A Transformational Project: Converse College’s Johnson Plaza

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Many students arriving for the first time at Converse College in Spartanburg, SC, like students arriving at any other private college, have an educational goal to be the best in their class. But when they get to Converse, they can draw some inspiration out of the fact that the first thing they will see was the best in its own right.

Johnson Plaza, designed by Seamon-Whiteside, a Greenville, S.C.-based civil engineering and landscape architecture firm, was commissioned by the president of the college to celebrate the all-female college’s 125th anniversary. The project won Best in Class for Paving/Landscaping in the 2015 Bricks in Architecture competition by the Brick Industry Association, an industry trade group.

Clint Rigsby, RLA, ASLA, LEED AP, a senior landscape architect in the firm’s Greenville, SC office who oversaw the design, said the Johnson Plaza hardscape and its surrounding garden were meant to be a transformational project for the college, an improvement over what had been there before.

Supporting a modern vision for the sport of climbing Encouraging Pedestrian Movement The idea behind the elliptical plaza was simple: Find a way to encourage pedestrian movement into and across what had been an unsightly and inaccessible landscape at the “front door” of the college campus.

Given in honor of Susan Phifer Johnson (class of 1965) and George Dean Johnson Jr., two long-time friends and generous supporters of the college, the project was designed as a bridge between surrounding campus landscapes and facilities. It effectively facilitates daily interaction among students, faculty and administration. Today, it serves as the setting for newly established campus traditions, significant campus events and informal gatherings. The project, in form and detail, reinforces Converse College’s commemoration of the past, as well as its commitment to the future.

An Elliptical Garden

The elliptical garden establishes a meaningful and historically sensitive foreground for Wilson Hall, the college’s historic administration building which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The clay brick vehicular drop-off and plaza, clay brick garden pathways and edging, and brick seat walls successfully reinforce the plaza’s historic context. Brick detailing and paving patterns are used to delineate vehicular and pedestrian zones and take cues from many of Converse College’s historic gardens.

From an aesthetic standpoint, the design creates a timeless space, sited between the college’s historic campus gateway and the 125-year-old Wilson Hall. Clay pavers effectively soften the visual and physical impact of vehicular traffic across the space. Within the space, clay brick pavers and seatwalls blend seamlessly with the historic architecture and gateway structures. The Courtyard Beale Street paver and Old Hampton Modular face brick from Pine Hall Brick were selected to complement brick hues of the surrounding buildings.

Distinct paving patterns within the plaza spaces and connecting brick pathways, header banding, and garden curb details all contribute to the historic garden experience. Broad granite steps, a two-inch wide granite band inscribed with the college’s core values, and the Converse seal inscribed in a single slab of granite further enhance this historically meaningful space. The garden’s diverse plant palette, designed for four-season interest, includes a variety of species which bloom purple in celebration of Converse College’s official color.

Serving Form and Function

The project serves function as well as form. Artistically designed as a fine garden landscape as well as a venue for ceremonial procession and larger gatherings, Johnson Plaza effectively serves multiple functional requirements.

Interlocking paving patterns, designed to perform under frequent vehicular traffic, are used at the speed table to extend the pedestrian experience of the upper plaza across the vehicular way. Brick seat walls flank accessible paths, which provide access to the lower plaza. The seatwalls, which incorporate bullnose shape and Spanish bond pattern details, are designed to encourage views across the Converse College seal and seven core values toward the more pastoral, campus lawn.

Vehicular thresholds and pedestrian crosswalks incorporate 2¼”x4”x8” square edge clay brick, sand-set over a 6” concrete base and restrained by flush concrete ribbon curbing. The same sand-set paver is laid over a stone base at both upper and lower pedestrian plazas and connecting garden pathways. Paver joints in both applications are swept with polymeric sand. Landscape lighting makes the space both beautiful and safe during evening hours.

Lighting effects include up-lighting at newly planted serviceberry and weeping redbud trees, as well as overhead lighting of the lower plaza and campus seal from an existing oak tree. Day or night, once students, faculty, or visitors from the community have arrived at Converse College, they get an idea of what the place is about. It’s there, in the lower plaza. What’s expected of those in this place is actually carved in stone, out there for all to see: “Excellence. Integrity. Exploration. Diversity. Respect. Community.”

About Converse College

Ranked a “Best Value” in the South by U.S. News & World Report and #9 Master’s University in the nation by Washington Monthly, Converse College was founded in Spartanburg, South Carolina, in 1889— among the first 15 women’s colleges founded in the United States. Converse College is a private, liberal arts university with a residential women’s undergraduate college, co-ed graduate, distance learning and adult education programs with an enrollment of around 1400 students, representing thirty states and twelve countries.

Since the college’s founding, graduates have used their Converse experience as launching pads for successful careers and active citizenship. Among Converse alumnae are a Pulitzer Prize winner, a renowned heart researcher, a Texas Supreme Court Justice, a prominent civil rights attorney, Broadway performers, the deputy crew commander for Titan IV Rocket launches at Cape Canaveral, and the first female circuit court judge in South Carolina. Converse College is committed to developing adaptable individuals for the 21st century who are equipped with the character, knowledge, skills and perspective to transform the world around them.

Every Converse student participates in research, independent creative projects, service learning projects, internships or study travel. Half of Converse students are involved in research or independent creative projects. Converse College’s student researchers receive more SCICU funding than any other school in the state, 3/4 are involved in service projects, and 1/3 participate in study-travel to connect with global learning in Africa, Australia, Europe, Asia, North America and South America.

All photos by Forrest Briggs

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About the Author
Walt Steele is a recognized expert on clay pavers. He is paver business manager for Pine Hall Brick Company, America's largest manufacturer of clay pavers. Steele can be reached at (800) 334-8689 and by email at waltsteele@pinehallbrick.com. Learn more at www.PineHallBrick.com.