Fields Center plans move to revitalize mission, increase accessibility

Below left: This side view of the future home of the Fields Center at 58 Prospect Ave. shows the proposed renovation of the main building with its original Italianate Revival-style architecture, with a north addition (at right) that will host a large social event space. The building will include three floors of programming space, in addition to a finished basement. (Image courtesy of Ann Beha Architects)


The Fields Center plans to increase its presence on campus with a move to a renovated building at 58 Prospect Ave. in 2009. Planners say the move will allow the center to open its doors to greater cultural and social opportunities while also providing more space for existing and expanded programming.

"It will be a real win-win for students, faculty, staff and alumni to have a Carl A. Fields Center for Equality and Cultural Understanding with its front door facing Prospect Avenue and thus being seen as, treated as, and visited as another one of the hospitable gathering places on 'the Street,'" said Vice President for Campus Life Janet Dickerson of the center's future home neighboring the eating clubs on Prospect.

The building that will house the Fields Center was the former Elm Club, which experienced alternating periods of success and closure while operating as a dining and social facility for upperclassmen from 1901 until the University acquired the building in 1997.

Construction is scheduled to begin in spring of 2008 to restore the building's original Italianate Revival-style architecture, but the renovation also will include a modern addition to be used as a large event space for social gatherings. Among the numerous amenities that don't exist at the current Fields Center at 86 Olden St. will be updated seminar rooms, smaller social spaces, areas wired for new media and a new tutoring center.

Fields Center

"The move will not only benefit the community groups that use the Fields Center, but I think it will provide a really appealing location for all Princeton students," Dickerson said. "And that's one of our goals -- to get as many students as we can into the Fields Center and to encourage them to engage in the many cultural and volunteer opportunities it provides year-round."

Over the years, an expanding schedule of activities hosted by the Fields Center has meant its programs often had to take place at other facilities on campus.

Princeton students participating in events during any given week might: meet at a residential college to learn of efforts to bring medical help to developing countries; try their hand at traditional West African drumming at the Friend Center; gather at Frist to learn of campaigns to stop violence against women in the Middle East; or have an intimate conversation with a Nigerian author at the Fields Center. All the while, students volunteering for the Community House service organization -- also housed in the Fields Center -- had to schedule space to tutor middle-school students, host writing workshops and mentor students from Princeton High School.

The move to 58 Prospect will allow the Fields Center to maintain much of its programming in its own space, said Director Makeba Clay.

"We feel this move will make off-site sponsorship of many programs more of a choice, rather than a necessity," she said. "We have everything from middle-school kids participating in tutoring, to college students hosting major social events, and faculty here teaching as part of a visiting fellows program."

The Fields Center will continue to have partnerships with academic departments, the residential colleges, and other centers and programs that host sponsored events across campus, but the Fields Center will have more options for introducing students across the University to the center itself, Clay said. The goal is to bring more students into the center to nurture a long-term relationship, and to build new partnerships with groups on and off campus.

"We want to think beyond our physical space to consider the impact that we can have across the borders of campus," Clay said. "The move will help revitalize our vision for creating socially and politically conscious students so that their experiences can permeate the fabric of the community."

And while the Fields Center's new home will be mere steps from its current location, its improved sense of accessibility will be significant.

"One of the major challenges with the current location of the Fields Center is the high wall that surrounds it," Dickerson said. "The wall is a historic part of the streetscape but gives the impression that the center is remote from the social life of Prospect Avenue. That is the opposite of the message we aspire to convey, which is to present a hospitable face to everyone who visits."

The building at 86 Olden has provided a social, cultural and political environment serving the needs of students of color on campus since it was converted in 1971 from the Osborn Clubhouse into the Third World Center. The name changed to the Carl A. Fields Center for Equality and Cultural Understanding in July 2002 to reflect the center's evolving mission to include the broader community in the dialogue on race, and in honor of the first African American administrator to hold a top post at an Ivy League university. After joining the Princeton administration in 1964, Fields served as an advocate for underrepresented students, faculty and staff.

Among the estimated 30 campus groups that use the center today are the Princeton Justice Project, Chicano Caucus, Leadership and Mentoring Program, Black Graduate Caucus, Ballet Folklorico and Community House. Alumni groups also use the center.

"The Carl A. Fields Center currently suffers the disadvantage of a distant location and low visibility on campus," said Lauren Wang, a junior who is active at the center through various cultural organizations. "By providing ample space and new facilities, I am confident that the move will rejuvenate the mission of the Fields Center and more firmly establish it as an important part of undergraduate campus life."

The University reached out to Wang and other students through focus groups beginning in the fall of 2005 to help ensure that the future home of the Fields Center will meet their needs. A feasibility study initiated in 2005 explored options that included a renovation of 86 Olden.

The University's Board of Trustees this January favored the plan to relocate the Fields Center to a restored 58 Prospect, which was used as "swing space" by academic departments whose offices were being renovated.

Students voice support for move

"Because we're in the schematic design phase and haven't solidified the plans for the new Fields Center space, we told students, 'Tell us how you would love to use the space, and let's make it work,'" said Project Manager Dale Edghill, describing a recent meeting held with students and advisory board members.

"The students had great ideas, and I think the one thing we came away with and that we're already planning for is the need for very flexible spaces," said Edghill, who works in the Office of Design and Construction. "We're thinking of flexible furniture systems that could be moved around quickly and easily to accommodate many of the various needs of the programs."

After renovations, the relocated Fields Center will be an estimated 20,800 square feet, compared to the 15,700 square feet at 86 Olden. An east and west addition that were added to 58 Prospect during a renovation in 1940 will be removed, and a new north addition will serve as the large social event space. It will measure about 3,000 square feet compared to the estimated 2,800-square-foot Liberation Hall used for large events in the current Fields Center. Ann Beha Architects of Boston was selected as the designer for the project.

"I cannot wait for the move," said Anna Almore, a junior who said the center is a home away from home when she spends time there as coordinator of the Leadership and Mentoring Program. "The Fields Center as a physical space is enormously important to students who do not have a regular space -- like an eating club -- to get together and eat, hang out, watch TV, study, relax, have a party, etc. … Because so many use this center to support their communities on campus and off campus, it is wonderful that the center will finally have all the resources it deserves."

Still, Community House Director Marjorie Young said remaining sensitive to the ties many feel to the center's rich history has been a priority.

"We reviewed the history and explored how people would feel about taking that with us," Young said. "We took all those feelings into consideration, and we'll find ways to make that history live on in the new building."

A few students acknowledged initially being hesitant to let go of the current site, but said a review of the plans assured them that the move will further cement the center's place in the Princeton culture.

"After meeting with the architects and learning a lot more about the visions and the physical changes to be made, I am very excited for the move," junior Karen Bailey said. "The new facility will give the Fields Center a more accessible and open feel and will likely become a bigger part of the greater campus community."   

Omoye Imoisili, a junior who is a project coordinator at Community House, agreed that the fact that the new building is on Prospect Avenue alongside the eating clubs sends a clear message about how Community House and the Fields Center feel about "the importance of social justice, cultural understanding and being integrated into Princeton's community."

"We hope that being on Prospect, and in view of most students on campus, will encourage more students to get involved with our activities and engage in our service projects," Imoisili said.

When the Fields Center opens in its new location in fall of 2009, the current site at 86 Olden most likely will be used by the engineering school. A consultant is helping to determine the best use for that location.

The Fields Center continues to welcome input from groups who use the center about how the new space can accommodate their needs. E-mail should be sent to