June 11, 2023

NORTHAMPTON, Mass. – Renovating a historic building is rarely easy, whether it’s a Brooklyn brownstone or, in this case, the $ 120 million overhaul of Smith College’s centuries-old Neilson Library. As any architect can attest, the emotionally connected owners of a venerable building can be far more difficult to manage than the actual construction. But all the reservations Maya Lin had after being hired by Smith in 2015 to redesign the 200,000-square-foot Neilson fell away as soon as she stepped through the front door. With a laugh, she remembered her reaction back then: “This will be easy because it’s so bad!”

Three rounds of previous additions to the library’s original structure from 1909 – the heart of the campus near the Berkshires and designed in 1893 by Frederick Law Olmsted, chief architect of Manhattan’s Central Park – had seen the Neilson turn into an eyesore. On a recent visit to the newly remodeled library, 61-year-old Lin stood in front of his front staircase and pointed to where huge wings had been placed on either side, effectively walling off two halves of the school’s extensive lawns. It was worse inside. “They had mezzanines seven and a half feet tall,” she said as we entered. “You came in and saw feet!”

The mezzanines are gone now, as are the wings blocking the view. They have been replaced by two smaller, recessed, window-filled extensions, bringing the 1909 facade of the Neilson back to its original meaning. And Smith’s special collections, which were previously spread across different locations on campus, have now all been moved to an air-conditioned area.

After the Neilson’s renovation was complete and the doors were due to reopen to students on March 29th, this would be a moment of professional triumph for Lin in a practice that blends art and architecture, at the Museum of Chinese in America at the Downtown Manhattan to the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Ala., Back to their 1981 public debut with the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the aesthetic power of which continues to draw emotional crowds in Washington, DC

Still, Lin wasn’t in the mood for a winning round. On January 25, her almost 25-year-old husband Daniel Wolf died of a sudden heart attack. The couple and their two daughters India, 23 and Rachel, 21, had all been to their home in rural Colorado together. “Nobody expected it,” said Lin. “It was just one of those things that literally came out of the blue. And we’re all like “- she lowered her voice to a stunned whisper -” what? “

Wolf was 65 years old, a calm – if deeply influential – force in the world of photography. He began in the 1970s as a dealer and put together what is arguably the best collection of photographs in the world for the J. Paul Getty Museum and as a collector in his own right, whose personal holdings have made the curators swoon. Ten of his 19th-century daguerreotypes were awarded to the Metropolitan Museum of Art for an exhibition illuminating urban landscapes by Joseph-Philibert Girault de Prangey – a symmetry Lin said her husband particularly loved. He began his career in 1976 by bringing a suitcase of photos onto the sidewalk in front of the Met and selling vintage prints to passers-by.

The Giraults are just a fraction of a now sprawling collection that fills the Yonkers City’s former prison, bought by Lin and Wolf and turned into an archive and private showroom. One employee is still busy cataloging and documenting all of these photos – they could hardly catch up as Wolf kept coming back with new acquisitions that he’d dumped in storage units in New York over the years. One prison cell – its bars still exist – is filled only with pre-war albums of personal photography bought decades ago at Parisian flea markets. Another contains mammoth plates from the American West of the 19th century, picked up by Carleton Watkins and William Henry Jackson.

“Every day when he was in a candy store like a kid, he discovered something he had forgotten,” Lin said. The organization of this work of art continues, as does Lin’s own. With her “Ghost Forest,” an installation dramatizing climate change slated to open in New York City’s Madison Square Park in May, she said she decided to go back to the northeast and get back into her work. But surely no one would allow her a long period of private mourning?

“I gave myself three weeks with the kids without anything else,” she explained, thinking it would be therapeutic to get busy then. To make the transition easier, her daughters had traveled with her from Colorado to her home in New York City; Rachel had taken her to Smith that day. Not that Lin didn’t worry about this sudden re-immersion in public life. “It’s hard to be back,” she added with a slight quiver in her voice. “It’s really hard right now.”

