Washington and Lee University, John W. Elrod University Commons

Lexington, Virginia

  • FIRM

    VMDO Architects


    Washington and Lee University

  • AREA

    101,240 sq.ft.





Where there was once a cinder dump and an asphalt parking lot, there now is a new student center on the Washington and Lee University campus. Prior to the commons, no other building on campus offered a central social gathering space for the university community.

The University Commons is home to an array of amenities, including a full-service dining hall, cafe and ADDITIONAL INFORMATIONASSOCIATED FIRMBergmeyer Associates, Inc.COST PER SQ FT$229.00CITATIONSilver CitationFEATURED IN2005 Educational InteriorsINTERIOR CATEGORYStudent Centers/Service Areas store, a lounge for games, an enlarged bookstore, a 190-seat movie theater and auditorium, a series of student-life resource spaces, and a wide range of study and meeting areas.

The building’s atrium directly feeds the lower-level cinema and dining hall, the two-story bookstore and main-level campus living room, and connects to the upper-level Career Services Center and student organizations’ open-office spaces. A “see-and-be-seen” factor permeates as students circulate throughout the building.

Outside the commons, an open-air amphitheater overlooks Woods Creek, the protection of which was of particular concern to the design team. The architects took care to use the woods and creek as an asset—recalling a 1905 campus plan that called for the wooded slope to the creek to be treated as a park.

When the University Commons opened in 2003, it transformed traffic patterns on campus. A previously underused parking garage nearby ensures that vehicles are left on the perimeter, inviting a peaceful stroll into the heart of the campus via an elevated boardwalk, which arcs through the woods overlooking a steep slope and creek bed. The boardwalk leads directly to the new commons building and its central atrium.

Situating a new building and program on one of the last sites remaining this side of the creek presented a considerable design challenge. The commons fits both in terms of scale and architectural language—the three sides of the commons face modest-sized, regional adaptations of a neo-classical, brick and column tradition—and the atrium and side facing Woods Creek open out with an unprecedented use of steel and glass, revealing the lower dining level and woods’ edge terrace.

"Works within the context of the master plan, not against it."--2005 jury