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The Ideal Addition: Building Modern While Respecting History A Case Study of the Whitin Observatory

By Alya Garry and David Cockreham

North Elevation: Showing the New & Existing Building


Abstract Wellesley College is a historic New England campus with a forward-looking philosophy. In 2009, they hired DesignLAB Architects to enhance and refurbish their turn-of-the-century observatory building, a project that had to be treated with great sensitivity and respect due to its history. What DesignLAB was able to design and execute at Whitin Observatory stands as a subdued modern addition to the original structure. There is a richness in the layering of the architecture that has come forward through their work. The new portion of the building frames the preserved older sections, so that the original craft and beauty can be showcased. Included in the design strategy, the circulation of the entire building has been reconfigured to reconnect the different spaces as a functioning whole. For a client to whom this building was emotionally valuable, the resulting modern addition was perfectly suited to its needs. Thus, the architectural moves made on this project can be instructive to other projects where a historic context needs to be maintained.

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Table of Contents Introduction


Learning Objectives




Project Data


Project Teams


Project Timeline


Design Approach










About the Authors


Website Information


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Introduction Most ground-up building projects are conceived as independent entities, each designed for a particular internal balance and beauty. There are many designers who invent beautiful works of architecture in this manner, limited only by their own creativity. The process becomes more complicated, however, when adjacent context is important. Then, the designer must balance the external influences to the new portion he is creating. Sensitivity to existing site conditions is then required for the new building to be deemed successful. In an addition project, the building‟s context is the building itself, just an older version. In cases of historic preservation, sensitivity to this kind of context is paramount to a successful design. On these types of projects, an architect must exercise restraint in his design in order to respect the old, while allowing it to expand in program. This can create a contradiction in the designer‟s approach, especially if the original structure was conceived as an independent entity. Any move he makes will disturb the building‟s internal balance; not respecting the existing style and craft will disturb the building‟s existing beauty. Successful addition projects are achieved through creating new balance. Therefore, the designer of such projects must have the right attitude from the start to allow balance to occur. Overconfident architects with independent visions will not be appreciated by the clients they serve. By taking the time to listen throughout the entire design process, however, an architect can create a final product that will celebrate the building‟s past while simultaneously looking to the future. Architecture can be modern and respect history at the same time.

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Learning Objectives How can a contemporary addition and renovation project respect and celebrate a historic structure? This case study is intended to identify strategies for balancing historic preservation while providing innovative design. On any project that includes addition and renovation, there is an inherent challenge to connect the old and new. Therefore, designers of such projects are obliged to bridge architectural ideas between time periods. Innovation and history are two contrasting ideas that can work together in harmony if approached appropriately. Within this case study you will find one example of how a modern, innovative design addition respects, revitalizes and celebrates the original buildingâ€&#x;s past. The Whitin Observatory is a 100-year-old structure on Wellesley Collegeâ€&#x;s campus. Over the years, the building underwent several additions to expand its program. Unfortunately, these additions offered no response to the organization of existing spaces, and the building became a sum of disparate parts. Its most recent addition is the work of DesignLAB, a young Boston firm with a sensitive approach to design. The recently completed project creates new programmatic spaces for the Observatory in a sensitive manner. It reorganizes the existing spaces to produce a new coherent whole, while highlighting the beauty of the buildingâ€&#x;s rich history.

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Background Wellesley College was founded in 1870 by Henry and Pauline Fowle Durrant. A passionate believer in education for women, Henry had a motto that proclaimed the agenda of the college: “women can do the work. I give them the chance”. During a time when women had little rights, this idea was revolutionary. Indeed, this progressive attitude would in large part shape the philosophy of the school. In turn, the architecture of the campus became receptive to innovative and modern design.

1906 Building Addition Engraving

In 1879, Henry Durrant requested that the physics department offer courses that included astronomy. The new “applied physics” course was taught by Sarah Frances Whiting. More than a decade later, Whiting was introduced to trustee Sarah Elizabeth Whitin during a traditional college ceremony. Among other things, they discussed a 12” refracting telescope Whiting had used that was being offered for sale. A year later the telescope was purchased by the college. With this purchase, there was a need for a building on campus to house it. Mrs. Whitin donated more than just her funds for a new observatory, but also her insight on the design and proper technology for the building.

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In 1900, the new Whitin Observatory was built at the highest point on campus next to the existing arboretum overlooking the entire grounds. The building has been described as, “a handsome edifice of white Georgia marble … The building is somewhat stark, solid and conservative for the early 20th century. The choice of the classical style reaches back to Greek and Roman precedents and speaks of the ancient origins of astronomy”7. The cost of the structure totaled $30,000. The observatory became home to the new astronomy department with Mrs. Sarah Whiting as its first director.

