As Patrick Manning '14 made the long drive from his Wayland, Mass., home to tour Roanoke College during his senior year of high school two years ago, he wasn't sure he wanted to go to a college so far away from home. But as he approached Salem, the expansive views of the Blue Ridge Mountains under a crystal blue sky captured his imagination. A tour of the campus with sprawling brick-paved walkways, historic trees, Georgian architecture and spacious quads revealed an atmosphere he describes as "classic university feel" and convinced him to choose Roanoke.
"It was like something out of a magazine," says Manning, now an athletic training major at the College. "Roanoke really felt like somewhere I could live for the next four years, and I grew fond of the campus and its vibe. It felt like home."
Manning isn't the only one who has noticed Roanoke's charm. The College recently debuted in The Princeton Review's annual "Best Colleges" guidebook at No. 18 in a ranking of the top 20 most beautiful colleges and universities in the nation. The recognition, which results partly from surveys completed by Roanoke students, is just a preview of the College's overall excellence, says President Michael Maxey.
"It's wonderful to be recognized for the beauty of our campus," Maxey says. "But the appearance of our campus reflects the quality that permeates Roanoke - in the facilities and our setting, as well as in the classroom. A lot of our effort at beautifying campus is to create an environment people find conducive to a successful experience here. Certainly part of it is making a good first impression, but we also want to make a lasting impression."
For prospective students - like Manning two years ago - the campus' first and lasting impression often is a deciding factor in their choice.
"The beauty of the campus has a huge impact on a prospective student's decision to enroll," says Brenda Poggendorf '81, vice president for enrollment and dean of Admissions and Financial Aid. "Roanoke is welcoming, it's engaging and it's pretty - and it makes prospective students want to know more about the people and the programs. But as beautiful as the campus is and as inviting as it is, it's just the prelude to all that Roanoke College holds for them."
Maintaining a Masterpiece
While Roanoke's 80-acre main campus and 30-acre Elizabeth Campus is blessed with a stunning natural environment, meticulous year-round care is required to maintain a tranquil and harmonious setting. The day-to-day tasks of keeping the lawns manicured, trees and shrubs pruned, flowers planted and athletic turfs (both natural and synthetic) maintained is carried out by the Grounds Department, comprising seven full-time employees, the occasional work-study student, and manager William Martin Jr. Each year, Martin estimates his staff plants about 6,000 annual flowers-including summer varieties, and fall and winter pansies-to add pops of color throughout the campus.
Roanoke's beautiful trees, new and old - including a Rock Elm tree that is the largest of its kind in the United States, according to the National Register of Big Trees - are important features of the campus landscape. Charlottesville-based landscape architects Van Yahres Associates developed a master landscape plan for the College that includes a blueprint for removing and replacing older trees in various life cycle stages.
"That will ensure our tree canopy for years to come," Martin explains. "These are mostly native trees that should live for 100 years or longer."
The Plant Operations Department, with primary responsibility for upkeep of buildings across campus, employs 13 full-time staff members, a coordinator, and director Michael Vaught. They handle all of the daily campus maintenance issues, such as plumbing problems, heating and cooling malfunctions, electrical glitches, and problems with locks and hardware. They also set up for special events such as Alumni Weekend and Commencement. The behind-the-scenes contributions of Plant Operations and Grounds employees make a significant impact in creating a comfortable environment for students, employees and visitors.
"These troops on the grounds are a dedicated group, and they do a great job," says Mark Noftsinger, vice president of business affairs. "It's a collaborative effort to keep this campus beautiful ... Everybody realizes that green spaces are important, and we try to maintain as much green space as we can for students so they have an opportunity to go out and throw a ball or take a quiet walk."
Preserving History, Building for the Future
Roanoke remains committed to preserving its historic buildings, while improving functionality for the future. The complete renovation and expansion of Lucas Hall last year, for example, preserved the structure's 1940s appeal while enhancing the College's technological offerings. The LEED Silver certified (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) building - the first for Roanoke and in the City of Salem - includes a roof garden terrace that provides green space for class meetings or informal gatherings.
