New home for Fields Center, Community House a beacon for multicultural education and social opportunities

When establishing their new home at 58 Prospect Ave., Princeton University's Fields Center and Community House staff decided to make it a beacon for multicultural education and social opportunities within the University campus and local community.

While physically located just across the street from their old building at 86 Olden St., the new facility is miles away in offering larger, more visible and dynamic space for the work supported by the two organizations. The new building was designed to enhance and expand the Fields Center and Community House and to help make their programs more accessible.

After more than a year of construction and renovation work, the opening of the facility was marked Thursday, Sept. 17, at a public celebration featuring President Shirley M. Tilghman, Vice President for Campus Life Janet Dickerson, Fields Center Director Makeba Clay and Dora Chua, a Princeton senior and Fields Center student program manager. A separate public open house to celebrate Community House's 40th anniversary is scheduled for Saturday, Sept. 19.

"This will be such an integral part of our community," Tilghman said at the opening event. "I fully expect that the Fields Center and Community House will continue to do what both have done so well for so many years, which is to provide students with opportunities for service ..., to provide them with places to celebrate diversity and to celebrate differences, and to see those as enriching rather than limiting."

Designed by Ann Beha Architects of Boston, the 18,800-square-foot facility pairs the restored Elm Club building with a contemporary 5,000-square-foot addition. The architectural integration of old and new, coupled with new amenities and the pulse of activities inside the building, will bring vitality to the historic corner of Prospect Avenue and Olden Street, according to University leaders.

"The goal is to have a vibrant, inclusive space that is hospitable and welcoming to all," Dickerson said. "The elegant architecture of the building will be a distinctive and inviting addition to Prospect Avenue. I expect that students will be drawn in, both to investigate the interior spaces and also to participate in the programming offered by the Fields Center and Community House."

Updated seminar rooms, intimate social spaces, additional dedicated student organization offices and areas wired for new media are some of the building's new amenities.

Clay said Fields Center students and staff are excited about the prominence and openness of the new building, which will support its mission to promote diverse experiences on campus through training, social programming, service and experiential learning efforts. The center continues to develop a national model that empowers members of the campus community to become effective global citizens.

"The Fields Center strives to represent the best of what Princeton has to offer as a center of excellence for multicultural education, and we now have a building that will help bring more students into the center and build new relationships with groups on and off campus," Clay said.

The building marks the first time in Community House's 40-year history that a dedicated space was designed for the organization's use. A tutoring center has been created on the third floor for the student service organization.

"It is my hope that the variety of programming and opportunities that the Fields Center and Community House offers will attract students from all over campus and encourage them to pursue various forms of civic engagement," said Princeton junior Reginald Galloway, student program coordinator for the Fields Center and head of the student advisory board that helped guide the center's transition into the new facility.

Open design, many uses

The open and light-filled design of 58 Prospect Ave. is intended to break down walls -- physical and figurative.

The former facility on Olden Street was surrounded by a brick wall that obscured it from the street. Leaders hope the new building standing prominently on the corner will encourage more students to participate in programs offered at the facility, and entice others to take advantage of the resources available through the Fields Center and Community House.

"The design sets openness and accessibility as its priority, and creates a dialogue between old and the new -- joining a decidedly contemporary addition to a restored landmark," said Ann Beha, president of Ann Beha Architects. "Our goal and result is a building more than the sum of its parts. Our decisions about materials, craft and sustainability were driven by the uniqueness of the original building and the mission of Princeton's Fields Center and Community House."

Clay said the building will further the message that the Fields Center is a place for all students. "If you are interested in becoming culturally competent, if you are interested in becoming a leader who values diversity and community, then this is the place for you to grow, learn from and share your perspective with others," she said.

The building, which in the past operated as a dining and social club for upperclassmen with alternating periods of success and closure, was acquired by the University in 1997. Work on renovating the structure included an exterior restoration to its original Italianate revival style with new stucco and cast stone details, as well as an interior renovation of the original three-story building.

Two wings on the sides of the building were removed, and an addition to the north side was constructed.

The addition includes an event space for social gatherings featuring large windows, wood-paneled walls of Douglas fir, and a dark wood floor designed for musical performances, lectures, banquets and conferences. The addition is connected to the restored building by a welcoming lobby, which also serves as a gallery and offers access to the lawn and terrace. Also included in the new space are a catering kitchen and accessible restrooms.

"The repurposing of an unused, dilapidated building posed a special opportunity for a creative architect to give new life to what had become a dull and lifeless corner," said Jon Hlafter, University architect emeritus, who oversaw the project. "The whole design is barrier-free, inside and out, an advantage never possible at the former venue. The difference will be especially apparent at night when the new addition will act like a beacon."

The interior was designed to accommodate a mix of functions, and to leave room for growth.

"Flexibility was the first word we heard when starting this project, and we've tried to hold that throughout so it's the last word on the project," said Dale Edghill, project manager in the University's Office of Design and Construction.

