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Into the light

The renovation of historic Dalton Hall will make it once again the most technologically advanced facility on campus, providing a home for the social sciences and two Centers, as well as flexible computer and multimedia  teaching rooms for general campus use.

December 2004: Dalton Hall, where you may have trained a white rat or taken anthropology classes, is caged in scaffolding, its roof and floors gone, the old staircase marooned.

When its doors opened in 1893, Dalton was one of the most innovative laboratories of its kind, representing Bryn Mawr’s commitment to science education for women. But 21st century students found the historic building “dank” and “scary,” and it did not meet modern codes and accessibility standards.

Dalton’s renovation, to be completed in the summer of 2006, will restablish it as the most technologically advanced facility on campus, “as if reconceived from the head of Athena,” said Associate Professor of Economics David Ross, who served on a committee of faculty and staff that worked with the architects, MGA Partners of Philadelphia.

Dalton will not only be a home for the social sciences, The Center for Ethnicities, Communities and Social Policy, and the Center for International Studies, but will also provide flexible computer and multimedia teaching rooms for general campus use.

“There will be a mix of classrooms and spaces used well beyond the 8-hour teaching day,” said Ross. The expansion of the building’s lower level to the west will connect teaching and meeting spaces to the College’s computing center in neighboring Eugenia Chase Guild Hall.

Begun last summer, the $15 million project addresses major goals for Bryn Mawr identified in The Plan for a New Century.

“What excited us about The Plan was that certain concepts, such as ‘social/academic hubs,’ ‘collaborative learning,’ ‘community building,’ ‘connections,’ really jump out if you’re contemplating physical spaces,” said Christopher Gluesing, College Architect and Assistant Director of Facilities for Planning and Projects.

Artist’s rendering of the view from the top level of Dalton’s glass stair tower.


One of the most exciting features of the project is an exterior glass-enclosed stair tower to be built at the campus-side entrance to Dalton.


Aerial view of model showing Dalton, upper right; Guild, left; and Pembroke West, lower right.

“Students and faculty shouldn’t have to seek one another out but should continually be bumping into one another,” said Ross. “The hallways of Thomas, from which economics, political science, and sociology will be moving, were narrow and noisy—not the best place for students to wait or for faculty to come together.

“I’ve also found myself in the situation, as a teacher, at the end of a class, when a student will have a question or make a comment that will stimulate an idea, but we have to get out of the room,” said Ross. “In Dalton, we’ll be able to go to a lounge that has a white board or turn to a kiosk with a computer. We can consult Information Services staff if we’re working with data analysis software.”

Chemical laboratory on the third floor of Dalton in 1895. The College sent photographs of Dalton interiors to be exhibited at the 1904 Lousiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis.

Historic significance

Because Dalton is an historic building, George E. Thomas, Ph.D., of George E. Thomas Associates, Inc., was asked to evaluate its significance and context for the Lower Merion Township Historical Commission. “It is one of the most remarkable college laboratory buildings of its day,” Thomas writes in his report.

The schist exterior, which will be repointed, is an amalgam of Collegiate Gothic and Victorian styles; the building’s originality lay in its interior use of contemporary industrial materials and construction.

The masonry and heavy timber structure, unplastered brick walls, and exposed piping were common in contemporary mill construction and would have been familiar to the industrial philanthropists who underwrote the building’s construction. It was thought that germs could easily be removed from unglazed brick by washing. Plumbing and piping systems were exposed so that they could be easily repaired, adding a modern look.

Thomas notes that the emphasis in Dalton on ventilation systems and on the design and placement of windows, typical of college laboratories that were built in the 1880s, shows the influence of the latest industrial practices and hospital design. Dalton’s mechanical ventilation system, however, with interior air shafts and electrical fans for removing fumes and gases was novel even for the time.

In the renovation, The Center for Ethnicities, Communities and Social Policy and the Center for International Studies will each have lecture, conference and office space on the second floor, with ready acccess to the anthropology, economics, political science and sociology departments, which will be pinning down office allocations later this winter.

Innovative spaces

The two large loft-like end wings of Dalton’s third floor originally held rooms that could be used as chemistry laboratories or subdivided for lecture halls or offices.

This flexibility anticipated modern lab design but was unusual at the time. The high ceiling, with wood and iron trusses, was left open for ventilation.

