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Frances Daley Fergusson:
Creating a campus that inspires
Interviewed by John Peter Radulski


Photograph by Will Fallero

Since becoming president of Vassar College in 1986, architectural historian Frances Daley Fergusson has spearheaded a campaign to enhance the school’s 1,000-acre campus in Poughkeepsie, New York, which boasts buildings by Eero Saarinen, Marcel Breuer, and Cesar Pelli, among others. Fergusson graduated from Wellesley College and earned master’s and doctoral degrees in art history from Harvard. She has taught at the University of Massachusetts Boston, where she chaired both the urban studies and American civilization programs, and was a provost and vice president at Bucknell University.

 

Q: How do the new projects and campus improvements you’ve overseen contribute to the learning experience of Vassar students?

When I arrived, the campus grounds were rather shabby. Students seemed to go from their dormitories directly to the library, or classrooms, or the dining hall. There weren’t a lot of outdoor spaces where students would congregate. We’ve upgraded many areas on campus to suit this purpose, while also renovating these destination buildings and constructing new ones. All these efforts contribute to the social and intellectual life of everyone in the campus community.

Cesar Pelli completed the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center at Vassar in 1993. What prompted you to hire him for the Center for Drama and Film, completed last year?

He was a dream to work with on the art center—he saw the design process as a collaborative effort between himself, the client, and the art faculty. And that building has functioned nearly perfectly, and has actually exceeded our expectations. The center is beautiful and very contextual with the adjacent Romanesque- and Gothic-style buildings. The Center for Drama and Film was to be built in an area of the campus that had no real architectural identity. He made very clear references to Breuer’s Ferry House, a 1908 Arts and Crafts–style house by Lewis Pilcher, and other buildings nearby. The project speaks strongly to Modernism at the turn of the previous century [Pilcher], midcentury [Breuer], and the present [Pelli]. Now this part of the campus makes visual and architectural sense as it never did before.

What facilities are next in line for improvement?

Kenyon Hall [a gymnasium built in 1933 by Allen & Collens] is undergoing a massive renovation by Gluckman Mayner Architects. New classrooms will be created, as well as a space for the Vassar Repertory Dance Theatre. This project will be the culmination of a campus program to create new and renovated purpose-specific art and performance facilities.

Is there one particular detail about Vassar’s campus that excites you the most?

I love the diversity of architecture here. There are many large buildings done in different styles, all mediated by the grandeur of the landscape. Vassar is a registered arboretum with more than 200 species of trees. In many ways, the campus reflects the students that Vassar attracts—interesting and diverse.

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