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The Gassett Fitness and Recreation Center project is the result of an existing relationship with a client who had a need that aligned with our firm’s newly acquired capabilities from the Steve Tisch Sports and Fitness Center project at Tufts University. Having a new project type in our portfolio allowed the Massachusetts State College Building Authority and Salem State University to see us as a known consultant now able to address their current dilemma of an undersized fitness facility for an expanding campus population. We had recently completed Marsh Hall for Salem State University, a 525-bed sophomore residence hall and dining facility. They then engaged us in a study to determine how best to expand their existing 2,000 square foot fitness space and address a holistic view of student wellness. This building was conceived as a student life project as opposed to an athletic facility, that would come to influence the design.

The initial focus of the study confirmed the need for a 7,000 square foot fitness center, but other needs also came to light. The students were eager for new facilities as long as we didn’t take any parking away, limiting the site options. As the on-campus population was growing, the space for intramurals was under extreme pressure. Varsity athletes told us about their uneasiness when asking other students to vacate the courts so the sports teams could practice in inclement weather. The dance program was looking for studio space and shared the apparatus gym for performances. A visiting grad student from Michigan on a summer internship captured the feeling of the O’Keefe Center when he said, “You enter and you don’t see anybody and you just keep walking and walking until you find another person.” This comment resonated with the team and became part of the design response. The University also requested simple sustainability as part of the design, previously experiencing many commissioning issues with more sophisticated systems.THE EXISTING O’KEEFE CENTERBuilt in 1973, the existing O’Keefe Center was designed to accommodate the specific requirements of hockey, basketball, tennis and swimming programs, all housed in three large mostly windowless concrete and brick volumes connected by corridors. This organization led to the  “you don’t see anybody” impression because all of the activity was in the “boxes” and there was little internal transparency from one space to another. Creating transparency became a goal of the new building.

Left: Connection from North campus to O’Keefe (top)             Right: Same path with the new building in place

Salem State is made up of four campuses that are in close proximity to each other. O’Keefe is the athletic campus and houses the fields and a large commuter lot. A major problem was its distance from the center of the North (Main) Campus. The primary building entrance was also a distance from the parking lot and hidden. It brought users to a location on the second level, accessed up a curved non-ADA ramp.

Existing O’Keefe Center prior to renovation and addition.

The identified site, that did not impact parking, was a strip of land between the existing O’Keefe Center and the existing athletic fields shown above. One edge of the site fronts the large commuter lot.THE SOLUTIONThe final program that emerged from the study was a 39,000 square foot wellness center with major program elements comprised of a 7,800 square foot fitness center. Highlighted areas include support spaces and locker rooms on the ground floor, a two-court intramural gym on the second floor, a new entrance lobby atrium space for the whole O’Keefe Center complex and two studio spaces inserted into a portion of the existing apparatus gym by adding a floor.

The existing building’s organization, with large spaces located on the second floor, suggested that the new building be organized the same way, with the Basketball courts above the fitness facilities. Fortunately, the existing lower floor-to-floor was 16 feet, allowing the fitness center to still feel generous. A new elevator at the juncture of the existing and new structures provides accessibility to all floors. A generous atrium provides a legible entrance and allows the circulation to bring you to the original arrival point of the existing building, utilizing a new corridor created out of a portion of the apparatus gym.

Left: First level        Right: Second level

The three-dimensional building volume was conceived as a geode with a shell that is broken to reveal the interior. This generous expression of transparency was a result of the program exploration and site visits to peer facilities where connectivity made for vibrant spaces. This long expanse of glass counteracts the long solid wall of the hockey arena, providing a better balance of solid and void. Since the wall faces north towards the parking lot, it allowed daylight to light the courts, fitness center and atrium. Through daylight studies with our consultant Buro Happhold, we were able to control glare and balance the lighting in the space with addition of skylights. Over the 50-year life of the building, being able to function until midafternoon without electric lights will save energy with only an on/off switch. This was a major component of the simple sustainability strategy.

Left: Geode diagram      Right: “Window to fitness”

The new building reorients the whole complex to the approach and creates a single, inviting, accessible and grand front door paneled with wood that recalls the basketball courts. The new building brings a visible wellness presence. The new building’s highly transparent “window to fitness” along the approach invites participation in the many activities going on inside. The transparency continues inside, connecting activity spaces to the circulation. Now, when arriving at O’Keefe, one immediately sees people and activity. Lounge spaces placed in the atrium provide a place to land for commuter students. Where they used to sit in their cars waiting for class, they now come into the building and socialize with others in the lounges. This provides exposure for the fitness and wellness activities even if the student is on another academic track.

A new atrium space creates a clear orientation space and defines a coherent spine for the rest of the complex.

In addition to providing recreation and fitness space, the dramatic gymnasium has become a favorite campus space to hold functions including speakers, concerts and dinners. The atrium, which has since received a naming gift of its own, has been utilized in conjunction with the gym and on its own to host events. DELIVERING ON THE PROGRAMEd Adelman, the Executive Director of the Massachusetts State College Building Authority and former Director of Facilities at Salem State noted that not only did the new building serve its intended function, but it changed the campus population’s perception of the O’Keefe Center. Its excellent athletic facilities now had a friendly, welcoming face. The fitness has 4,800 student members, almost 50% of the student body. It welcomes more than 2,700 students per week and 91,000 visits last year according to Associate Director of Athletics and Recreation, Kelly Janos. In 2015 the facility was awarded one of the National Intramural Recreational Sports Association (NIRSA) 2015 Outstanding Sports Facility awards which noted that, “winners are considered a standard or model by which other collegiate recreational facilities should be measured and from which others can benefit”.

I mentioned earlier that this project started out as a student life project. Over the course of the project, it gradually moved to be administered under the athletic department, who commissioned a custom bronze 8-foot tall “Viking” sculpture by Ipswich artist Chris WilliamsServing as the school mascot, He stands by the front door reminding everyone that the Gassett Fitness and Recreation Center is “fit for a Viking”. FUN ANECDOTEUnknown to me until my arrival at the dedication, was the fact that Kim Gassett-Schiller, Salem State University class of 1983 who gave the lead gift for the project in honor of her parents, was the wife of Phil Schiller, Senior VP of Worldwide Marketing for Apple who worked with one of the great presenters of all times, Steve Jobs. Imagine my stomach when I face the crowd to start my remarks and he is sitting in the front row. Turns out, the whole family is interested in architecture and I was fortunate enough to lead a tour for them. Afterwards, this fan of Apple products got to pick Phil’s brain about Apple and the spaceship campus and I learned he graduated from Boston College, where we also do a lot of work.

Phil Schiller, Senior VP of Worldwide Marketing for Apple, & I. (Photo courtesy of Salem State University)