Revival of a Landmark

Restoration of the College of the Desert’s classic library transformed the campus experience, while retaining the essence of the landmark structure.

On the College of the Desert (COD) campus in Palm Desert, all student pathways lead to a central plaza anchored by the Hilb Library, a historic concrete building opened in 1965. Designed by modernist San Francisco architect John Carl Warnecke, the Hilb’s structure fronted by a reflecting pond was an instant icon landmark for the campus and the community; its image is still the centerpiece of the college’s seal.

But the largely windowless Hilb building was no longer serving its role for COD, one of the fastest-growing community colleges in California. Students preferred the newer joint-use library constructed adjacent to campus, which offers high bay ceilings, daylight-filled study spaces and access to views. The Hilb lacked interior spaces with access to daylight and views; except for the multistory atrium lobby, most of the study spaces were primarily fluorescently illuminated, with low ceilings and no connection to the interior atrium or outdoor spaces.

“These buildings were built in a different era,” says Winston Bao, LPA’s higher education programmer. “They boldly communicate their materiality. But they’re predominantly introverted.”

Landmark 01
The restoration opened the older building to natural light and connected the structure to the center of the campus.

Like many community colleges, College of the Desert is undergoing a major transformation, serving the rapidly changing demographic student population of the Coachella Valley in Riverside County. The Hilb, the literal center of the campus, was not keeping up and was in dire need of a reimagination.

LPA’s integrated design team worked with the college’s educators and students to focus on preserving the historic building bones and character, while redeveloping the facility to meet the larger campus needs. The college wanted the cold and dark building of a different era to support modern learning environments and put learning on display, in an open and inclusive facility that would draw students back to the center of the campus.

The end result revealed the building to the campus, while preserving its stately presence. The design more than doubled the functional space in the building, while reducing energy usage by 77 percent. Various reading and study areas, flexible instructional classrooms, computer labs, study rooms and tutoring areas were organized and added, and made visible through walls of glass. The library was returned to its original home, in a bright, open setting that has become the true campus hub.

Landmark 02
LPA landscape architects designed social spaces to help revive the library plaza as the campus hub.

The Hilb Library had strong roots. Warnecke, the architect, is acclaimed as the designer of the Hawaii State Capitol building and the John F. Kennedy Eternal Flame at Arlington National Cemetery, among other noteworthy projects. He planned the College of the Desert’s campus and designed several of its buildings.

Warnecke gave the central library, originally known as the House of Knowledge, a bold, heroic presence, fronted by a water element, the International Fountain of Knowledge. Sitting atop a small hill acropolis-like with views into the distance, the Hilb’s broad arches were inspired by palm tree groves that once dominated the Coachella Valley. The entry columns give the Hilb a classical rhythm; a 1965 Architectural Record magazine feature called it “Colonnades in a Desert Landscape.”

Landmark 03
Shading panels and a high-performance building envelope helped reduce energy use by 77%.

In the renovation process, the building’s signature material and strong forms were recast as an advantage. “Many of the midcentury campus buildings being renovated today are cast-in-place concrete with these really intense structural systems,” says LPA Managing Director, Wendy Sunshine Dailey. “Sometimes they need seismic retrofitting, but the bones of these buildings are fantastic, and inherently sustainable.”

The structure works particularly well in Palm Desert’s hot climate. “These heavy concrete buildings were naturally insulating themselves from the weather,” Dailey says.

The renovation opened the Hilb’s interior, expanding sight lines and creating natural wayfinding. New glass on the upper level brings natural light into interior spaces and allows views out and in.

Landmark 06
The design more than doubled the functional space in the building, including reading and study areas, flexible instructional classrooms, computer labs, study rooms and tutoring areas.

“There were actually windows going all the way around the building, but they were covered by concrete panels, just allowing a little bit of daylight to peek in from the sides,” says Steve Flanagan, LPA’s Director of Higher Education. The concrete panels were removed, and light vertical shading devices were added. “All the light was there already,” Flanagan says. “It was just covered up.”

The exterior façade was preserved, with careful seismic upgrades to the interior structure. Usable space was added to the mezzanine level. Basement classrooms receive light from a glass floor beneath the stairs. A dramatic new grand staircase, bounded by a curtain of long metal rods, provides expansive views across the Hilb interior atrium. “We explored many options for the upper railings and stairway, but the rods were the simplest solution and allowed the most openness,” Bao says.

Landmark 07
A dramatic new grand staircase bounded by a curtain of long metal rods is the centerpiece of the restored interior spaces.

Biophilic strategies and the desire to create more comfortable, welcoming spaces helped guide the decision-making process. Natural materials — including a coffered wood ceiling — were added to the interior to introduce a natural character to the ambience. The walls of an adjacent annex community building, which includes a boardroom and a series of smaller gathering spaces, were clad with natural wood to extend continuity of the material palette.

The renovation also extended to the Hilb’s exterior spaces. The sunken International Fountain of Knowledge was raised to ground level to allow barrier-free universal access, while outdoor areas on the sides of the building were activated with additional shade trees and seating.

“We wanted to create social spaces,” says LPA Director of Landscape Architecture, Richard Bienvenu. Paloverde and mesquite trees were added for shading. “They are native and appropriate to the desert area, but also a little bit smaller scale, more pedestrian-appropriate, and provide infill between the height of the palm trees and the ground plane,” Bienvenu says.

It’s a place where students study and hang out. The reimagined building now gives students opportunities to see and be seen.

Landmark 05
Outdoor areas were activated with additional shade trees and seating.

The college’s stated mission is to “create a model sustainable campus.” Energy efficiency was achieved through a “cool” roof system, the high-performance building envelope, ventilation control and monitoring, and optimized energy performance. Replacing 22,000 square feet of turf with low-water plants and rock mulch reduced irrigation needs by 80%.

The Hilb Library, an icon of a different era, is now helping to attract students back to campus: a gathering spot before, between or after classes. “It’s a place where students study and hang out,” Flanagan says. “The reimagined building now gives students opportunities to see and be seen.”