NORTHAMPTON, Mass. — Renovating a historic building is rarely simple, whether it’s a Brooklyn brownstone or, in this case, the $120 million overhaul of Smith College’s century-old Neilson Library. As any architect can attest, a venerable building’s emotionally attached owners can be far more challenging to manage than the actual construction. But any reservations Maya Lin may have had after being hired in 2015 by Smith to redesign the 200,000-square-foot Neilson fell away as soon as she stepped through its front doors. With a laugh, she recalled her reaction at the time: “This is going to be easy, because this is so bad!”
Three rounds of prior expansions to the library’s original 1909 structure — the centerpiece of the campus nestled near the Berkshires and designed in 1893 by Frederick Law Olmsted, the chief architect of Manhattan’s Central Park — had seen the Neilson morph into an eyesore. On a recent visit to the freshly remodeled library, Lin, 61, stood before its front steps and pointed to where hulking wings had been added to either side, effectively walling off the two halves of the school’s sweeping lawns. It was even worse inside. “They had put seven-and-a-half-foot-high mezzanines in,” she said as we entered. “You came in and you saw feet!”
The mezzanines are now gone, as are the view-blocking wings, replaced by two smaller, recessed, window-filled expansions, thus restoring the Neilson’s 1909 facade to its original prominence. And Smith’s Special Collections, previously scattered across different campus locations, have now all been moved into one climate-controlled area.
With the Neilson’s renovation complete and its doors set to reopen to students on March 29, this should have been a moment of professional triumph for Lin in a practice that melds art and architecture, from the Museum of Chinese in America in downtown Manhattan to the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Ala., back to her public debut, in 1981, with the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, whose aesthetic force still gathers emotion-filled crowds in Washington, D.C.
Yet Lin was in no mood for a victory lap. On Jan. 25, her husband of nearly 25 years, Daniel Wolf, had died of a sudden heart attack. The couple and their two daughters, India, 23, and Rachel, 21, had all been together at their home in rural Colorado. “Nobody expected it,” Lin said. “It just was one of those things that literally came out of the blue. And we’re all like” — she dropped her voice to a stunned whisper — “what?”
Wolf was 65, a quiet — albeit deeply influential — force in the photography world, beginning as a dealer in the ’70s, assembling what is arguably the finest collection of photography in the world for the J. Paul Getty Museum, and as a collector in his own right whose personal holdings have put curators in swoons. Ten of his 19th-century daguerreotypes were lent to the Metropolitan Museum of Art for an exhibition spotlighting the cityscapes of Joseph-Philibert Girault de Prangey — a symmetry which Lin said particularly delighted her husband. He’d launched his career in 1976 by hauling a suitcase of photos to the sidewalk in front of the Met and hawking vintage prints to passers-by.
The Giraults are just a fraction of a now-sprawling collection which fills the former Yonkers City Jail, bought by Lin and Wolf and transformed into an archive and private exhibition space. A staff is still busy cataloging and documenting all those photos — they could hardly catch up as Wolf kept arriving with new acquisitions he’d squirreled away over the years in storage units around New York. One jail cell — its bars still in place — is filled with nothing but prewar albums of intimately personal photography bought decades ago at Paris flea markets; another contains mammoth plates of the 19th-century American West taken by Carleton Watkins and William Henry Jackson.
“Every day he was like a kid in a candy store, he’d unearth something that he’d forgotten about,” said Lin. The organizing of that artwork continues, as does Lin’s own. With her “Ghost Forest,” an installation dramatizing climate change, set to open in New York City’s Madison Square Park in May, she said she had decided to return to the Northeast and dive back into her work. Yet surely no one would begrudge her a longer period of private bereavement?
“I gave myself three weeks with the kids without anything else,” she explained, thinking it would be therapeutic to then become busy. To ease the transition, her daughters had traveled with her from Colorado to their New York City home; Rachel had driven up with her to Smith that day. Not that Lin wasn’t having second thoughts about this sudden re-immersion into public life. “It’s hard to be back,” she added with a slight quiver in her voice. “It’s just really hard right now.”