“We’re creating an interesting juxtaposition in these two historic spaces,” said Gluesing. “On one side there will be anthropology labs for teaching and research as well as a small gallery for items from the College’s Collections. Here, we will have the ‘tangible object’ that we believe is still relevant for a liberal arts education at Bryn Mawr. On the other side, we will integrate the most state-of-the-art instructional/ multimedia technology on campus. This side will function as a conference center, distance learning facility, smart classroom, and boardroom.”

‘The Lantern’

One of the most exciting features of the project is an exterior glass-enclosed stair tower to be built at the campus-side entrance to Dalton. It will rise from the basement to the third story of the building, with views of Taylor and beyond. (Two new interior fire-rated exit stairs also will be added.)

“We call it ‘The Lantern’,” said Project Architect Sarah Batcheler ’88 of MGA Partners. “There won’t be light pouring out of it, but it will glow.

“We needed a more welcoming, prominent and visible entrance. We also had to resolve, in the form of a tower, Dalton’s extreme symmetry and the asymmetrical approach to its entrance that faces towards campus. (Since the construction of Guild, Dalton has been tucked away from the main academic part of campus behind Guild and Pembroke.) Dalton is so symmetrical that it’s disorienting inside. In fact, the contractor has sprayed ‘N, W, S and E’ everywhere so workers don’t get confused.

Dalton’s basement floor was dropped 2 1/2 feet to make it level with Guild’s when they are connected.

“Finally, we wanted the stairwell to have some relation to the other buildings on campus, so we abstracted a form from the octagonal towers of Pembroke Arch, Rockefeller Arch, Radnor and Thomas. Then we folded the shape, cutting back triangles at certain points to allow light to come into the sides. It changes on each of the floor levels as you go up, so it is something that is active and responds to local conditions. The material is glass, a very slender curtain wall system from Germany that will be able to handle the complex geometries of the corners.” The cut back triangles of the tower will also echo the pitch of Dalton’s roofs and its trusses, reinforcing the role of the stair tower as a transformation of the building itself.

“Working on campus is great!” said Batcheler, who majored in Growth and Structure of Cities at Bryn Mawr. “To be able to contribute something to a place that means so much to me personally is really gratifying. I would be a cheerleader for the project no matter what, but the fact that it’s at Bryn Mawr means I care that much more that it be a good building.”

Housing the sciences

•  Dalton was named after British chemist and physicist John Dalton, a Quaker, who developed the atomic theory of matter and is known as one of the fathers of modern physical science.

•  Funding was available for the offering of only one science, chemistry, in Taylor, when the College opened in 1885. Biology soon followed. A temporary physics building was built in 1886-87 to accommodate students, but overcrowded classes were an increasing problem, and trustees continued to plan for a larger facility.

•  Dalton housed the three natural sciences that were offered at Bryn Mawr in the 1890s, with physics on the first floor and in the basement (where stone foundations could support delicate instruments), biology on the second floor, and chemistry on the third.

•  In 1893, The Bryn Mawr College Program reported that the Trustees had built Dalton to prepare students for The Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, which also opened in 1893. (Trustee of the College Mary E. Garrett had contributed a large sum to establish the School on the condition that it agree to admit women.)

• Psychology moved to Thomas Library in 1907, and chemistry and geology to the first wing of Park Science Center in 1939. Physics, math and biology moved to the new wing of Park in 1959, and psychology moved back to Dalton in 1960.

Looking ahead

As planning on the Dalton project reached its final stages, the faculty and staff committee became excited by the opportunities presented by the new link to Guild. Last fall, the campus community and Board of Trustees began discussion of an MGA Partners design proposal to extend the project into a renovation of Guild, in order to accommodate rapid changes in computing technology and the integration of academic support staff into Information Services. This broader project conceives of Dalton-Guild as a single collaborative learning complex.

To Ross, tackling Guild “is an obvious next step. The two buildings will already be connected and will have a combined central plant system, with the boilers in one building and the chillers in another. If Bryn Mawr decides to go forward with this extension of the project, we ccould leapfrog past the model of the ‘information commons’ touted by peer institutions, focusing attention on the ways faculty, students, and staff work and learn together.”

Anyone interested in learning more about opportunities to support this project should contact Martha Dean, Director of Development, at (610) 526-5121 or

Return to Spring 2005 Highlights


Dalton’s third floor as construction begins.





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