These are difficult days for Smith College, too. The pandemic has closed their campus and put their classes online. The campus staff were concerned and faculty members were faced with austerity measures. Although some students have returned to live in the dormitories this spring, life on campus outside of the Zoom classes seems hollow.

There is also painful reverberation from a 2018 campus incident where race and class overlap, the New York Times reported last month. One student said she was racially profiled while eating in a locked dormitory lounge. An outside examination revealed no evidence of bias. But feelings and accusations between faculty, students, and staff remain raw. Accordingly, Smith’s President Kathleen McCartney was thrilled to have the new Neilson Library as something that the entire school could gather around. “I think the grand opening will just lift everyone’s spirits,” said McCartney.

Lin seemed equally inspired as he toured the library. It led the way to a roof terrace, which offered a breathtaking view of the surrounding mountains and pointed out important details. Large upstairs windows, located near the treetops, had an ultraviolet belt pattern – invisible to human eyes, but not to flying birds, which might otherwise crash into the clear glass. Bird watchers also had a convenient nesting spot, with plenty of window frames large enough to climb into. “People will sleep here,” Lin said with a chuckle, remembering her long days – and longer nights – studying at Yale, where, as a 21-year-old senior citizen, she suggested 1,420 competing proposals for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. “I know because I was one of those people.”

Most importantly, books of ink and paper still line the walls and fill the piles in the basement. There may be an on-site coffee shop, common areas, and the latest digital tools wired throughout the property. However, these features are available in addition to quiet places for individual scholarships. In fact, the new specialty collections area offers 40,000 archival linear feet. It contains the hand-corrected novels of the Mortimer Rare Book Collection by Virginia Woolf and poems by Sylvia Plath, as well as the Sophia Smith collection on women’s history, which, in addition to those of, also contains the personal documents of activists from Emma Goldman to Gloria Steinem, less prominent but equally important Personalities like Joan E. Biren, who began indelibly photographing lesbian personal lives in the 1970s.

“Even if there are newer ways they teach through the collections here, you’re still in a book house,” Lin said. “Ultimately, a library has to be about reading. I don’t and never will read on an iPad. Maybe I’m wrong, maybe I’m a dinosaur. But I still feel the beauty of a book, I still believe in that beauty. “

Lin sat for a moment in an otherwise empty meeting room and was asked again why this Neilson project felt so urgent and why she had left Colorado so soon. After all, her architecture partner William Bialosky, as well as the Shepley Bulfinch design firm she worked with, were sure to oversee any final changes.

“I owe my existence to Smith,” she replied bluntly. “I owe you everything.”

She told the story of her mother, Julia Lin, who was attending college in Shanghai in May 1949 when Mao Zedong’s communist army was besieging the city. On the day Mao’s forces invaded Shanghai, Julia received a scholarship to move to Smith in the fall – if she could get there. That August, her father had her smuggled out of the country in a fishing boat with two $ 10 bills and her letter of approval sewn into a dress collar when bombs fell over them and pirates were crossing port to rob the refugees at sea . It was a month before she finally made it through the Nationalist Army lines, sailed south to Hong Kong, and finally got here in Northampton. But once on campus, Lin said her mother thrived, graduating in 1951, and then doing her PhD. in Chinese Language and Literature from the University of Washington. There she met a Chinese refugee student and married him. Both became professors at Ohio University.

“If she hadn’t got that scholarship to go to Smith, she wouldn’t have gotten out of China,” Lin continued, “which means she wouldn’t have met my father. Poof! In an instant I don’t exist. “She remembered accompanying her mother to an alumni meeting in Smith in 1993, where she received an honorary doctorate. “She just beamed. My mom passed away in 2013, and I really wish she were alive to see this now. “

She paused and added, “In architecture, it’s rare to bring it home when a project and client are so closely related to your life story.” As Lin left, she held out her arm with an open palm; Her daughter Rachel slipped her own hand seamlessly into her mother’s without missing a blow.