College Landmark Embarks On Yet Another Life

Approaching its third century, St. John’s College McDowell Hall is upgraded to meet current standards.

St. John’s College dedicated McDowell Hall in 1789. It served as the college’s multipurpose academic and administrative building well into the 19th century.

Following a devastating 1909 fire, the St. John’s College yearbook predicted it was “taps” for the college’s historic McDowell Hall that dated from the late 1700s. Dedicated students and faculty were determined to rebuild, sparking the first of several renovations the structure would receive into the current century.

Located on a tree-covered hill between King George Street and College Avenue in the heart of historic Annapolis, MD, the latest improvements will help McDowell remain the focal point of St. John’s campus as well as a classical venue for hosting community events. The building reopened to students and faculty in late March 2018.

McDowell’s Great Hall, with new heart-pine flooring, sconce lighting, and refreshed finishes, hosts seminars, concerts, social engagements, community activities, and academic ceremonies. New all-glass basement vestibules were installed.

The renovation team consisted of Cole & Denny Architects, Alexandria, VA (; Advanced Project Management Inc., Chantilly, VA (; Vantage Construction Corp., Sterling, VA (; and Potomac Energy Group, Falls Church, VA (, MEP engineer of record.

Enhancements throughout the 23,000-sq.-ft. five-floor building included:

Looking down the east stair, new heart-pine flooring is seen on the lowest level and refinished floors on the other levels.

• A new Otis Elevator Co., Palm Beach Gardens, FL (, “roomless” traction elevator connecting basement and first floor, replaced an existing elevator that was not ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) compliant. Enlarging the elevator shaft was a major undertaking.

• The existing restrooms likewise were upgraded to be ADA compliant, and ADA water fountains were installed in the basement and first floor. Porcelain tiles from Dal-Tile Corp, Dallas ( were used in the restrooms.

• Vestibules were revamped with all-glass storefronts from Oldcastle Building Envelope, Dallas (, and CR Laurence Inc., Los Angeles (

• The existing constant-air-volume HVAC system was replaced with a variable-volume system from Trane, Davidson, NC (, which allows individual temperature control in the seminar rooms as well as better energy efficiency, air handling, and climate control. Getting the mechanical equipment into the attic was a challenge. The contractor cut a hole in the ceiling of the east stair to hoist the equipment into position.

• Flooring on the first level was replaced with Wellborn + Wright, Richmond, VA (, reclaimed heart-pine flooring. Floors on other levels were refinished.

• New Decoustics, Woodbridge, ON (, acoustical ceiling and wall panels were installed in classrooms.

• Existing florescent and incandescent lighting was replaced by LED lighting systems.

A typical teaching space in McDowell, this classroom features a brick fireplace and a new dropped ceiling with Decoustics acoustical tiles.

“It is rewarding to work on a building steeped in such history and heritage,” said C&D’s Louie Barbieri, AIA, who served as project architect. “Our project team successfully upgraded McDowell to a level where its future potential will be met while retaining its historic character. Building on previous structural improvements, our goal was to ensure that McDowell remains a productive and pleasing environment for current and future generations of students, faculty, and alumni.”

As with any historic renovation, there were inherent challenges, from developing a collective vision by multiple stakeholders to ensuring that renovations conformed to historic guidelines in the heart of a city founded in 1649. “The project team identified challenges early in the design process and worked with various stakeholders to develop the best solutions,” Barbieri added. “For instance, building codes requiring the HVAC system to provide make-up fresh air and relief interior air necessitated installation of a louver on the building’s exterior. Working with engineers, college administrators, and the Annapolis Historic Preservation Commission, we were able to determine the most unobtrusive location to install this louver just below the bell tower.”

New ductwork and HVAC equipment in the attic was hoisted through a hole cut in the ceiling of the east stair and configured to accommodate the building’s heavy timbers.

“Serving as a focal point of the college, McDowell Hall’s improved accessibility and energy-saving features give it a new lease on life for hosting seminars, concerts, social engagements, community activities, and academic ceremonies. Many of those functions take place in its Great Hall, a stately colonial room complete with chandeliers and a cantilevered second floor balcony,” said Tim Leahy, IT director for St. John’s. “The architects, engineers, and contractors have increased this building’s operational performance for years to come,” he added.

Total construction cost was $3.5 million, facilitated by a grant from the Maryland Independent College and University Association (MICUA). MICUA grants allow private educational institutions to apply for appropriation grants every three years.

“Approaching its third century, these significant improvements should help McDowell Hall maintain its status as the emblematic structure of our historic campus,” Leahy said.

New restrooms were designed to be ADA compliant.

History Of McDowell Hall

Originally known as “Bladen’s Folly,” McDowell Hall was initially planned as an official residence for Thomas Bladen, Maryland’s proprietary governor. Bladen’s swift departure from office in the mid-18th century interrupted the building’s intended purpose and its construction. Only a foundation and exterior brick walls existed when St. John’s College purchased the property in the 1780s. Ironically, a state government connection would remain. As McDowell took shape, it would share several stylistic similarities with Maryland’s iconic statehouse, another nearby Georgian-style structure, both showcasing pediments with oval-shaped windows over opposite entryways, an octagonal cupola base topped with a bell tower, and a hipped-inclined roof.

St. John’s College officially dedicated McDowell Hall in November 1789. It was immediately pressed into service as classrooms, dormitory, dining hall, infirmary, and administrative offices. It would serve as the college’s multipurpose academic and administrative building well into the 19th century, save for temporary requisition in the 1860s by Union troops during the Civil War.

Learn about St. John’s College.

Get information about Cole & Denny Architects.

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