1900: Original Neoclassical Building

Original Structure: North Entry and 12” Refractor Dome

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Soon after in 1906, Mrs. Whitin funded an expansion of the recently built observatory. The extra structure nearly doubled the size of the existing building. This portion of the building matched nearly exactly the scale and material of the original structure, adding a smaller dome that provided space for a new 6� refracting telescope. In addition to the new dome, the program of the new space included a transit dome, a library, and lab space. At this point, the rooms were beginning to multiply, but interior circulation was still limited to adjoining rooms by doorways. In addition, the original entrance on the north façade lost hierarchy to a new entrance that faces south.

1906: Neoclassical Addition built to match existing

Whitin Observatory from the Northwest Before Modern Addition

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The next addition to the observatory occurred in 1965. More classrooms were added in this expansion on the east façade. With these new spaces the existing interior circulation became nonexistent, students and faculty had to then travel through existing classrooms to get to other sections of the building. In addition to the circulation problem, quality of material dropped severely. What was thought to be a perfunctory addition of classrooms made drywall and concrete block construction suitable to the observatoryâ€&#x;s needs at the time.

1965: Perfunctory Expansion in Drywall and Concrete Block

The Observatory Sited Atop Wellesley College Campus

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In 1991, Richard French became director of the astronomy department. Shortly after receiving this post, he began to fight for funds for a new renovation to Whitin Observatory. The building‟s hundred year anniversary was approaching, and he wanted to revitalize the structure to celebrate the event. However, the funds Wellesley College was able to provide would barely cover the cost of bringing the building up to code. French‟s vision for the building, however, went beyond code. In his written appeals to the college of his ideas for the observatory, a theme emerged: “we need a means to performing 21st century science in a 19th century building”5. This idea of “modern science, historic character”5, would later become the design imperative for the new renovation. A breakthrough came when the money for new environmental science classroom space became available to the college. The decision was made to house the new space within the Whitin Observatory, thereby paying for the desired renovation. The first step in the renovation process was to conduct a feasibility study. The architect that performed the study presented three schemes to the college, all of which were over budget, and according to Richard French: “did not recognize the real needs of the department”5. The project was then sent out for alternative proposals. Wellesley College invited eight more firms to submit an RFP, from which DesignLAB was short-listed. DesignLAB stood out, because of their book of collected images from the school archives for old photos of what the observatory looked like originally. This gesture, “really represented an appreciation for the historic character we were after”5. In the interview process, it was confirmed that DesignLAB would be the ideal match for what Wellesley wanted out of the project.

12” Refractor Dome Interior: A Vision to Something Greater

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Project Data Project Title:

Whitin Observatory

Project Type:

Renovation, restoration and addition


Wellesley, Massachusetts


9,950 SF


Higher Education (private)


Observatory, laboratory, and classroom building for the astronomy department and environmental studies program.


Replace all existing systems, restore historic observatory, renovate existing classrooms, provide new classrooms and laboratory space, and create new internal circulation for the building.


Minimize impact on the adjacent arboretum, and preserve the existing exterior of the building.



Construction Budget:




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Project Teams Client:

Wellesley College Owner’s Rep: Faculty Head:


Laura Tenney Richard French

DesignLAB Architects Principal-in-Charge: Robert Miklos, FAIA Project Manager: Scott Slarsky, Assoc. AIA Project Designer: Mary Ann Holliday

Preservation Specialist:

Preservation Technology Associates, Inc. Project Engineer: Dr. Judith Selwyn

General Contractor:

Shawmut Construction Project Manager: Stuart Meurer Superintendent: Dick O‟Connell

MEP/FP Engineer:

Fitzemeyer & Tocci Project Manager: Project Engineer:

James Conway, P.E Paul Ricci, Mark Greenwich, Jud Traub

Odeh Engineers, Inc. Project Engineer:

Larri Marini, P.E

Nitsch Engineering Project Engineer:

David Conway, Steve Vautresca

Structural Engineer:

Civil Engineer:

IT Consultant:

Edvance Technology Design, Inc. Project Consultant: Doug Faria

LEED Consultant:

The Green Roundtable, Inc. Project Consultant: Colleen Soden, LEED AP


Haley & Aldrich, Inc. Project Engineer:

Bryan Sweeney, P.E


Wellesley College

Engineers Facilities


Specialists Contractors

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Project Timeline

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Design Approach At Wellesley College, there is a progressive attitude that allows the campus to take on modern architectural projects. With respect to its 140-year history, however, there is a real sense of “stewardship to the preservation of existing buildings”4 that must find balance with the school‟s progressive philosophy. Laura Tenney, a project manager for new construction on campus, deals with expanding the use and function of campus buildings in regard for the schools image and needs. “Taking care of the past while looking to the future” describes the school‟s architectural vision4. The decision to renovate and create an addition for Whitin Observatory required the expertise of an architect that could represent the balance of old and new through design.