These are difficult days for Smith College, as well. The pandemic shut down its campus and moved its classes online. Campus workers were furloughed and austerity measures levied on faculty members. Although some students have returned to live in the dorms this spring, campus life beyond Zoom classes seems hollowed out.
Also remaining are painful reverberations from a 2018 campus incident involving the intersection of race and class, as reported by The New York Times last month. A student said she was racially profiled while eating in a closed-off dorm lounge; an outside investigation found no evidence of bias. But feelings and recriminations among faculty, students and staff remain raw. Accordingly, Smith’s president, Kathleen McCartney, was thrilled to have the new Neilson Library as something the entire school could rally around. “I think the grand opening is just going to lift everyone’s spirits,” McCartney said.
Lin appeared equally buoyed by touring the library. She led the way to a rooftop terrace which offered stirring views of the surrounding mountains, pointing out meaningful details along the way. Large upper-floor windows that were near treetops had been laced with an ultraviolet webbing pattern — invisible to human eyes, but not to flying birds that might otherwise crash into the clear glass. Bird-watchers had a comfy nesting spot too, with many of the window frames large enough to climb into. “People are going to be sleeping in here,” Lin said with a chuckle, flashing back on her own long days — and longer nights — studying at Yale, where, as a 21-year-old senior, she beat out 1,420 competing proposals for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. “I know because I was one of those people.”
Most importantly, ink-and-paper books still line the walls and fill the basement’s stacks. There may be an in-house cafe, communal spaces, and all the latest digital tools wired throughout the building, but these features coexist with quiet spots for solitary scholarship. Indeed, the new Special Collections area offers 40,000 linear feet of archival material. It includes the Mortimer Rare Book Collection’s hand-corrected drafts of novels by Virginia Woolf and poems by Sylvia Plath, as well as the Sophia Smith Collection of Women’s History, which encompasses the personal papers of activists from Emma Goldman to Gloria Steinem, alongside those of less prominent but equally vital figures like Joan E. Biren, who began indelibly photographing the private lives of lesbians in the 1970s.
“Even though there are newer ways in which they’re going to be teaching through the collections here, you’re still in a house of books,” Lin insisted. “Ultimately, a library has to be about reading. I don’t read on an iPad and I never will. Maybe I’m wrong, maybe I’m a dinosaur. But I still feel the beauty of a book, I still believe in that beauty.”
Sitting for a moment in an otherwise empty meeting room, Lin was asked again why this Neilson project felt so pressing, why she’d left Colorado so soon. After all, her architect partner, William Bialosky, as well as the design firm Shepley Bulfinch she was collaborating with, could surely oversee any final tweaks.
“I owe my existence to Smith,” she answered bluntly. “I owe them everything.”
She related the story of her mother, Julia Lin, who was attending college in Shanghai in May 1949 as Mao Zedong’s Communist army besieged the city. The day Mao’s forces marched into Shanghai, Julia received a scholarship to transfer to Smith in the fall — if she could get there. That August, with two $10 bills and her acceptance letter sewn inside a dress collar, her father had her smuggled out of the country on a fishing boat, even as bombs were falling overhead and pirates cruised the harbor looking to rob seaborne escapees. It took a month for her to finally make it through Nationalist Army lines, sail south to Hong Kong, and eventually arrive here in Northampton. But once on campus, Lin said, her mother thrived, graduating in 1951 and then going on to earn a Ph.D. in Chinese language and literature at the University of Washington. There she met and married a fellow Chinese refugee grad student. Both became professors at Ohio University.
“If she had not gotten that scholarship to go to Smith, she wouldn’t have gotten out of China,” Lin continued, “which meant she wouldn’t have met my dad. Poof! In an instant, I don’t exist.” She recalled accompanying her mother to an alumni reunion at Smith in 1993, where she herself received an honorary doctorate. “She was just beaming. My mom passed away in 2013, and I just really wish she were alive to see this now.”
She trailed off and then added, “You rarely get to bring it home in architecture, when a project and a client is so connected to your life story.” As Lin walked off, she extended her arm with an open palm; her daughter Rachel seamlessly slid her own hand into her mother’s, all without missing a beat.