Duke Soccer School for Girls

West Union Dining Hall Reopens

Courtesy of Duke Magazine
Writer: Scott Huler

The last of the beeping trucks have backed up and growled away; the plywood fence has come down. The quad looks like the quad again. Grass has filled back in, shrubs grow against the comfortable old Duke stone, and you approach West Union looking for something to eat.

You walk along the pavers past familiar features: the four-story entry tower at the northeast corner; the portico midway along the east wall; the jutting window near the back, with leaded glass beneath stone tracery. You walk through the three limestone gothic arches leading to the Bryan Center Plaza behind West Union, and you turn to face the building’s south wall.

And then you stare. Probably for a long time.

“It’s sort of like The Wizard of Oz turning color,” says Duke staff architect and project manager Bill McCraw. “People say, ‘Wow—this is so different!’ But in a good way.”

“Different in a good way” is pretty much what Larry Moneta, vice president for student affairs, and Steve Nowicki, vice provost for undergraduate education, had in mind when they first brainstormed the years-long project. Rick Johnson, associate vice president in the Student Affairs division, and Robert Coffey, executive director of Duke Dining Services, led the process of rethinking the food service.

And yes, different. That Duke stone south wall? Gone (the pieces saved at the quarry, of course, but excised from campus). In its place—and in place of the rabbit warren of dim hallways and spaces that had filled the courtyard from its earliest days in the mid-1930s—stands a gleaming four-story box of glass and steel, windows reflecting the Kilgo Quad and the Bryan Center Plaza and the newly created Crown Commons, the passing students on the walkway, the trees, the sky, and clouds. vice president in the Student Affairs division, and Robert Coffey, executive director of Duke Dining Services, led the process of rethinking the food service.

And yes, different. That Duke stone south wall? Gone (the pieces saved at the quarry, of course, but excised from campus). In its place—and in place of the rabbit warren of dim hallways and spaces that had filled the courtyard from its earliest days in the mid-1930s—stands a gleaming four-story box of glass and steel, windows reflecting the Kilgo Quad and the Bryan Center Plaza and the newly created Crown Commons, the passing students on the walkway, the trees, the sky, and clouds.

Below the walkway, on ground level, tables and chairs provide a place to eat and study outdoors, some open to the sky in the broad open space between the walkway and the building but many directly beneath the walkway, illumination provided by circular cast-glass light wells that channel sunlight into the shade.

The glass south wall stretches upward for three stories—the indoor space a three-level atrium covered at ground level with tables and couches where students eat, study, and sleep. At either side of the center restaurant (Au Bon Pain is the only chain among West Union’s thirteen restaurants), open stairways lead up to the plaza level, itself an open two-story space beneath glass ceilings that connect the sides of the central box to the tops of the original segments of the U-shape of the building—the Great Hall on the west, the Cambridge Inn on the north, and the main tower entry hall on the east. With glass ceilings, walls, and even stairways, with windows old and new providing unexpected sight lines, West Union is a festival of light and image.

Of course, it provides a more traditional feast, too. On the plaza level a central core houses kitchens for four restaurants. Diners walk the square around the core as they decide what to eat, with five other options lining the other side of what you might call the street—two in the old Cambridge Inn, two more in the Great Hall, and another in what used to be the alumni common. Indian food, Italian food, vegetarian food, sushi, crepes; traditional Southern comfort food.

The smell of spices fills the air, and tables line the walkways. “You’re walking through old Rome or Venice,” says director of the Office of Project Management Paul Manning, explaining the concept the designers adopted for the new parts of the building. “You’ve got the sun above and restaurants or cafes on the left and right.”

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