A Library Built for Today and Tomorrow

By Helen Watkins Norman
Photography by Robert Benson


It was a brutally hot August day in 1999. The sea of asphalt that bordered Briggs Student Center raised the temperature from uncomfortable to unbearable, and the bright-colored cars that navigated it appeared white under the harsh glare of the 3:00 sun. Dr. William Troutt, just two months into his presidency at Rhodes, stood in shirtsleeves on the Briggs back porch, looking north.

“I have a vision of this area being green,” Troutt said wistfully, his eyes scanning an unsightly vista of loading docks, maintenance vehicles, parking lots and service buildings that had outlived their looks and usefulness. It was a section of the college typically skirted during campus admissions tours. But on this occasion, the president wanted his guest to see all segments of Rhodes: the charming and the challenging.

The president spoke almost apologetically, recalled Bob Johnson, who was visiting Rhodes as a candidate for the position of dean of information services.

“He was like someone showing off his brand-new car but pointing out its regrettable first dent,” said Johnson, who accepted the post at Rhodes the next week.

Six years later, there is nothing apologetic in Troutt’s voice as he tours his beloved Rhodes. The whole campus is like that elegant new car, and the unfortunate dent in the middle is gone, replaced by verdant Oxonian lawns, pedestrian walkways and an awe-inspiring new library more gorgeous than even its planners could have imagined.

“What could be better than this?” Troutt asked, turning 360 degrees to soak in the interior splendor of the new library made possible by a $35 million gift from the Paul Barret, Jr. Trust. “This was an opportunity of a lifetime, an opportunity to re-center a campus and fill in the one ingredient missing from an otherwise beautiful campus.”

It was also the opportunity to achieve two of the 10 initiatives Troutt outlined in his inaugural address in April 2000. One was to incorporate innovative technologies at the college, bringing the best of the world to Rhodes and the best of Rhodes to the world. The other initiative was to improve library resources.

The beautiful Burrow Library that preceded Barret was built, coincidentally, by gifts from Paul Barret, Jr.’s uncle and aunt, Mr. and Mrs. A.K. Burrow. It opened in 1953, aiming to serve a maximum student/faculty population of 700. Today Rhodes has 1,676 students and 175 faculty members. Consultants concluded in March 2000 that Burrow could not be sufficiently enlarged or renovated to accommodate today’s students and faculty and the technology they require.

So planning began for a new library. In June 2000, Rhodes commissioned Hanbury Evans Wright and Vlattas (HEWV) to develop a new campus master plan and to incorporate a new library in that plan. Rhodes has been developing and subsequently following campus master plans since the college moved to Memphis in 1925. This was the fifth such plan and its goals were like its predecessors: to foresee future growth of the college and determine how tomorrow’s buildings will look and fit on the Rhodes campus.

When Rhodes learned in 2001 of the Paul Barret, Jr. Trust’s generous gift to the college, officials not only recognized the need for a new library, they knew exactly where to put it thanks to the master plan: smack dab in the center of campus. The goal of Barret, as stated by the plan, was to “invigorate the intellectual heart of the campus” in a way that “transforms the existing open spaces between Briggs Student Center and the Bryan Campus Life Center and creates a new academic and student services quadrangle.”

“This was a perfect place to put a building and create a new ceremonial entrance,” said Bob Johnson, now the vice president for Information Services at the college.

Prior to Barret’s construction, the western entrance to campus — Bailey Lane — dumped visitors into faculty parking and the back door of Briggs Student Center. Today an upgraded Bailey Lane leads directly to the stately entrance of Barret, and new interior roads redirect drivers out of central campus and onto the perimeter of the college. Pedestrian walkways from all over campus guide patrons to Barret’s west and east entrances.

“This was a chance to take the middle of campus and make it green,” Johnson continued. “We wanted to tie everything together, to create a library close to the residential areas and close to academic areas, to knit together the academic and the recreational.”

No longer would the Bryan Campus Life Center, the recreation center on campus, be abandoned to the “back 40,” as this northern section was frequently called.

Not only did Rhodes expend considerable time and effort determining where to place Barret, its planners spent two years developing the design of the building and how it would function.

