Sawyer Library Construction Controversy (1973)

How ironic it is that the Center for Environmental Studies should itself be in the path of the bulldozers: It would not be so bad if the new library had some beauty, but it will stand, instead, as an insult to the books it is to contain and to those who must read them there.

--James Fraser-Darling, Record Advocate : 13 April 1973

The long and mobile history of the Van Rensselaer House was put to an end when its site was chosen for Williams College's new library. In late February 1973, the College convinced the alumni of the Sigma Phi fraternity to remove a "reverter clause" from the title to their former Williams domicile, the Van Rensselaer House. This clause would have allowed for the house to revert to Sigma Phi if the decision to abolish fraternities at Williams was ever rescinded. President Jack Sawyer's announcement of the removal of this final hurdle to construction was coupled with an announcement of the Van Rensselaer House's demolition, set to follow the June 1973 Commencement.

The use of the Van Rensselaer lot elicited angry correspondence from students, townspeople, and even the Williamstown Art Association, which, in an April 1973 letter to the Record Advocate , said:

In regard to the Van Rensselaer House, we regret the loss of a fine piece of architecture unnecessarily. We feel that worthwhile Victorian buildings should be preserved. It seems that little is left of our town's past and that we should maintain buildings of historical and architectural interest whenever possible. We go on record as recommending that this building be allowed to remain as an attractive and useful part of the town's center.

Another frustrated resident defended the Van Rensselaer House, adding:

Van Rensselaer House is not a beautiful building. Yet it has a style and a character very becoming to Williams College which in many ways symbolizes the liberal arts tradition we stand for. A structure such as Van Rensselaer will never again be created, and it gives uniqueness and an important sense of place to the College. The new library that will replace it has no more character that a multi-story parking lot, or a Holiday Inn, or for that matter, the Fuhrerbunker turned inside-out.

This criticism of the Van Rensselaer demolition was heightened by the growing dissatisfaction for the plans of the library that would be constructed on the site. By the end of March 1973, members of the College community were looking to block the construction until the plans could be re-examined. Four Williams students put together a twenty page report for the Library Building Committee, but discovered that the Committee was unwilling to negotiate on the site and general structure of the building.

The two chief objections raised against the library were that its scale was "antithetical to the avowed spirit of Williams College" and that it was not easily adaptable to potential changes in the technology of library science. The Library Building Committee criticized the students for presenting their ideas almost four years after preliminary library planning had begun. Although lack of funds had occasioned a gap of several years between initial planning and the imminent groundbreaking on the site, the Committee reiterated that no major objections were raised in April 1970, when the plans were first presented to students and faculty.

Despite their criticisms of the site and plan of the new library, it was clear that Williams had outgrown Stetson Library and was in need of new facilities. Most agreed with Frederick Rudolph, Mark Hopkins Professor of History, when he wrote: "Since returning to Williams in 1950 I have watched the library facilities of the college change from excellent to adequate to annoying to embarrassing." The groups who were protesting the new facilities objected to the particular plan, not the idea that a new library was needed.

By early May, all of the debate was put to a resounding end when the Board of Trustees re-affirmed their commitment to the existing plans and announced: "In view of the controlling priority of getting a new library for Williams College at the earliest feasible date, the Board believes postponement would be unwise and it has great respect for the years of study, the care and professional skills that have gone into the decision."

By Jaime Margalotti (Williams Class of 2000)

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