"We tried to maintain that classic image throughout the building," says Larry Walker, manager of planning and projects. "There's a fine line between projecting the best in technology and keeping the classic image."
Other preservation and renovation projects include the restoration of deteriorating "capitals" on the columns of West Hall and the addition of two new computer labs in the building. The Administration Building is undergoing chimney repairs, as well as the replacement of its west wall, which has been bowed for years and recently began showing signs of weakening. A complete renovation of the Olin Hall courtyard, funded by a private donor, will feature an amphitheater, fresh landscaping and new outdoor art exhibits.
Construction on Roanoke's next LEED project - a new residence hall near Kerr Stadium - began in May and is scheduled for completion next summer. The building, which will house 243 students, is part of the College's long-term effort to bring more on-campus living space for students.
The College is developing a third quad area near Kerr Stadium and Bast Gymnasium, offering another green space for relaxing or recreation. Recent improvements to the President's House - also donor funded - included creating an outdoor entertainment space for College special events.
Attention to subtle details can make a striking impact. Fixtures across campus, such as lampposts and trash cans, have been painted black for a uniform look, and parking and informational signs have been redesigned to reflect the College's brand.
Other small but effective projects have included replacing the steps at Massengill Auditorium, creating a new entrance at Antrim Chapel and repairing the patio area at Trexler Hall.
"The small things matter when people encounter the College," Maxey says. "It's about making sure that students and employees have an attractive, harmonious place to work and study. You have to attend to the details to make that happen."
Board, Donors Lead Beautification Efforts
Keeping Roanoke's campus beautiful isn't a frivolous pursuit; it's an integral part of the College's strategic plan and overall mission. The College's Board of Trustees - particularly the board's Buildings and Grounds Committee - sets the vision for routine upkeep and major improvements. Nancy Mulheren '72, chair of that committee, has been one of the College's strongest advocates of campus beautification efforts through her leadership and generous gifts.
"She's very hands on and actively involved," Noftsinger says. "There's no question, she's had a dramatic impact."
Mulheren has long had a guiding hand on the direction of aesthetic qualities of Roanoke College. Her vision, one she shared with her late husband John Mulheren '71, clearly coincides with the classic brand of the College.
Landscaping, for example, "should enhance the building, not hide the building," Mulheren says. Campus lampposts, trash bins, benches and railings - what she refers to as the "hardscaping" - should be uniform throughout.
The result? Gone, for example, are overgrown bushes that masked buildings' beautiful Georgian architecture. And the seven or eight different styles of benches on campus have been replaced with one style - simple, clean, black wrought iron.
Little things, "but a lot of times it's the little things that can really make a big difference," Mulheren says.
"I'm making it a point to come down as often as I can," says Mulheren, whose home base is New Jersey, but who frequently can be found tending to family properties in Paint Bank, Va. "I walk around campus and take notes and pictures. To me, it is very important to go through buildings, walk around campus."
"I have a passion for it all," she says, and adds, with a bit of laughter, "I want everything to be perfect."
While keeping the campus attractive is an important endeavor, Roanoke College's top priority is providing excellent academic programs and a high-quality residence life experience. Thanks to the generosity of Mulheren and other benefactors, Roanoke's administrators don't have to make as many difficult choices when it comes to setting a budget, says Lisa Bowling, assistant vice president for Resource Development.
"A tremendous amount of the improvements on campus can be directly correlated to the generosity of our donors," Bowling says. "The students' needs come first. However, donors can step in and bridge the gap between what the college must provide and the amenities that make this one of the best U.S. campuses."
Roanoke's attractive and welcoming campus is a reflection of the excellence within its walls and the commitment of everyone who loves the place. And its recognition among the nation's most beautiful campuses is just another way Roanoke is bringing its reputation in line with reality.
"When a student comes on campus and sees that it is well-kept and pleasing to the eye, that immediately creates the sense that the same type of care and dedication is given to the classroom and residential life experiences," Bowling says. "It says to students: 'Here's a campus where people put forth their best to make it the right place for me.'"
- Karen Doss Bowman