The project also was designed for environmental sustainability, and included restoring and increasing the historic landscape along Prospect Avenue and Olden Street with the addition of new magnolia trees and other native plantings. New mechanical systems -- as well as a restored building envelope featuring high performance insulation, windows and a seamless air barrier -- promote energy efficiency. Building products containing recyclable content, such as linoleum floors made from renewable products of linseed oil and jute , and low-emitting paints, adhesives and flooring also were used.

Fields Center focus

The new facility will enable the Fields Center to augment its educational and social programs, which focus on its priority areas of empowerment, understanding, social justice and leadership.

"Our goal is to provide a supportive environment outside of the classroom to help students become effective world leaders by learning about themselves and those who may be different from them," Clay said.

Plans for new offerings can be found on the Field Center's new website and include: collaborations with the University's Writing Program courses that will meet in the building's seminar room; an expansion of the center's artist-in-residence program; an expansion of its social justice documentary screenings and discussions; weekly late night performances from emerging artists; and monthly ethnic food tastings co-sponsored with the student organization Flavor.

The center also will take advantage of its new gallery space to promote art that draws attention to social injustice, history and cultural awareness. Its proposed inaugural exhibit will feature work by Chicago artist and scholar Nnenna Okore that will highlight socio-economic disparities, sustainable development and environmental conservation in West Africa.

One of the biggest improvements is the larger areas available to the more than 30 student programs and other campus and alumni groups supported by the center.

In addition to the events space and lobby, rooms on the first floor include café seating, a library and formal sitting areas in a vibrant color scheme that provide spaces for fireside chats, speakers or movie screenings that are typical of the center's regular activities. The second floor houses administrative offices for the Fields Center and for student programs housed at the center.

"I hope the new building will be a destination for students to hold social events, meetings or just hang out," said Chua, who also is senior coordinator for the Princeton University Mentoring Program. "The mentoring program certainly anticipates taking advantage of the variety of spaces that the new facility offers, from administrative meetings to training activities to mentor-mentee bonding events."

Clay and student leaders anticipate that the building will become a frequently used social venue, they said. Students are planning to organize regular Thursday night performances by up-and-coming musicians followed by a dance party. The organizers plan to alternate the event location between the Fields Center and the newly opened Campus Club at the corner of Prospect Avenue and Washington Road. 

"Like Campus Club at the other end of Prospect Avenue, the Fields Center at 58 Prospect will add a new dimension of social activity to campus life," Dickerson said.

The Fields Center began as the Third World Center, established in 1971 to provide a social, cultural and political environment serving the needs of students of color on campus. Its name was changed to the Carl A. Fields Center for Equality and Cultural Understanding in July 2002 to reflect the center's evolving mission to broaden dialogue among all members of the campus community about interracial and cross-cultural matters. The center is named in honor of the late Carl Fields, who came to Princeton in 1964 and became the first African American dean in the Ivy League in 1968.

Senior Eric Plummer, a member of the Fields Center Student Advisory Board, said the new building's modern look and its location on 'The Street' -- as Prospect Avenue is known -- puts the Fields Center in plain sight of all students.

"I hope the facility will transform the way students look at the center," he said.

 Community House finds a home

Most recently occupying space in the old Fields Center building on Olden Street, Community House will benefit from its location in the new facility with new offices, a computer cluster, quiet tutoring space, a small kitchenette and work space for student volunteers.

"We are rolling out a new set of programs this fall that would not have been conceivable without the new building," Community House Director Marjorie Young said. "Having our own space gave us the liberty to think about changing the scope of our program and becoming more creative in meeting the needs of the community."

Where student volunteers previously used off-site or rotating campus locations for tutoring, Community House will now offer regular on-site programs and expand its tutoring hours from 3 to 9 p.m. each weekday. The organization -- whose mission is to close the minority achievement gap in Princeton Borough and Township by providing programs that bolster early childhood literacy, promote the mastery of fundamental academic skills and create early awareness of post-secondary opportunities for underserved minority youth -- hopes to recruit about 100 Princeton student volunteers to provide academic support to 30 middle school and 30 high school students.

"This supports our mission to close the minority achievement gap in Princeton because we can provide daily support to help local students master fundamental skills in reading, math and science," Young said. "It also furthers our goal to push students to excel academically and to become accomplished, motivated scholars."

By coming to the building every day, local school children and their parents also will interact with the campus community. A student may view an exhibit in the lobby or see a poster about a Fields Center event that they would like to attend.

Young hopes the changes will make it easier for University students to volunteer.

"Since the majority of Community House volunteers will no longer need to travel to our community partners' facilities, this provides more flexibility with students' schedules so they can fit service opportunities into their day," Young said.

Two staff members from the University's Pace Center who work closely with Community House also will move to administrative offices in the building, while the Pace Center will continue to retain its office in Frist Campus Center. Community House is a program of the Pace Center, the University's central resource for civic engagement.

In addition to students, Community House is encouraging faculty, staff, alumni and community members to become volunteers.

"The new space will entice community partners, parents of Community House participants, local volunteers and other friends to visit campus and interact with members of the University community more frequently," Young said.