Salem College Blends New Design with Historic Island of Architecture

If Elizabeth Oesterlein were to walk up to Salem College in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, today, we're betting that she would feel right at home. Located in the historic Moravian community of Old Salem, Salem College was founded in the late 1700s and is the oldest continuously operating college for women in the United States.

It began under the influence of Oesterlein, who as a 17-year-old walked from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, to the Moravian settlement in what is now Winston- Salem, NC, in 1766 to further her education. The Moravians, which originated in the Czech Republic in the 15th Century, have a strong belief in equal education for men and women. In 1772, a school for girls was founded on the present-day site of Salem College. Oesterlein was a big part of what is now Salem College; she influenced the school to be among the first to accept non-white students. In 1802, it became a boarding school and in 1890, began awarding college diplomas.

An Island of Architecture

Today’s students attend classes in an island of architecture from the 18th and 19th centuries, settled into the middle of a modern city. The oldest building on campus—the Single Sisters House—was built in 1785 and the newest, in 2014. The newest building, the Student Center, was intended to be a hub for Salem’s student events and gatherings. The student center features a café, bookstore, theater, student lounge, meeting rooms and a student organizational workroom. Lambert Architecture + Interiors designed the project (built by Frank L. Blum Construction) to be modern and open while reflecting Salem’s historic roots. Located adjacent to Corrin Refectory and Bryant Hall, it was the first new building erected on Salem’s campus since 1982.

Not surprisingly, the challenge for the designers and builders of both the building and its surrounding landscape was to make the area look as though it had always been there. And a big part of that challenge was to find ways to set the scene, using materials that would have been appropriate for the surrounding buildings of red brick.

Blending With History

Kimberly M. Barb, RLA, ASLA, LEED AP BD+C, a partner and senior project manager for Stimmel Associates, PA, a landscape architecture, civil engineering and land planning firm, said that the two-story, 15,000-square-foot building was designed to blend in with the 243-year-old campus. As it turns out, the effort paid off. The design won a 2015 General Design Award from the American Society of Landscape Architecture and an honorable mention from Business NC magazine.

A blend of modern and historical features, the area leading to the student center features a brick walkway, stone wall benches, replica gateway columns, lush landscaping and a revived lily pond that was a gift from the class of 1928.

Designing the Center and Plaza for the densely packed campus posed quite a challenge, prompting some to describe the project as being akin to building a “ship in a bottle,” because the plans called for a building and plaza that appeared to have been dropped into place among the existing structures to look as though it had been there for decades.

Emulating Surrounding Elements

Emulating the surrounding design elements, some of which were in place for more than 80 years, prompted a design that called for generous outdoor gathering spaces for the students. Improvements included expanded plazas, brick seat walls, fountain restoration, walkway connections, lighting and landscaping, which all contribute to the LEED certification design standards. The historic lily pond was restored and renovated with an expanded natural flagstone terrace, an enhanced stone waterfall and landscaping.

From the project’s beginnings, the general contractor, Frank L. Blum Construction, had to work around what was there. A pecan tree was 25 feet from the southwest corner of the building—and a local arborist was called in to trim the branches, stabilize it with cables and add in fertilizer.

An existing asphalt paved drive on the west side of the tree could not be removed, because it would likely damage the tree roots. Instead, the contractor drilled holes in the asphalt for drainage, then covered it with sand and installed new Pine Hall Brick Rumbled Full Range pavers atop the sand. For the main drive going through campus, new vehicular Full Range pavers were set in a sand bed on top of a concrete reinforced base.

Rumbled Pavers to Fit Historic Aesthetic

There, an elliptical design using a 45-degree herringbone pattern with concrete bands and a flagstone paver medallion was used. The designer specified rumbled pavers, which are mechanically tumbled—or distressed—after firing so that they mimic clay pavers that are much older, which are a better fit with the historic aesthetic of Old Salem.

To counteract a steep grade, new brick paver terraces that include a fire pit and an outdoor seating area were installed. And once completed, Salem College officials were so pleased with the appearance of the clay paver plaza at the student center that they extended it by replacing an existing asphalt drive with the new pavers up to Salem Square. In all, the design contributed to a feeling on campus that the building had indeed always been there. And we’re thinking that Elizabeth Oesterlein would approve.

About the Author
Walt Steele is chief operating officer for Pine Hall Brick Company, America’s largest manufacturer of genuine clay pavers. For more information, Steele can be reached at (800) 334-8689 and by email at For more information, please visit