the people who are going [or] will eventually be going here… But, if they’re not willing to make these improvements, there’s not much the college could do to get people to live in these buildings.”
The announcement of plans to renovate came concurrently with the news that Minta Martin and Reid Halls would be renovated over the summer of 2022. However, while those renovations were completed over a year ago, even allowing for students to move into those spaces in fall 2022, no prognosis has been formally delivered regarding East, Middle, and West Halls.
The initial intention was “to do similar upgrades in the Hill dorms during the academic year,” Director of Residential Life Amy Sine said for The Elm in 2022. “That is why they are unavailable for student occupancy.”
In 2023, though, East Hall is home to the College’s marketing team, West Hall is used on-and-off as temporary housing for incoming faculty and staff whose permanent arrangements are not yet ready, and Middle Hall remains entirely vacant, according to Sine.
Portions of the delay in renovations, according to Sine, are low enrollment and construction being conducted on the neighboring library terrace. Holding the buildings offline during this time means allowing for more careful renovative practices and a lessened impact on the student residential experience amid construction noises and interferences.
“As historic buildings, the renovation process takes much longer to occur,” Sine said. “This extra time will allow for this work to occur once the campus master plan is completed. That plan will help to guide the use and schedule for renovations.”
The other element to take into account is the detail that the Hill dorms were marked as the affordable housing on campus prior to 2022, when students stopped being offered the possibility of living in them altogether.
The need for affordable housing cannot be overlooked on campus, especially following 2021’s shift to mandatory four-year on-campus residence for most students. If the Hill dorms are no longer inhabitable for at least the immediate future, the College must seek out another long-term option for upperclassmen unable to afford the newly improved spaces of the North Commons and Western Shore.
The College and Residential Life should provide information about the status of the Hill dorms as members of the College community, yes. More pressingly and enduringly, though: we should be emphasizing compassion for low income students and adequately assessing their needs.
Elm Archive Photo
Photo caption: The Hill dorms have long been in need of substantial renovative work.