Wellesley College Campus Map: Showing Location of Whitin Observatory (in orange)

Scott Slarsky of DesignLAB, saw Wellesley‟s progressive vision as what allows the college to be successful as a “utopian place for learning”1. Regarding the Whitin Observatory project: “they understood that a modern building was the only way to continue to establish [their] vision”1. However, the existing structure was over one hundred years old, and an integration of old and new would be necessary for the project to work in harmony.

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The design process began by reviewing the history of the structure. DesignLAB‟s collection of images of the original structure impressed the faculty. The architect displayed a recognition that what was existing was emotionally valuable to the client, and it did not go unnoticed. This approach set the tone for project, with Wellesley College confident that DesignLAB shared its vision.

Cover Page of RFP Book Submitted to Wellesley College: Image from Wellesley Archives

As previously mentioned, the original neoclassical building‟s additions resulted in an assemblage of rooms with little to no independent circulation. The architect‟s challenge was to integrate a new working laboratory and classroom in a way that respected the original building, and to reorganize the spaces for individual access. A subset of the end-user group, the astronomy department faculty, expressed their desire, “that the rich and layered past of the Observatory would live comfortably with an architectural tradition that would embrace the 21st century.”3 With respect to the historical context, DesignLAB hired a preservation specialist to conduct the survey of the building. More refined than a typical site survey, the information collected by the preservation specialist reconstructed a more thorough understanding of the original stone structure: its materiality, age, and other specific characteristics that would inform the detailing of the new addition where joints between old and new occur.2 Without the precise information gathered from a preservation specialist’s survey, a seamless transition from the original structure to the modern addition would have been impossible to achieve.

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DesignLAB initially treated the project as if it were a federally-protected historic structure and referenced The Secretary of the Interior Guidelines for Rehabilitating Historic Structures. For new additions, it advocates several recommendations to the designer‟s approach. Scott Slarsky found two recommendations that could apply to the project. The first urges, “designing a new addition in a manner that makes clear what is historic and what is new”6. The modern addition would not try to copy the existing neoclassical details. Instead, the new addition would be distinct in its materiality, while using an appropriate scale and form to the building whole.

Sketch of Original Front Entry Encased in New Building Addition

The second recommendation suggests “placing a new addition on a non-character-defining elevation, and limiting the size and scale in relationship to the historic building”6. These strategies were integrated into the design with a means to restricting the project‟s impact on the site.

New Addition Not Visible on Main Approach

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The additional program was planned to reside on the north side of the site, where it is not visible on approach to the building. The new exterior walls of the addition are comprised of tall and narrow sandstone glass panels, which create a visual connection to the arboretum adjacent to the site. The reflective and translucent value of the material allows the new portion of the structure to diminish itself to the old, as the exquisite detailing of the original marble structure is allowed remain the focal point in all of the rooms it intersects with the new. Thus was the intent of the designers, as “the mirrored glass … effectively allows the addition to „disappear‟.”3

Modern Addition in Reflective Glass


DesignLAB carved out a new public spine for the hallway, in and around the new and existing rooms. The only structure that was not modified as a result of this move was the original 1900 building. Some of its exterior walls became interior walls, creating further interest between inside and outside. Fulfilling the need for independent passage transformed the building from feeling like a secluded private dwelling into a more public space, open for group activity.

New Circulation Spine and Addition Space (in orange)

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The new circulation spine doubles as an impromptu gallery space for the collegeâ€&#x;s collection of historic objects and astronomical instruments. Existing windows along the new public path have created display cases where such historic items are brought out of storage and presented. The character and diversity of the objects highlight the history which would otherwise be a plain white drywall partition. The past is now exhibited within the building and framed for this specific purpose.

New Circulation Spine with New Display Function


Another design aspect that the college wanted to incorporate was the buildings original interiors. The perfunctory additions of the 1965 renovation did a disservice to the original structure in two ways. First, the east façade of the existing library was covered over in concrete block and drywall. Secondly, the research project room had an exposed wood ceiling structure that was covered over with a dropped ceiling. DesignLAB exposed the original architecture and included new millwork that showcases the space in its former splendor.

Research Project Room: Before (left) and After (right) Renovation

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The end result is an instance of architectural agreement between architect and client. Wellesley College was able to articulate what it wanted from the project in terms of ideas, and DesignLAB was able to interpret those ideas and develop them further to the clientâ€&#x;s satisfaction. The Whitin Observatory is a restrained approach to design, a way to appreciate and celebrate the craft and quality of older architectural styles. Scott Slarsky reiterates this fact when he says that the final product, “represents the ideas we put forth in the beginningâ€?1. A clear vision made the design process a success, and a well-maintained client relationship made the construction process pass with minimal error.

