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Marsh Hall, MSCBA in Landscape Architecture
December 05, 2014


Call it a trammeled tabula rasa: The 20-acre parcel of lifeless dirt marked the footprint of a former Sylvania manufacturing complex on the edge of a salt marsh in Salem, Massachusetts. Before closing in the late 1980s, the lightbulb plant had operated around the clock for the better part of six decades. For Salem State University, a former commuter college seeking to expand its residential capacity, the left-behind land was prime real estate.

"Smarter people before us took all the good sites," jokes Edward Adelman, the executive director of the quasi-public Massachusetts State College Building Authority, which coordinates strategic planning for capital improvements to state universities and community colleges with the state government.

Because most of these institutions grew up in old industrial cities where any open space is rare, Adelman and officials at Salem State were quick to recognize the factory footprint as an opportunity to build out the university's central campus, which is embedded in a thickly settled neighborhood. The university specifically needed a new residential and dining hall to hold housing for 525 students and dining for 1,ooo people, including faculty and staff members. With no parks nearby, or even a real campus, the new complex also needed outdoor spaces for recreation and socializing.

The Boston-based architects DiMella Shaffer landed the job and brought in Wagner Hodgson Landscape Architecture of Burlington, Vermont, which had completed five previous projects for Adelman's authority. The two design firms had collaborated on earlier projects, including Harvard University's Cronkhite Center, in Cambridge, and residence halls at Bridgewater and Westfield State Universities, also in Massachusetts. 

Though not exactly dramatic, the chief challenge to the landscape architects was apparent immediately. "When we first saw the site, nothing was growing here," says Jeff Hodgson, ASLA, a partner at Wagner Hodgson. To figure out why, he and principal H. Keith Wagner, FASLA, hired an arborist to test the soil. The biggest problem revealed itself even before samples got out of the ground. “The soil was so compacted that the auger bit broke when he was boring the samples," Hodgson says.

The flat site did not drain well, despite a traditional subsurface stormwater system that emptied directly into the marsh. The poor drainage further degraded the soil, which was so alkaline (the pH measured almost 8) and devoid of organic matter that it was practically desert, according to the arborist's report. To boost the soil quality, the landscape architects scarified the surface to a depth of three feet, mixed in compost, and graded it, creating a slope of 3 to 4 percent. These measures consumed about a tenth of the $r.8 million landscape budget.

Looking beyond the immediate site, the landscape architects needed to knit a pleasing, legible whole out of diverse buildings and spaces that would remain in place. When the Commonwealth of Massachusetts bought the cleaned-up factory parcel in 1997· it was partially enclosed by a 500-space parking lot and three existing university buildings, including a 180,000-square-foot dorm, Atlantic Hall. The new building and landscape needed to complement this big brick and glass dorm, reserve space for future development, and retain all the parking spaces. The university officials also wanted the new complex to interact with the marsh.

"Our goal from the beginning was to embrace the wetlands and bring them forward into the design," says James Stoll, the associate vice president of student life and the dean of students at Salem State University.

During the design phase, the new building morphed into two five-story structures, Marsh Hall North and South, linked by a covered walk on the second floor and an outdoor cafe terrace below. When the project was finished, in 2010, the buildings zigzagged through the former industrial footprint, carving out two irregular courtyards, one more public and formal, the other less so. Buildings and landscape read as a seamless whole, partly because of the crisp lines they share and partly because of the extensive hardscape outlining the grassy courtyards. The success of this design earned the project a 2014 ASLA Honor Award for General Design.

Wagner says that the design firms arrived at the complex integration of space together. "In all our work we try to bring the geometry of the architecture into the landscape,” he says. Ed Hodges, a principal and the chief executive officer at DiMella Shaffer, agrees. "Wagner Hodgson understands our architecture," he says. "They are able to make the landscape enhance the architectural form, and they remain willing to adapt their ideas to events that occur along the way."

In this case, the geometry grounds the angular volumes of the buildings. For example, crisscrossing paths slice the more formal entry courtyard, the campus green, into triangles and trapezoids, repeating the angles of the buildings at its edges.  It's easy to grasp why Hodges credits the landscape architects with resolving "the myriad pathways and geometries in the hardscape with a variety of materials."

Rooms facing the campus green in the north building overlook the fiat roof of the first-floor cafeteria. To soften this glaring, 6,200-square-foot expanse, Wagner Hodgson planted it in Sedum.  Outlined in light-colored bands, the beds and roof echo the patterns of walks and grass below. Students cannot enter the Sedum terraces, but an adjacent second-floor lounge lets them sit close to it.  To set up a connection to the marsh, the designers separated the new buildings at ground level to open a visual portal to the wetlands at the south end of the site. A walk paved in exposed aggregate, wider and darker than the secondary paths, traces the sight line on the ground. This legible north south corridor spatially organizes the campus and draws pedestrians' eyes to a band of olive-green marsh. Wagner and Hodgson initially intended viewers' feet to follow their eyes.  "We wanted to create an invitation to explore the marsh," Hodgson says. "Our original design extended that aggregate walk to a boardwalk that ran straight out into the marsh. It's a great place to observe birds and other wildlife." The clients quashed the boardwalk, however, not only for budget reasons but because state environmental regulations ban construction in this part of the marsh, Adelman says.

