GWC wins award for blending past, present

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Margaret Plevak | August 6, 2013

WILLIAMS BAY -- In 1937, noted anthropologist Margaret Mead visited Williams Bay for a rededication ceremony of a hall dubbed “The Women's Building” on the grounds of a former training school for leaders in the YMCA, or Young Men's Christian Association.

 Mead spoke at the event, in which the building was renamed Mabel Cratty Hall, in honor of the first general secretary of the YWCA.

 (Read all of this week's stories from Walworth County Sunday HERE.)

 Today Mabel Cratty Hall is part of the George Williams College of Aurora University of Chicago. It's remained a favorite location on campus for small gatherings, lectures and open houses.

 And thanks to a renovation that retained its storied history, the building is one of seven projects in the state that received architectural awards in 2013 from the American Institute of Architects Wisconsin.

 Although it was built in 1926, Mabel Cratty Hall was part of a complex whose roots stretch back much further. In 1886, three YMCA leaders purchased land along Geneva Lake in Williams Bay, envisioning a hands-on training facility for midwestern workers in the movement, which had been founded in England by George Williams in 1844.

 Initially a series of weeklong sessions were held at the Williams Bay camp to train men going into YMCA work. The sessions focused on the organization's principles of physical activity, spiritual reflection and service learning.

 The training facility grew, holding student conferences and retreats. But by 1890, it was moved to a Chicago suburb and became a secondary school that in 1933 was named George Williams College. The college kept the land in Williams Bay, using it for educational purposes and retreats. George Williams College in Downers Grove closed for financial reasons in 1985, but two of its programs continued through Aurora University.

 In 2000, the programs were fully merged at Aurora and the Williams Bay campus, which then became known as George Williams College.

 The college currently has a student body of about 400 and offers undergraduate and graduate programs, with majors ranging from sustainability and environmental management to criminal justice.

 During the 1990s, Greg Odden, now director of facilities operations at GWC, was employed by a contractor that worked on building projects at the college, and he's witnessed an evolution on the grounds.

 “Over the years, the college has moved from camp to the campus,” he said.

 But bringing 19th- and 20th-century buildings into 21st-century use requires balance.

 “What you have to do is stand back and consider the users of the building and the number of users you're anticipating,” Odden said. “At that point, we started looking at the functionality of where to put the different elements, and just the overall flow of the building.”

 The AIA Wisconsin Merit Award recognizes excellence in particular aspects of project design. Judges cited Mabel Cratty Hall as a project that was respectful of a historic building while making its interior more in line with contemporary campus use.

 Michael Lenzi, director of marketing at George Williams College, said Mabel Cratty Hall originally was designed with the horizontal board and batten motif typical of Frank Lloyd Wright's Prairie School designs.

 The interior had an Arts and Crafts-style look and featured a beamed ceiling, fireplaces and a wraparound porch with scenic views of the north shore of Geneva Lake.  

 For Mabel Cratty's renovation, the Milwaukee firm HGA Architects and Engineers added an entrance hall, vaulted the ceiling and refaced an aging brick fireplace with stone. Built-in bench seating was added, and a series of backlit glass panels, custom etched with floral and woodland motifs, were created and installed on either side of the fireplace inside the great hall. Polished concrete gives the look of a terrazzo floor.

 The most creative additions are sets of vertical sliding, paneled glass doors on the east and west ends of the hall, bringing in light and air and allowing access to an adjoining courtyard and porch.

 The doors replace deteriorating wooden walls that framed oversized multipaned windows. When opened -- by sliding up, like a garage door -- the custom-made doors align perfectly with matching window panels above.

 The doors also blend seamlessly into the hall. One comment from the AIA Wisconsin jury on the project noted, “The architect clearly recognized the historic features and worked with them to achieve the new objectives and changing uses of the facility. You almost have to ask what was done, which in many respects is the ideal outcome for this type of project. If it can be done in such a way that nobody notices, that's a success.”

 The hall's wraparound porch, though more than 80 years old, only underwent minor structural work.

 “The porch itself was in very good shape,” Odden said.

 The renovation also included remodeled bathrooms and ADA accessible entrances. A high-efficiency furnace and increased insulation have turned the hall into a four-season building, Odden said.

 Mabel Cratty Hall isn't the only recent renovation on campus. The College Inn, a space that's long served as a snack bar and recreational spot, was remodeled in 2012. The building dates back to about 1910.

 “The College Inn is a favorite place for guests, students, employees and lake path walkers to grab a snack and relax for a few moments,” Tom McReynolds, project manager at George Williams College, wrote in an email. “The renovation last year -- its first in more than 50 years -- more than doubled its size while updating the space with flat screen TVs, comfortable furniture and historical photos.”

 A reproduced menu on the wall of the building reveals 1930s prices: five-cent sodas and sandwiches and hot fudge sundaes for 15 cents.

 “Though the prices have increased, the offerings have pretty much stayed the same,” McReynolds said. “Many a summer employee has scooped ice cream or made popcorn in the CI as their first job, but today GWC students are behind the counter.”

 “The building has a great history as a gathering spot, and we just needed to upgrade that,” Odden said, pointing out a flat, black ceiling directly above a wooden arbor that gives the space a feeling much like the wooden posts and beams it sported in a 1915 photo.

 On the exterior, older glass block panels below the window were retained, but are lit from within by LED lights that glow at night with a designed color rotation of blue, green and red.

 That blending of old and new is part of the design, both in the campus renovations and the college itself.

 “This is a different place. This is a special place,” Lenzi said. “We're not trying to stray too far from the original roots of the YMCA, which is service, and the tradition reflected in our buildings.”

 “George Williams is a name that's been recognized on the lake all the way back to the original families who were out here,” Odden said. “To completely erase all of that would be a shame.”



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