Plans for the Sewanee Social Commons continue to develop

The Sewanee community workshops a plan for Thompson Union for the coming years. Photo by Anna Mann (C’20).

By Anna Mann

The second design workshop for Sewanee’s Social Commons took place November 15, a month after the initial design meeting. According to the Director of Campus Planning, Design, and Construction Sarah Boykin, construction will begin on January 2021, with the building set to be finished the following year. 

Stephen Allen of Williams Blackstock Architects led the workshop along with Provost Nancy Berner and Boykin. Allen stated that the Thompson Union was selected many years ago thanks to its location on University Avenue, its close proximity to Abbo’s Alley, and its history as a student union in the 70s. 

“Part of the University’s vision is to restore the best parts of the building,” stated Allen. “Looking back and celebrating the history of the building, but also looking forward to say this is a 21st century facility that’s about student life now and in the future. It should reflect the spirit of Sewanee.” 

According to Allen, in the first workshop students primarily desired a welcoming environment, a sort of “campus living room” that would differentiate itself from the Learning Commons in duPont Library. Student Government President Emma Burdett (C’20), the only student currently on the Thompson Union Planning Group, agreed wholeheartedly with the idea of the campus living room. 

“It’s important because Sewanee really lacks gathering places,” she explained. “We see that in the way that the first floor of the library has become a social place. People are saying now the library isn’t quiet enough anymore, and it’s because people know they can go there to socialize.” 

Burdett stated that by creating an accessible and “non-territorial” space, the University could offer an alternative to Greek life. Sewanee has an impressive 78 percent of students involved in the Greek scene, according to a 2018 report by the Purple. However, many students have expressed their desire for an alternative meeting place, especially on weekends. 

Thario Jones (C’21) placed heavy importance on the idea of an alternative social space. “I know a lot of people that aren’t involved in Greek life who just sit in their rooms on the weekend,” he stated. “[The Commons] doesn’t have to be 24 hours, [The Tiger Bay] Pub closes at 2 o‘clock and most people go to bed by then. So it doesn’t have to be open past that, but I think the nightlife aspect is important.”

Other students wanted band practice rooms in spaces larger than those currently available in Guerry, some a 24/7 facility for gaming and TV, while others desired meeting places for clubs and other reservable rooms for events. 

Allen spoke of a stage for the renovated Student Union Theatre (SUT) in order to better accommodate musical performances and open mic nights. Catherine Bratton (C’22) agreed with the need for renovations, but stressed the importance of holding onto the history of the historic theatre.

“My parents went here and remember going to the SUT,” Bratton said. “I think it’s really important to hold onto that tradition. I love that we can show movies for three dollars, or even for free on Wednesdays.”

However, students shouldn’t be concerned that this tradition will disappear completely as Boykin explained that even if the theatre were closed during renovation, she “expect[ed] there [would] be plans made to use another campus venue for showing movies during that time.”

As for the next steps, Boykin explained that from the current pre-design phase where the architects are listening to community needs and documenting the existing structure of the site, that they will move into a “schematic design phase.” This second phase will be used this winter to draft multiple design possibilities.

Once the final option is chosen, Boykin explained that it will go through a significant revising process before being presented as the recommended solution. Only then will the complete design team of architects, engineers, and interior designers develop construction drawings for the contractors.

About the workshops, Boykin stated that “the participants in the workshops have provided invaluable insights, ideas, and recommendations about the types of spaces that need to be included in the Sewanee Commons. They also have provided us with a greater understanding of the opportunities that this project offers to enhance student life.”

With this in mind, Burdett urges students to take part in the building of the commons. Although no future workshops are currently scheduled, she encourages students to swing by their table in McClurg and to respond to the student-wide survey that will be sent out via email in the near future.