Readers Respond: Concerning Casa

Peter Robinson's complete response to a letter from Michael Blatt CdeP 1977 regarding the Casa dormitory upgrade.
It was with great disappointment that I opened the new issue of !acher Magazine and saw the rendering of what is to become of the Casa de Piedra dormitory. I have watched over the years as the campus I knew as a student has changed and grown to meet the evolving needs of the community, and while I have mixed feelings about some of the results, I have always appreciated the need for the School to move forward and not be shackled by its past. However, to see one of the last remaining of Austen Pierpont’s singular collection of work for the School altered in such a manner leaves me feeling that something fundamental has been lost. The entombment of Casa’s simple forms and unpretentious functionalism in such an encrustation of historicist bric-a-brac shows a deep lack of respect for this elegant example of California modernism. I never lived in the dorm and have no particular emotional attachment to it, but I have always respected its clear order and the relaxed sophistication of the way it is perched on the rolling lawn. If it can no longer serve the needs of the School, then so be it, but to learn so little from its excellent example is truly regrettable.

Michael Blatt CdeP 1977

Editor’s Response: Assistant Head of School Peter Robinson, a member of the Architectural Review Committee and !acher’s resident art historian, responded to Michael with a thoughtful explanation of the new project:
Dear Michael,
Thank you for your note expressing concern over the plans for the new Casa. I can certainly understand your sense that the campus has changed over the years. I still hear laments from alumni who visit and comment on the loss of “our dirt” campus, which has been receding, in fact, for over forty years now. It is a truth that the sleepy little regional school that was Thacher (kind of like the sleepy regional area known as Southern California before World War II) is no more, and part of that change is reflected in the architecture and the landscaping, something we could say about Southern California as well.
Austen Pierpont’s architecture is of its day, and the evocation of a quaint, rustic rural California that it created is pleasantly nostalgic. As a member of the Architectural Review Committee, I was excited to take down Pierpont’s old auditorium, with its poor line of sight for productions and its misleading acoustics and replace it with our current theater and student commons. His lovely low profile, the iconic arched ceiling, and the great window that looked down into the valley are gone, but the new buildings preserve his love of wood and as well as strongly emphasized views of Twin Peaks and the valley. Inside the Commons, there is an informative plaque, replete with vintage photographs, that commemorates the old auditorium, some of its notable productions, and Austen Pierpont.
Even with the renovation of Casa, Thacher still possesses a number of Pierpont buildings. I live in one which was known in the old days as Cob Cottage, a reference to the large number of spiders that love to inhabit its rafters. It served as the home for the Head of School before a more functional home was added in 1970. It dates from 1938 and possesses his distinctive uneven ceiling line. Its Spanish revivalist style is a bit anachronistic, and the School has had to enlarge it over the years, but it remains an attractive and functional house. His other homes, with their open floor plans and commitment to uniting the inside with the outside through glass walls and decking, are scattered over the campus.
The plans for Casa are now almost complete, with only some issues of screening and of accommodating needs for handicapped access to deal with. In order to avoid taking down a number of heritage oak trees and avoiding the risk of relocating the dorm on a different part of the site and therefore spending a lot of money on grading and removing the inevitable giant rocks that lie just under the surface everywhere on the campus, we decided to use the original footprint of the dorm. This decision also allowed us to define the project as a renovation (as we did with Middle School a few years ago) rather than a reconstruction (as was the case with Lower School and the Hill projects). This direction also allows for a simpler and more direct process in dealing with the county. The original dorm suffered from design problems that restricted light and air circulation, which have been major concerns. The use of clerestory windows along the roof line will make a significant difference and are related to Pierpont’s interest in connecting outdoor and indoor spaces, an issue that has been reinforced by adding new outdoor meeting areas to the east and enlarging the major outdoor meeting area to the west. The Common Room has been enlarged so that the students can meet comfortably and have space to cook. We have added extra space for day students and for a study area, which reflects our decision to do away with mass study halls and place in the individual dorms sufficient room for supervised study. Structural problems that have cropped up over the years, including very poor drainage and largely irreparable issues with the showers and the toilets, have also been addressed.
I would like to think that in replacing Pierpont’s original structure, we have taken much that was there, made accommodation to what was needed and was not there, and created a building that both proclaims its difference but, in its position and its essential shape, asserts its connection. It is, I think, a bolder building, less simple but no less elegant in its attempt both to enclose the space (note the encircling arms of the north and south wings that surround the deck and back lawn) and to open the rooms through decking and clerestories to views of the outside world.
My two cents, anyway. I hope you and the family are doing well.
Peter Robinson
Assistant Head of School


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