Skillman Library, Simon Wing

With the construction of the Morris R. Williams Center for the Arts, the William E. and Carol G. Simon Wing of Skillman Library and the Farinon College Center, Lafayette entered the era of late modern architecture. The latter two projects were executed by the Boston firm of Shepley Bulfinch Richardson and Abbott. One of the more distinguished architectural firms in the country, it was founded by H.H. Richardson in 1874, a historical connection that nicely compliments the Richardsonian references in several college buildings.

In 1986, the Simon Wing of the library was given by William Simon ’52, a former Trustee of Lafayette and a former U.S. Secretary of the Treasury. The addition houses Special Collections stacks and a curatorial facility in its basement and a two-story Special Collections Reading Room at its core. The surrounding space on the upper two floors comprises, primarily, additional general reading areas. Renovations were made throughout the library, especially to the reference, catalogue, circulation and technical services sections.

The Simon Wing of Skillman Library shows the influence of Post Modernism, a term that was used first in the field of architecture. While the origins of Post Modernism may be traced to the 1960s in small experimental buildings by Robert Venturi, Michael Graves, Charles Moore and others, it proliferated throughout the 1970s and 1980s and thus appeared in larger institutional structures. As suggested by its name, Post Modernism does not propose a style. It is defined, instead, by its break from the strictures of modernism and by its stylistic variety. In fact, one of the hallmarks of Post Modernism is its freedom and eccentricity; that playfulness, in an appropriately restrained manner, is a leitmotif of the Simon Wing.

From its eastern facade, the Simon Wing simply duplicates the 1961 design of Skillman Library by Philadelphia architect Vincent Kling. This duplication includes the narrow slit windows, which are an anathema to modernism and disliked by Lafayette students. But if one wishes for the openness and spaciousness of glass, one need only turn the north corner to find a two-story glass curtain wall. It recalls the steel-and-glass architecture of early modernism and is the antithesis of the earlier building.

At the center of the north facade is the only curved element on the exterior–an enormous cylindrical and projecting staircase. Consisting of brick and glass in a stepped design and featuring a notched entablature, it is reminiscent simultaneously of castle turrets, the stripped- down geometry of French neo-Classical architecture, and the famous cylindrical glass-and-steel staircases in the early modernist architecture of Walter Gropius (1883-1969). In other architectural movements this diversity of stylistic references would be unthinkable, but Post Modernism looks upon history as an open book from which any quotation is possible.

The new northern facade is clearly competing for attention with the eastern side, but the contest is imaginary. After all, the door of that facade can be used only as an emergency exit. The staircase within the tower and highlighted by it seems out of a dream or a futuristic film. Supported by oversize steel tubes painted Cherokee red, the structure culminates in a bronze light reflector, which looks like an enormous sacred torch or votive plate suspended over the viewer. In this staircase the imaginative and fantastic aspects of Post Modernism are evident.

In addition to expanded computer laboratories in the basement and rear of the building and the elaborate Special Collections Reading Room, the major focus of the Simon Wing is additional reading and study areas for students. This is the function that it accomplishes most successfully.

The interior plan of the Simon Wing is cleverly complex, consisting of the octagonal Special Collections Reading Room places with a cruciform. As one moves through the general readers’ space, one is constantly given varied and surprising views of the Special Collections Reading Room through windows of various shapes, sizes and orientations. Study desks are grouped in exciting angular configurations; several of the student reading alcoves are sunken and others raised, providing further spatial intrigue. One may work facing the interior spaces of the building or before the large windows at its northern end, individually or in group study rooms on the eastern side. The basic idea is that architecturally innovative spaces promote the learning experience.

The new interior decoration of Skillman Library bizarrely pairs stunted classical columns with industrial tubing, all painted in the relaxing pastels favored by the Post Modernists. Perhaps Post Modernism is the most appropriate device to bridge a new design, the latent modernism of the earlier Skillman and the traditional parlor decor Mrs. Simon requested for the Special Collections Reading Room. In all, the Simon Wing adds a fanciful note to Lafayette’s architecture and endeavors to convince our students that it is an adventure to be in the library.

From “Lafayette College Architecture: In Context” by Robert Saltonstall Mattison. Easton, PA: Friends of Skillman Library, 1991.