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The changing face of Flagler College

Mar 4, 2011
by Carrie Pack Chowske, '00

An improved campus takes shape one detail at a time thanks to landscape architect Sharon Fowler

For landscape architect Sharon Fowler, it’s all in the details. From signage and drainage systems to plazas and gardens, nearly everything on Flagler’s campus has seen a significant face lift in the last five years.

Having just completed a plaza at the west entrance to Kenan Hall, Fowler is now finishing up work on a new locker room facility at Flagler Field. But it’s the smaller details that make Fowler the most proud.

“You add up all the details, and people go ‘Wow, that campus is beautiful,’ but they don’t realize it’s because of the individual details,” she said.

In fact, her first project under contract to the college was to examine the historic campus and make suggestions to college President William T. Abare Jr. about areas she thought could be improved.

When she began her report, Fowler looked at the campus with fresh eyes. She pointed out an area of campus few had probably noticed: a small alcove in the south breezeway that had been boarded up and hidden for more than 20 years.

The boards and plexiglass were hiding the hotel’s original luggage drop. Upon checking in to the Ponce de Leon Hotel, guests’ luggage was taken to the breezeway and dropped at the top of four steps where a bellman retrieved the bags and brought them up to the guests’ rooms using a service elevator. The breezeway area has now been restored and provides a focal point to the stairs leading into the rotunda.

Once the initial improvement study was complete, Fowler was tasked with some of the major building projects on campus. She designed outdoor spaces for the Crisp-Ellert Art Museum, the Ringhaver Student Center, the Molly Wiley Art Building, the Florida East Coast Railway buildings, and most recently a permeable drainage system behind Lewis House. There isn’t much on Flagler’s campus that escapes Fowler’s scrutiny.

This fall, students returned to a brand new plaza between Kenan Hall and the Lawrence Lewis Jr. Memorial Gazebo. But Director of Business Services Larry Weeks says it was a project nearly 30 years in the making — a plaza was on the original plans for the renovation of Kenan Hall.

“It was always meant to be,” Fowler said. “It was on the plans in the ‘80s to have a plaza.”

The original plaza sketch featured an Italian-style fountain, designed by retired art professor Enzo Torcoletti. Weeks says the plaza was beautiful, but didn’t have today’s students in mind.

The recently completed Kenan Plaza is a state-of-the-art outdoor gathering space, replete with movable tables and chairs, electrical outlets for students to plug in laptops, decorative lighting and a sustainable drainage system that eliminated the issue of standing water in front of Kenan Hall. There is no fountain, but there is a focal point: a granite accent in the center of the plaza that features the college logo.

It’s a beautiful area, with towering dactylifera palms, but Fowler is most proud of its more practical features. Within a week of classes starting, students were already using the space for studying and socializing. Fowler saw two students sitting at one of the tables with a laptop plugged in, and they were working on a project together.

“[They] were doing what I imaged them to do,” she said. “It looked like it was meant to be.”

The new plaza is certainly a focal point for Fowler’s work, but it’s the bigger picture that keeps her motivated. Weeks says you can already see the positive influence thanks to all of the smaller changes.

“You can’t put your finger on any one thing,” he said. “You see everything as a unit.”

Fowler says the historic buildings make the campus beautiful, but she says it’s also important when making improvements to make the campus inviting and maintainable, as well as to complement existing materials as much as possible.

“If I’m working next to Kenan Hall, I’m totally influenced by Kenan Hall,” she said. “One of the things I love is you can really see Kenan Hall with the plaza finished. It’s a beautiful piece of architecture — striking really.”

Along with Weeks, Fowler is often seen on campus matching brick for walkways or selecting materials for campus projects.

“I really like to complement the architecture,” Fowler said. “And that’s why I painstakingly pick out materials. Respecting the historic materials is particularly my priority when I’m working.”

Fowler remembers going up in a cherry picker during the construction of the courtyard at the FEC buildings. She says she’s afraid of heights, but took the contractor’s offer to take a ride to the top of the building. She wanted the bricks on the new columns to match some existing bricks on the buildings.

It’s that attention to detail that initially attracted Abare’s attention. He was playing golf at the Red Tail golf course in Lake County and remarked how much he liked the entryway to the course. It included a covered bridge designed by Fowler to complement the golf course. Abare immediately knew he wanted to speak with the designer.

“I was impressed right away with her professionalism, her creativity, and her work ethic,” Abare said. She is a talented landscape architect who brings a great amount of creativity, imagination and dedication to her work.”

Fowler says there was never a doubt in her mind that she wanted the job.

“I think it took me a millisecond to say yes,” she said.

It’s been a labor of love ever since. In 2007 she helped redesign Sevilla Street from the Proctor Library to the Ringhaver Student Center. Thanks to Fowler’s suggestions, the street was made one-way and sidewalks were widened. The effect is dramatic. The area is much more friendly to pedestrian traffic and unifies the buildings on the western side of Sevilla Street with the West Lawn, Ponce de Leon Hall and the Molly Wiley Art Building.

“What I’m really passionate about and love about working with Flagler College is the variety of things I get to work on,” Fowler said. “Every project is unique.”

Fowler has even offered suggestions on areas that had been entirely overlooked. In fact, she updated the entrance to the maintenance area in the Kenan parking lot.

“I watched people walk down Valencia and look at the maintenance area,” Fowler said. “And I thought ‘This is a main view corridor.’ ”

It was a utilitarian area that served its purpose, but it was also highly visible to visitors. She sketched design solutions that eventually helped obscure some necessary ductwork. It’s certainly not as glamorous of a project as creating a new plaza, but Fowler is nonetheless proud of the accomplishments. The result is dramatic. Visitors now focus on the Gilded Age architecture instead of ductwork and pipes.

“I cannot say enough about the work that she has done for the college,” Abare said. “She has transformed the appearance of our campus.”

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