Two architectural firms worked collaboratively on the project, meeting long and often with Rhodes administrators, faculty and students. Hanbury Evans—which had earlier designed the East Village residence halls at Rhodes — focused more on the exteriors. Boston’s Shepley Bulfinch Richardson and Abbott, one of the nation’s oldest architectural firms and one with a strong reputation for library design, concentrated on the interiors and how the library would operate. SBRA was also one of the firms that designed Memphis’s new central library.

“This was an immensely complicated project because of its size, complexity and the need to do it right, in terms of architecture and functionality,” said Allen Boone ’71, vice president of finance and business affairs. In his capacity as the chief financial officer, Boone has overseen the construction of seven new buildings at Rhodes and the renovation of many more.

Barret has been the biggest, Boone explained, and not just because of the sheer size of the four-level facility (Barret is 136,000 gross square feet). Major work was required on campus before the first cubic foot of dirt could be dug for Barret’s foundation.

“We had to completely rebuild the underground infrastructure serving a portion of the campus,” Boone explained. That meant moving roadways as well as water, fire and gas mains, sewer lines, telecommunication fiber, electrical switchgear and electrical transformers. The college also had to demolish two small buildings that stood in Barret’s path: the Austin Physical Plant Building, built in 1979, and Tuthill Hall, built in 1936.

It has taken 2½ years to build Barret. But the wait has been worth it. The facility incorporates a host of features that make it adaptable to changing times. So while Barret’s walls may be carved in stone, the way it operates is not.

“One of the burning questions in higher education has been whether academia can adjust to a present and a future so dominated by changing technology,” noted Troutt. “My answer is, ‘Of course we will.’ The difficult part is to ensure that we don’t lose the values of the past in our eagerness to adapt to new conditions.”

Troutt is convinced that Barret adheres to the traditions of the college while providing access to the most current technology available.

“I see built-in flexibility that will allow us to retool it quickly when demands change, as they invariably will.”

The 20 collaborative study rooms throughout the building come in various sizes with different furniture configurations to satisfy different needs. Most of the furniture in the building is on rollers. Tables, chairs and couches can be easily moved. And because the whole building is wireless, one can set up a computer or laptop anywhere.

Moreover, high-grade modular offices with interchangeable furniture provide options for evolving staff needs. There are modular walls that one can erect or remove in a day without ever changing the electrical wiring, ventilation or lighting.

In the Teaching and Learning Center, a space for experimenting with new technology and new teaching or research strategies, the college has intentionally held back on the purchase of a great deal of technology.

“We’ve put in what we think we need to get started. But we expect to find out in the first year that there are things that we never thought about in terms of what people need and want,” said Bob Johnson. “When you open a new space, people think differently. They’ll use this space differently from the way they used Buckman or Burrow.”

There is even built-in flexibility in the lighting. Planners installed lighting controls that allow certain lights to turn on or off automatically, depending on natural light conditions. On a bright cloudless day in a room with many windows, for example, some of the lights turn off. A dark cloud appears, those lights illuminate again.

There is considerable flexibility when it comes to growth, too. While Barret provides ample shelving for the current collection, tracks for compact, electronic shelving have already been installed in the stacks floor under the carpet should a need for more shelving arise in the future. Furthermore, 5,000 square feet of expansion space has already been built in to the lower level of the building. Barret could use that space for books, offices, meeting rooms or any other function.

Perhaps the ultimate flexibility is Barret’s ability to be any type of building that future college officials choose it to be. There are no load-bearing interior walls in the building. The structure is supported by concrete and steel reinforced columns on approximately 45-foot-deep concrete and steel reinforced piers. More than 500 of these foundation piers support the steel superstructure.

“A great deal of the money in this building is in concrete and steel,” said Johnson.

Interior walls can be erected or torn down anywhere, anytime, providing limitless options in how the building functions in the future.

“Barret will make a big difference in the life of the campus no matter what,” said Johnson. “But what big difference it makes will depend on the human element.”

For now, at least, the human element on campus appears plenty happy with the possibilities and promise of the Paul Barret, Jr. Library. And as the college’s chief business officer Allen Boone speculated, “Mr. Barret is surely smiling.”