Joanna Drell, the new chair for the University of Richmond history department, sits in her office in the basement of Ryland Hall. Just outside, a small mountain of medieval textbooks lies scattered on a table – excess books that she and the rest of the history department need to get rid of before the end of the semester.
This is because Ryland Hall is due for a renovation, one that for many faculty members cannot come soon enough. In her 18 years working in Ryland, Drell has had four different offices.
“It has always been in the university consciousness to renovate Ryland Hall,” Drell said. “This building has been falling apart since I arrived.”
According to Drell and other UR faculty, although Ryland was last renovated in 1990, another renovation became necessary after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Because of its lack of an elevator, Ryland does not comply with ADA standards.
Faculty members working in Ryland said renovation plans had finally begun to manifest themselves, as the architectural plans for the renovation have been finalized and construction is set to begin at the conclusion of the fall semester.
At this time, all the faculty members who call Ryland home will be moved to Sarah Brunet Hall for the following 18 months while renovations take place.
Faculty members are expected to leave Ryland in December after final exams, and immediately the challenge of the renovation will begin. Drell and English department chair David Stevens said any books that faculty members wished to keep had to be hand-scrubbed page by page due to mold before making the trip to Sarah Brunet. Faculty members also cannot bring furniture.
For many professors, though, the renovation is well worth the challenge and wait.
“The building we have seen the plans for … it’s awesome,” Drell said. “It’s not just about an elevator. There is common space. There is space for English and history to have gatherings.”
Stevens shared in Drell’s enthusiasm.
“Facilities has been very good about soliciting faculty input,” he said. “It’s impossible to do everything, there are limitations, but in as much as they can, they’ve given everything we’ve asked for, and maybe a little more.”
It was important to Stevens and the rest of the English department to maintain Ryland’s famous Great Hall. The Great Hall, which served as UR’s original library and now houses English offices, has fascinated students for generations with its unique dark oak interior design.
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Stevens, surrounded by his own collection of books destined for storage around his desk, spoke of a deep interest in maintaining the character of the Great Hall. After all, out of the 15 years of Stevens’ tenure at UR, 14 of them have been spent in the same office in Great Hall.
For both Stevens and Drell, a big change they both expressed interest in was the possibility of the philosophy and classical studies departments to be moved from the academic wing of North Court – which is due for renovation as well – into the expanded, renovated Ryland Hall. Although nothing has been decided yet, if this were to happen, Ryland would house the vast majority of humanities on campus, Drell said.
“It would be an identity!” Drell said, “We’re fantasizing here, … but [a merging of humanities classes] became a lot more realistic when suddenly they’re talking about bringing in classical studies and philosophy.”
Talk of Ryland’s current identity has been at the forefront recently as students and faculty members alike grapple with the building’s namesake, Robert Ryland -- the first president of UR, a Baptist minister and a slave owner.
For students like junior AJ Polcari, Ryland's renovation goes beyond air conditioning and walls. These students believe the name of the building itself must be changed.
Polcari, a Richmond College Student Government Association senator, along with Westhampton College Government Association senator Caroline Schiavo, class of 2020, introduced a joint resolution last semester which "[i]nsists that the University change the names of Freeman and Ryland Hall."
“Now is the time that we need to reconcile ourselves with this,” Polcari said. “If we don’t make these changes to the system with the naming of the buildings … we’re not going to ever grow as a community.”
The controversy of Ryland Hall’s name and the names of other buildings such as Freeman Hall -- named after "Lost Cause" proponent Douglas Southall Freeman -- led to an investigation from University President Ronald A. Crutcher’s Presidential Commission on University History and Identity.
This commission was co-chaired by President Emeritus Edward Ayers and Laurenett Lee, a visiting lecturer at the Jepson School of Leadership Studies.
The University History and Identity commission released its final report in June. In the report, the commission recommended to Crutcher that he should “consider forming a memorialization and commemoration working group” in the spring of 2020. This working group itself would then make recommendations on the possible renaming of Ryland.
Renaming Ryland would be not be straightforward. There is no formal system at UR for the naming or renaming of buildings. But students like Polcari are undeterred.
“We view this as a wrong,” he said, “and we are going to pursue it … this university has to be okay with being uncomfortable with the situation because these discussions are uncomfortable.”
The call to change Ryland’s name has also gained the attention of the professors who call the building home.
“If there were a different name when we came back, I would not be heartbroken,” Stevens said. “I don’t think any of this is something you want to rush. I think you want to be seen doing your intellectual, academic and ethical due diligence.”
When asked about the name, Drell struck a contemplative tone.
“[A]s a member of the history department, I’ll be really curious to see what happens with all of this," she said. "This is an interesting issue. I don’t know what the answer is being a Richmonder now and a member of this building.”
The Ryland renovations are scheduled to be completed for fall semester 2021.
Contact features writer Spencer Yacos at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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