Jan Schimmenti Torsiglieri and her husband hadn’t been back to Villanova University, her alma mater, in more than a decade.
What they saw one morning this week on the southern side of Lancaster Avenue left them pleasantly stunned: On what used to be a nondescript parking lot rose six stone and brick residence halls — collegiate gothic-style — that will house 1,135 upperclassmen when they open later this month.
The $225 million apartment-style complex, spread over 8 acres and built with more than 5,000 tons of stone, was designed by the firm of New York architect Robert A.M. Stern, former dean of Yale University’s school of architecture. A passageway with decorative arches cuts through the buildings and their courtyards, allowing a view from one end to the other.
It’s the single largest project in the most visible campus location in the university’s history, Villanova officials said.
And it’s one of the biggest changes students at campuses across the region will return to this fall. Others include the opening of Temple University’s $175.8 million library; a major library renovation at Haverford College; new residence halls at the University of the Sciences and Lehigh University; new academic buildings at Bucknell University, Swarthmore College, and Harcum College; a new performing arts center at Rutgers New Brunswick; and a new community center at Rosemont College, named for outgoing president Sharon Latchaw Hirsh. New programs and special anniversaries — the 100th for Drexel University’s co-op program and the 150th for Ursinus College — also are planned.
Called The Commons, Villanova’s four-story complex is connected to the Catholic university’s main campus on the other side of Lancaster Avenue by a pedestrian bridge, built in the same collegiate gothic style, with four gold-colored crosses, two on each end, atop stone pillars.
“It’s really a stark contrast,” Art Torsiglieri, a Haverford graduate and physician, said.
“Gorgeous,” said his wife, who got her degree in commerce and finance in 1981.
“We were commenting," Torsiglieri added, as they began to cross the bridge, leading to the church on the main campus where the couple was married in 1986, "this is what happens when you win a couple of national basketball championships.”
Actually, the 425,000-square-foot complex, which also includes a restaurant — the university’s first — coffee bar, TechZone, fitness center, and 1,200-space parking garage, has nothing to do with the basketball team’s championships in 2016 and 2018.
It’s been under discussion since 2010 and was funded by cash the university had saved and a bond offering, not athletic revenue or donations, said Ken Valosky, executive vice president. The university saw many of its peers offering housing to students all four years and realized it was at a competitive disadvantage, he explained.
“We knew from our research that’s what prospective students and their families wanted,” he said.
With the new residence halls, Villanova’s first in nearly 20 years, about 85 percent of the 6,300 undergraduates will live on campus, up from about 70 percent, Valosky said. All six are filled for the fall, he said. And for the first time in several years, the university will not have to force three freshmen to live in rooms designed for two.
Fewer students living in the surrounding community should improve relations with Radnor Township and reduce traffic and parking issues, he added.
But the project, which the university initially thought would be completed in 2015, did not come without delays, controversy, and compromises. Construction didn’t even begin until 2015.
Villanova would have liked a larger parking structure and taller residence halls, Valosky acknowledged. University officials also had to convince the township that its storm-water management plan would work. The development includes rain gardens and cisterns to collect runoff and use it to cool the buildings.
Perhaps the most high-profile controversy came when Villanova announced its intention to place the crosses on the bridge, in keeping with other structures on the Augustinian campus. Some township residents called it an audacious show of religion that has no place in a township of many faiths.
In the end, commissioners decided they did not have the authority to prohibit the 4-foot, 7-inch crosses, which have been up for about a year.
The university initially planned to have the crosses facing Lancaster Avenue, but then turned them aside — as some residents had asked — so that people crossing the bridge would be facing them, instead of drivers.
“It made more sense,” Valosky said, “which I think defused that issue.”
University officials understood that negotiating details took time.
“We were thrilled with the outcome,” said Valosky, a Villanova graduate who has worked there 20 years, "and I hope that over time township residents are as well. It’s really a new gateway to the university.”
Sara Pilling, a longtime resident who lives a couple of blocks away, acknowledged that the buildings are beautiful and was pleased Villanova turned the crosses and made other adjustments.
“But the big issue is going to be congestion, the students, their automobiles, and their behavior," she said, "and that’s going to take a while for us to know.”
She also questioned the impact of Villanova’s new $60 million performing arts center, which is next to the new parking garage and scheduled to open in January,
Township Commissioner Luke Clark credited Villanova for being receptive to concerns. He likes the result.
“They look fantastic," he said of the residence halls, "and I think it’s a major, major upgrade for the university. It’s what a university of that caliber needs really. And I think they were very responsible with how they handled the construction.”
The residence halls, built by Torcon Inc. and overseen by Voith & Mactavish Architects, each have distinctive features and carry religiously significant names: Trinity, Arch, Canon, Chapter, Friar, and Cupola, for the cupola atop it, with a cross. The bistro-style restaurant will be called “The Refectory,” the name for a dining hall in a religious house. (It’s still being finished and won’t be ready until September.)
Freshmen arrive Wednesday, upperclassmen later, and the complex will be dedicated and blessed by the Rev. Peter M. Donohue, Villanova’s president, Aug. 28.
Donohue was hands-on. He selected the grayish-blue and redbrick pavers, opted for black-trimmed windows rather than white and chose the location and design for the bridge. He found a picture of an old medieval bridge that he sought to duplicate.
"I saw it very much as building something that was going to be around for a long, long time and it needed to fit in,” he said. “It needs to look like the university.”