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New Alumni Center in a Class by Itself

The Samuel Riggs IV Alumni Center. At left is the top half of the meeting hall, with its round stained-glass window. At right is the office wing. The foreground grassy area has skylights set into it that bring light to offices below ground.
The Samuel Riggs IV Alumni Center. At left is the top half of the meeting hall, with its round stained-glass window. At right is the office wing. The foreground grassy area has skylights set into it that bring light to offices below ground. (Photos By Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)

Iconography aside, the complex, dedicated in late September, is distinguished by thoughtful planning and lovingly executed details, as one would expect from Jacobsen.

For good practical and aesthetic reasons, he divided the two main functions -- administrative offices and large-scale meeting facilities -- into two parts. Arranged in an L with an arched entryway for both buildings at the corner, the "barn" and the "houses" have distinct identities but read as parts of a whole.

The two buildings form a comforting armature for the garden. The architect also took advantage of a 17-foot change in grade to provide that excellent garden view -- the roof of the circular entryway serves as a splendid viewing platform. (With its pea-pebble surfaces, benches, fountain and flowers, the garden is a real attraction, but it has been locked down whenever I have passed by. One hopes that will change.)

To further heighten the contrast between the two facilities, Jacobsen sheathed the offices in ordinary common-bond brick ( the material of the College Park campus) and the meeting hall in a stuccolike precast concrete. And he shaped the two differently.

The "townhouses" are what you might anticipate from that word -- Jacobsen says he was inspired by a noble row in Baltimore. But in their College Park incarnation the houses are swollen in size, as if fed the architectural equivalent of steroids. To break down the scale of what is a medium-size office building, Jacobsen laid it out in a staggered pattern of projecting and receding units, and changed brick colors alternatively from red to a red that has a whitewashed look.

On the other hand, with its long proportions, gently pitched roof, pedimented end facades, simple rustication lines and elementary cornice, the meeting hall looks like a nice, though low-budget, neoclassical barn.

Inside, predictably, it is just one of those big banquet halls. Well, not altogether. The high pitched ceiling gives the space some distinction, as does the natural light streaming in from the parade of 12-foot-high windows on both longitudinal sides. Jacobsen also gave the high walls some scale with wainscot-like incisions, white on gray.

On sunny days, a big stained-glass rose window in the south facade casts the colorful impression of the university's emblem on the floor and tables inside. "You can tell the time by the way it moves across the space throughout the day," said Peter Kozloski, Jacobsen's project manager.

Uniting outside with inside is something of a Jacobsen obsession. It's evident here in ways both spectacular, such as the circular skylights above the lobby, and mundane, like the all-glass walls of perimeter rooms that allow natural light to penetrate to the middle of the office building. A long exterior wall of floor-to-ceiling glass provides visitors to the university's alumni Hall of Fame with a swell view of the garden just outside. (Not incidentally, a plaque honoring Jacobsen hangs on the hall's wall.)

The privately financed $26.5 million alumni center serves many purposes -- since its dedication, it has been used for weddings, undergraduate meetings, a Nobel Prize celebration and, most important, all sorts of alumni events. The main point, when you get down to it, is money.

Like many public universities, Maryland is faced with declining state support in proportion to increasing needs. As places to focus alumni participation, alumni centers have proven effective in raising alumni awareness and dollars. "This building is a testament to what Maryland alumni can do," said Danita D. Nias (Class of 1981), the center's executive director.

That is, of course, literally true in Jacobsen's case. He received his undergraduate degree in 1951, and then it was on to Yale and Louis Kahn -- Jacobsen's acknowledged exemplar. By 1958, he had set up his own shop in Georgetown and began doing the stylish house additions that lured clients from all over the world. As it ultimately worked out, the vast majority of the work was done outside the Washington area, so it is good to have another public building close by to add to the limited list.

But by masking an office building in residential dress, Jacobsen sowed a provocative seed of confusion. ("Who in the world lives there?" passersby must ask themselves all the time.) And while meeting all the functional needs, he created a profoundly contrasting vision to the loud, necessitous chaos all around -- a comforting, somewhat artificial alternative world.

On my third visit, Jacobsen's center still made me smile, and laugh. His alumni center is admirable and smart in lots of ways. It is kind of lovable. It's also plenty strange.

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