Entry to Original 1900 Structure Preserved

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Obstacles The construction of the Whitin Observatory project took eight months to complete. As with any renovation project (and particularly with renovations to century-old buildings), unexpected issues come up during the construction process. The major unknown was the cost of updating systems, for reasons relating to building code. This issue prevented the project from happening in the early stages, as preliminary feasibility studies were done gutting and replacing all existing mechanical, electrical, and plumbing services added to the cost. In the end, updating services represented the largest portion of the renovation cost. Any project team should be accustomed to unforeseen problems. Laura Tenney, Wellesley College‟s project has seen many problems with existing infrastructure on nearly all of her projects on campus. It comes with the philosophy of stewardship that the college has, to protect and maintain the “long-life cycle”4 of campus buildings. Accurately anticipating the problems that come with age allowed Wellesley to move forward with the project when there was sufficient funding to satisfy the full scope of the project. Another obstacle of the construction process was client communication. Wellesley College has a strict protocol in place for its construction projects, such that Campus Facilities must be made aware of all internal contact. DesignLAB unknowingly broke this protocol when it contacted the campus curator, to discuss which astronomical objects would be preferred to be displayed in the newly renovated Whitin Observatory. In a college it is typical for different departments to want more funds from the same funding pool, creating the need for a managing party to make decisions on what best suits the needs of the school. In this case, Campus Facilities had to step in and remind all parties of the importance of protocol. From that point on, there was a rigorous attention to communication that respected the protocol in place at Wellesley College. What was seemingly an antiquated hierarchy of interaction, ended up being crucial to project success as a whole. It is another example of the new deferring to the old for the benefit of the end product.

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Conclusions Of the eight initial design entries, faculty-head Richard French remarks, “seven out of the eight would have been a disappointment”5. The solution DesignLAB arrived at was uniquely suited to the project‟s goals, stated succinctly by Richard in the early conceptualization: “modern science, historic character”. What the client did right can first be attributed to its patience in starting the project. Pushing ahead with an expensive renovation alone, just to meet a 100-year anniversary goal would have yielded merely functional results. Given that the previous additions had already muddied up the building‟s character, this course of action would have been to the detriment of the structure. Instead, Wellesley College waited until it had clearly articulated its project goals, and went ahead with them only when the money was available. The designer was successful in that they interpreted the client‟s needs successfully: taking the time to research the building, having a particular surveyor generate thorough information, and then intervening in a restrained manner. All these moves made the client recognize that the designer cared about the original structure. Then, the designer improved the function of the building by fixing the circulation problems. This was a smart move from a practical standpoint, but also an opportunity to showcase the building‟s history. The display of antique astronomical instruments along the circulation paths is the finishing touch in this well-thought-out renovation: sensitive and sensible design. What was achieved at Whitin Observatory is possible at similar sites with historic character. A designer must simply remember that existing context should be included in all parts of the new design. Realize that what is existing is emotionally valuable to the client; so research heavily and intervene only where necessary. Restore function, so long as it doesn‟t detract from beauty.

Refurbished Library with Astronomical Instruments on Display

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Citations 1

Slarsky, Scott. "Architect Interview." Personal interview. 22 Mar. 2011


Selwyn, Dr. Judith. "Preservation Technology Specialist Interview." Phone interview. 28 Mar. 2011


DesignLAB. "Whitin Observatory BSA Award Submission."


Tenney, Laura. “Client Interview.” Phone interview. 31 Mar. 2011


French, Richard. “Faculty Interview.” Phone interview. 6 Apr. 2011


The Secretary of the Interior Guidelines for Rehabilitating Historic Structures. Website. Accessed on 6 Apr. 2011


Slarsky, Scott. "Architects Presentation." Whitin Observatory Rededication Ceremony. Wellesley College, Wellesley, MA. 16 Apr. 2011. Speech.


Vanderwarker, Peter. 2011. Photograph. Wellesley College.

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Sketch of Approach to Existing Building

Sketch of Proposed Addition in Glass

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Library Before Renovation

Sketch of Restored Library

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New Classroom in Observatory Addition

New Addition in Sandstone Glass

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About the Authors Alya Garry She attended Northeastern University for her undergraduate Degree in Architecture. Her work experience has ranged from construction, facilities management, teaching, and housing authority work. Currently, she is finishing up her final year at Northeastern University for her Masterâ€&#x;s Degree in Architecture. After graduation she plans on moving across country to see what the west coast has to offer in design.

David Cockreham He attended Northeastern University for his undergraduate Degree in Architecture. His work experience has been in high-end residential and retail design. Currently, he is finishing up his final year at Northeastern University for his Masterâ€&#x;s Degree in Architecture. His future plans include starting his own architecture firm to work closely with community groups, and contribute to local design needs.

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Website Information List your recommended search words here: Renovation Addition Innovation Historic Education Legacy

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Case Studies: Whitin Observatory  

Through a close examination of an in-depth project case study, students at Northeastern University's School of Architecture speculate on pos...

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