When the now silent and empty Columbia and Wood halls on the Stephens College campus are filled again with the bustle of college students in August 2007, it will be the sound of success.
Both halls were closed when Stephens’ enrollment shrunk, and the halls were no longer needed for housing. Now, as more students are signing on and space is running short, Columbia and Wood are slated for rehabilitation to make room for the college’s expanding enrollment.
Work on the dorms comes at a time when Stephens is rebuilding its academic program.
“Part of rebuilding is growing the enrollment, and growing the enrollment means having a place for students to stay,” said Wendy Libby, president of Stephens College.
Libby was hired in July 2003 to help reverse the college’s drop in enrollment. In October 2004, a Stephens committee unveiled a five-year “Renaissance Plan” to help increase interest in, and financially stabilize, the college whose enrollment has increased steadily for the past two-and-a-half years. The number of residential students went up 20 percent between 2003 and 2005.
Columbia Hall, unoccupied for more than 10 years, has been used occasionally for a haunted house around Halloween or as an urban search and rescue training site for the Columbia Fire Department. Wood Hall has been used as housing for visiting professors. Heat and electricity have been turned off to Columbia, and both halls are in need of a makeover.
Shannon Walls, a Stephens’ alumna who lived in Room 405 of Columbia Hall during part of her stay at Stephens in the early ’90s, recently had the opportunity to see Columbia Hall in its current condition.
“It’s in dire need of some tender loving care,” Walls said.
Columbia and Wood halls are on the National Register of Historic Places, so many of the major features of the buildings will be preserved.
“We will keep the most important historic features, so that it conveys the time and place,” said Debbie Sheals, the historic preservation consultant for Stephens College.
There will be few noticeable changes to the exterior of the buildings.
“The outside of the buildings are going to be cleaner and shinier,” Sheals said. She also said that the Georgian Revival cornice that once graced Columbia Hall will be recreated.
Inside, where the major changes will take place, kitchens will be added in Columbia Hall to transform single-person dorm rooms into two- and four-bedroom apartments. Elevators will be installed to make the building more accessible. The original hall ceilings will be revealed after the removal of the lower, dropped-ceilings. Windows on the bottom floors will be restored, while the higher, more damaged windows will be replaced.
General maintenance will be necessary to address electrical, plumbing and mechanical needs and heating and air conditioning. Plans are also in place to upgrade and redo carpeting, floors, paint and lighting. The buildings will also undergo wall treatments and roof repair.
Stephens is working with developer Pioneer Group from Topeka, Kan. The project, which will cost an estimated $10 million, is already under way.
“We are really looking forward to it. We think it’s an exciting project,” Ross Freeman, president of Pioneer Group.
Sally Abromovich, an alumna who lived in Columbia during her freshman year at Stephens in 1966-67, was pleased to see the college working on the dorm.
”It was sad to see it in such disrepair,” Abromovich said. “I’m thrilled to hear that they’re doing renovations.”