1515 and counting: New student center builds on a patchwork past

1515, a new student center on the Corner, opened in March. Photo: Stephen Barling 1515, a new student center on the Corner, opened in March. Photo: Stephen Barling

Since its construction in 1896, 1515 University Ave. has been a drugstore, a bookstore, a boarding house, the Cavalier Diner and many more incarnations. The building, which opened in mid-March, now pieces together fragments of all its previous incarnations, giving UVA students a new place on the Corner to call their home away from home.

“From very early on, it’s been a student-centered project,” says James Zehmer, the project manager and one of UVA’s historic preservation managers. In summer 2015, a team of students, many from UVA’s Meriwether Lewis Institute for Citizen Leadership, assembled a plan to revive the former campus bookstore, vacant since 2014. Their idea: an alcohol-free student center that wouldn’t feel like just another building on or near Grounds.

The students “were hands-on with everything,” says lead architect and UVA alum Bob Nalls. He and architectural designer Amanda Mazid worked closely with students on everything from how the spaces would be used to the furniture, flatware and fixtures that fill them.

Photo: Stephen Barling
Photo: Stephen Barling

“It was the type of project where you couldn’t just sit there and design the whole thing and then start working,” Nalls says, “because there was too much that had to be figured out in the field.” UVA crews began to demolish, reinforce and rebuild the interior even as the students worked with Nalls and Mazid to plan out and populate its spaces. If they’d done it the conventional way, Nalls says, “we’d be looking at doing it for next summer.”

The ground floor’s high ceilings and numerous windows create a comfortable study and social space for students, with a stage for musical and other performances at night. Student artwork decorates the walls, and a boutique dessert café, Crumbs on the Corner, serves sweet treats from 5pm until the wee hours.

“I came up with the idea of the dessert bar while brainstorming, based on what I thought the Corner was lacking, but would still draw students in,” says third-year Brittany Hsieh, who drew inspiration from a similar restaurant in her hometown of Richmond.

A prominent open staircase leads to the second floor, once 1920s-era apartments, which now provides open and reservable spaces for students, plus a satellite office for UVA’s career center.

“Our hope as a group was to give the floor an eclectic feel and model each room after a different room in a residential home,” says design team member and fifth-year grad student Dakota Lipscombe. For instance, the studio has mirrored walls for dance and music rehearsals. The mindfulness room’s subtle soundproofing keeps outside noise at bay. In the sunroom, faux boxwood creates a green wall, while the dining room is built around a single long communal table. A garage room, designed as a maker space, offers a chalkboard wall for capturing ideas.

As for the building’s basement, “there was talk of a bowling alley,” Lipscombe says, “but I think the game room worked out much better instead.” Students can play pool, pinball, arcade games or air hockey, watch TV on several large flatscreens, rehearse music in the acoustically isolated back room or just read, sleep or study in a menagerie of couches and chairs. The walls are partly paneled with reclaimed joists sawed out of the floor to make room for the stairwell, lending the space a natural, intimate vibe.

Throughout the building, touches like these connect 1515 to its history. On the ground floor, two different pressed-tin ceilings recall the two stores that once occupied the space. On the top floor, UVA crews tore out interior walls, but filled in the resulting gaps in the floorboards perpendicular to the rest of the planking, to show students where those partitions had been.

The new 1515 proudly shows off its scars, turning those layers of oddities into advantages. “Our vision was that every three or four years, you’ve got a complete change in the student population, and hopefully this building won’t get stale,” Zehmer says. “Hopefully, each class will take it on and give it its own spin.”

“All of it is a little bit of an experiment,” Nalls adds, “and nobody is quite sure exactly how it’ll get used.”

1515, a new student center on the Corner, opened in March.

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