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Newly renovated Denison House sparks return to living and learning environment

Image: Denison House resident Caroline Suggs discusses the book, "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks," part of residents' fall semester group study theme of bioethics, during a tour of the facility that followed an October 14 ribbon-cutting ceremony. Photo by Jessica Willoughby.

Denison House resident Caroline Suggs discusses the book, "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks," part of residents' fall semester group study theme of bioethics, during a tour of the facility that followed an October 14 ribbon-cutting ceremony. Photo by Jessica Willoughby.

Image: Noel King, a junior majoring in psychology and one of the residents of Denison House, expresses her gratitude at the ribbon-cutting ceremony for being able to participate in the living and learning experience, as Board of Trustees Chair Benjamin Soukup looks on. Photo by Jessica Willoughby.

Noel King, a junior majoring in psychology and one of the residents of Denison House, expresses her gratitude at the ribbon-cutting ceremony for being able to participate in the living and learning experience, as Board of Trustees Chair Benjamin Soukup looks on. Photo by Jessica Willoughby.

In the early days of higher education, students and faculty lived communally, mutually benefiting from this symbiotic relationship through spirited discussions, debates, and other intellectual pursuits. But as generations passed, the two groups drifted further and further apart, both literally and figuratively, and in the process the spirit of learning was diminished for both.

Happily, Gallaudet has revived this tradition with the reopening of the newly renovated Denison House. The structure, located at the northern corner of Faculty Row, was known as House 4 when it was built in 1875 as living space for faculty and students, has undergone a fresh face lift. It re-opened its doors on September 7 to welcome 10 undergraduate students and Joseph Murray, an assistant professor in the ASL and Deaf Studies Program.

"On behalf of us all, I want to say thanks so much for making this happen," Noel King, a junior majoring in psychology and one of the residents of Denison House, said at an October 14 ribbon-cutting ceremony. "I'm so inspired by it; I feel honored to be part of this experience," she added. King said the living and learning environment "is unique for us. It's very rewarding and gives us an opportunity for growth, both personally and intellectually. It provides an opportunity for interaction that we would not have otherwise."

To encourage academic discourse, a theme will be adopted by the Denison House residents each semester. The theme for the current semester is bioethics, the study of ethical controversies brought about by advances in biology and medicine. The topic dovetails with the University's Common Reading book for 2010-2011: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks , Rebecca Skloot's moving narrative about an African American woman who came to Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1951 for cancer treatment, and whose tumor samples were taken for medical research without her knowledge.

"That's what it's all about--living and learning together," President Hurwitz said enthusiastically at the ceremony and tour of the refurbished home that followed. "This is an exciting time for Gallaudet." A bonus, he added, is the close proximity of Denison House to House One, because it gives him and First Lady Vicki Hurwitz the opportunity to interact with the residents. The Hurwitzes have already hosted a dinner for Murray and the students, the president said.

Board of Trustees Chair Benjamin Soukup gave his enthusiastic praise, as well. Dr. Soukup said the living and learning concept that the historic residence embraces directly meets an objective of Goal B of the Strategic Plan to create an environment and support system that encourages retention and successful completion of a Gallaudet degree. The trustees "want to see this program expand," said Soukup, because they feel confident that it creates an atmosphere that enhances the Gallaudet experience.

"I've been fortunate to have been part of this [project]," said Executive Director for Program Development Fred Weiner. He said it was personally gratifying "to see it become a reality. He thanked the Board of Trustees, Hurwitz and former president Robert Davila, the administrative team, and a host of other members of the campus community for their support, input, and hard work in the project's design and completion in the span of about a year.

The Denison House project exemplifies the Gallaudet community's spirit of cooperation when undertaking projects that build on the University's reputation for academic excellence. It was spearheaded by Campus Life Director Susan Hanrahan and Campus Life Program Manager Travis Imel, who led an eight-member project team comprised of students, faculty, and staff. That cooperation was facilitated by Ayers Saint Gross, the project's architect; Monarch Construction, which undertook the renovations; and the diligence of the project's managers, J Street Development and Michael Fields, who is director of Construction Services at Gallaudet. According to Hansel Bauman, director of campus design and planning in the Program Development Office, the project was designed and renovated in 11 months. Bauman said the relatively short time frame of a project of this scope--and the fact that it was completed without cost overruns--is "commendable."

The project was undoubtedly facilitated by the fact that Denison House was last upgraded in 1998. "It was in terrific shape," said Bauman. "The University is really a good steward of its historic buildings." The architect and builder's primary charge was to preserve the integrity of the structure, while incorporating subtle alterations that adhere to the elements of Deaf Space, an architectural principle that enhances visual communication through openness and light.

A communal kitchen on the ground floor of the four-story residence is designed so that residents can face each other while preparing meals from a central island, an adjoining dining room with an oval table that facilitates signing conversations while having a meal, a meeting area, and a private suite for faculty in residence. The second floor features a study room, and the remainder of the building comprises five residential rooms for the occupants, four of which are shared. A ramp and an elevator were installed to ensure accessibility. The building also received utility upgrades, and the cramped basement was enlarged by lowering the floor so that it can now be used as a recreation room

The building retains its historic features, said Bauman. The original stone fireplace was restored, the wood floors, which had become quite worn over the years, were replaced. Sliding "pocket doors" that originally separated the kitchen and dining room were removed to allow a more open feeling to the area, but they were restored and relocated to provide a formal separation between the main living area and the entry foyer.

While Denison House is a showcase for a University-wide initiative to invigorate programs that integrate academics with student life, Bauman emphasized that it is first and foremost a private residence. Like all campus residential facilities, it is a secured building that can only be accessed by its residents and their guests, and it is subject to the same security policies as other campus housing.

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