The two courtyards, in particular, are key to the
spatial integrity while also introducing elements
of a traditional campus: a geometrically organized
public green and public spaces to eat, hang out,
and kick a ball around. "Our goal here was to
create comfortable people spaces defined by buildings,"
Wagner says. The formal campus green
in front of Marsh Hall North serves as the main
arrival space for the complex. In addition to the
crisscrossing paved paths, the designers added
a board-formed concrete seating wall that traces
the edge of a low berm remaining from the site's
industrial past.

South of the cafe terrace, a trapezoidal "marsh
courtyard" at the heart of the residential complex
serves as a more private, less formal gathering
place. Enclosed by buildings and seating walls,
the courtyard is an even lawn with a gentle slope.
From top to bottom, the slope drops four vertical
feet, and it is gradual enough for the lawn
to serve as a staging area for performances and
pickup games of Frisbee, hacky sack, and soccer.
On a spring morning just after graduation, a
handful of students kicked a soccer ball around.
A young woman sat with a book on a seating wall
that separates the courtyard from the cafe plaza.
'Tilting the plane of lawn was a masterstroke that
increased its visual impact in the space while still
allowing for activities;' Hodges says. "These kinds
of richly layered solutions are what we like about
the firm's work."

At its high end, the courtyard's lawn abuts the
long brick wall of the existing Atlantic Hall, now
punctuated by a row of hornbeams, and slants
toward a 180-foot-long bioswale at the opposite
end. The swale is planted with native wetland
plants watered by stormwater from both
courtyards, 41,000 square feet of roof, and the
adjacent plazas. "We wanted to expose the drainage,
so we took out the existing underground
pipes to prompt people to think about where the
water goes," Wagner says.

Behind the swale, a retaining wall rises to meet
the main pedestrian corridor through the campus.
Backed by the wall, three tiers of gabion
basket seating face into the courtyard, offering
an observation perch for students to study the
plants and water flows in the swale below or to
watch whatever is going on in the courtyard. Two
ipe gangplanks bridge the levels of the pedestrian
corridor and the swale.

“We wanted the details - the
gangplanks and wire-mesh gabions - to speak
to the maritime history of Salem, which ties to
the marsh nearby," Wagner says. The addition of
amphitheater-style steps allows for more seating,
inviting students to use the space for events.
An emphasis on straight lines and hard surfaces,
softened by plants, runs through Wagner Hodgson's
work. Contrasting textures and colors in
the paved areas emphasize the geometry on the
ground level and define clear spatial boundaries.

Natural texture in materials such as stone
and board-formed concrete in the Marsh Hall
benches adds character and warmth. The nuanced
use of patterns and textures yields highly
finished, clearly structured spaces that need little
maintenance--qualities equally welcome i.n residential
and institutional environments. "They design
resilient and sustainable landscapes that are
well suited to campuses, where you expect a high
level of use," Adelman says. Several of Wagner
Hodgson's projects have reaped ASLA chapter
awards, and the Quaker Smith Point Residence
won a 2012 ASLA Honor Award for residential
design (see "Still Utopia," LAM, April 2013).

Attention to detail shows up in the attenuated
benches lining the walks at Marsh Hall, artisanal
concrete outdoor furniture on the ca.fe terrace
designed by the artist Kat Clear and manufactured
by Red Concrete, and tree species chosen for their
functional form. Here specimen trees such as
catalpa, sycamore, honey locus redbud, Japanese
zelkova, and yellowwood line open walks, anchor
expanses of lawn, and shade outdoor cafe tables.
Shrubs including compact varieties of lilac and
sumac, common ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolia),
and several types of holly soften the edges of walls
and walks. Wagner and Hodgson, who typically
design collaboratively, including plantings, also
use plants to emphasize spatial transitions.

At Marsh Hall they used perennials sparingly, save
for native species such as blue flag iris, joe-pye
weed, cardinal flower, and various sedges, grasses,
and rushes in the bioswale. Though the plant list
contains more than 50 species, plants complement
the hardscape rather than drive the design.
The Marsh Hall plantings are thriving, with the
exception of some winterkill in the canopy of a
few trees near the open cafe terrace and some
volunteer plants popping up in the bioswale.
"The problem is that most of our maintenance
staff people don't know what they're looking at,"
says Stoll, who oversees maintenance. To remedy
that, Wagner Hodgson is drafting a year-round
management plan focused on plant care.

The tilted quad, in particular, has proven appealing
for the thousand or so students living in
Atlantic and Marsh Halls, and it is easy to keep
up, Stoll says. Whether the students are chasing
a soccer ball before packing up for the summer or
lolling with open books on the grass and benches
in the middle of a semester, the Marsh courtyard
is rarely deserted. He adds a compliment any
designer would savor: "People love the space."


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