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Michels Plaza at Historic Randolph College, Lynchburg, Va.

by Proctor Harvey, RLA, ASLA, and Nathan Harbin, Creative Director, Harvey Design Land Architects (HDLA)

The design of Michels Plaza at Randolph College in Lynchburg, Va., offers two bubbling pools at either side of the top row of amphitheater-style seating, with a recirculating fountain at the plaza center. Bluestone (Boxley Block) caps the brick amphitheater seat ledges and pool seat walls. The seating design mimics that of Randolph's Greek Theatre. The tree (right) is a 'Natchez' crape myrtle; the groundcover is periwinkle.

Randolph College, originally founded in 1891 as Randolph Macon Woman's College, is nestled in Lynchburg, Virginia with spectacular views of the Blue Ridge Mountains and its historic campus architecture. Harvey Design Land Architects (HDLA) has worked with the college on numerous projects over the last six years, including attractive rain gardens and overall beautification for the campus frontage. We were honored when they asked us to move forward with a plaza design located at the heart of the campus.


The tiered planters at the end of the seat wall accommodate yellow 'Knock Out' roses.

Randolph College is in the midst of numerous upgrades and improvements, including a recently completed $6 million Student Center renovation designed by Architectural Partners of Lynchburg, Va. The selected location for the new plaza was an unattractive and uninviting asphalt parking lot behind Main Hall, which daily disgorged a heavy flow of pedestrian traffic. It was clear that this space wanted to be much more than an underused parking lot, and this is largely what drove our conversations with the college about transforming this space. We envisioned a gathering area for students and faculty, offering up some of the best views on campus.


The pavers in the plaza slope gently toward the fountain base. The water drains to a fiberglass collector tank below the brick plaza surface. The brick within the water-collecting oval immediately surrounding the fountain is mortared-in-place on a concrete slab. All pavers outside of the immediate fountain area are dry-laid on a sand base. The blended brick for the plaza and surrounding areas is 40 percent 'Redland Shenandoah', 30 percent 'Old Virginia Monticello' and 30 percent 'Redland King William' (Redland Brick and Old Virginia Brick).

The plaza feature began in concept as a small, intimate courtyard enclosed by seat walls. Those early concepts presented to the college grew substantially as the faculty realized the space needed to be kept open for larger events. 3D renderings at this early stage were an invaluable tool in helping the client visualize what this space could become. The plaza also needed to be in harmony with the newly constructed Student Center, an impressive architectural backdrop for any open space design. One thing we knew for certain was the plaza would include some form of water feature or features.


The location for the new plaza and water features was a mundane asphalt parking lot behind Main Hall, a busy pedestrian area.

The final design accepted by the college included two bubbling pools at either side of the top row of amphitheater-style seating, with a recirculating fountain feature at the plaza center. There are numerous challenges when designing with water features. You have noisy pumps, water loss, recirculation systems, custom nozzles to control the flow of the water, freezing temperatures...the list goes on. Most of these hurdles were technical and relatively easy to resolve. One of the most difficult details by far to get right was the flow of the geyser jets at the center of the plaza. It took multiple attempts and various nozzles to dial in the exact effect we sought, but the result was worth it. Hidden in plain sight is a recapture basin that sits below the brick plaza surface. The size of the recapture area was precisely calculated to minimize water loss. All the pavers in this area slope gently down to the fountain base. We were surprised at the amount of water the pavers absorb before the recirculation system can begin to function.

Design and construction of the plaza were met with firm time constraints to accommodate then-president John Klein's schedule for improvements. We also needed to complete the project to coincide with the opening of the new Student Center. In a perfect world, we would have prepared all of our drawings and details in AutoCAD, in addition to the 3D renderings. In actuality, this was one of those fast-paced projects where the features are practically built before the ink dries on the construction drawings. These are the projects we design professionals live for, and there is no better motivation than a seemingly impossible deadline. We were very fortunate to have Bob Bennett, director of capital projects for Randolph College, and Chris Burnley, vice president for finance and administration, working hands on with us from concept to completion. In addition to daily supervision of the project, they also facilitated a number of meetings and design reviews critical to our success. The contractor, Thomas Design & Build, also worked hard to meet the college's deadline.


A yellow paver diamond pattern offsets the fountain, a design found throughout the grounds. Nearly 130 bricks surrounding the fountain are engraved with the names of faculty emeriti and the departments in which they taught. All the design details for the fountain were coordinated on site with the contractor (Thomas Design & Build, LLC), supplier (Delta Fountains) and owner. The fountain has three main OASE 1.5-inch nozzles that can produce a 14-ft. water column, plus two 1-inch 'frothy' nozzles capable of a 4-ft. column of water, but the pump speed is slowed to create a bubbler effect. The main fountain is equipped with a 7.5 hp pump with a variable frequency drive that controls the pump speed and regulates the height of the fountains. This pump is capable of producing up to 750 gpm. There's also a Pentair 3-hp variable speed pump with four preset speeds and over 50 optional speed settings to adjust the flow height of the nozzles to the desired effect. The basin nozzles are further controlled by 2-inch ball valves that can be adjusted to equalize the flow of each nozzle. An anemometer reduces the pump speed as the wind picks up.

Mary Michels Scovanner, a 1977 alumna, funded the design and construction and is the plaza's namesake. Without her generous gift these improvements would not have been possible. Michels Plaza is now one of the most unique outdoor gathering spaces for students, classes and other events throughout the entire campus. Construction predominantly consists of brick paving and veneer with the seating finished in bluestone. A historic yellow paver used for a diamond pattern featured throughout the grounds was included in the design to meld this new feature to the history of the campus. The red field of pavers is a blend of three unique paver products, arranged to closely match the historic walkways adjacent to the new plaza feature.

Team List
Landscape Architect: Harvey Design Land Architects, Inc.
Project Manager: Proctor S. Harvey, RLA, ASLA
Contractor: Thomas Design & Build, LLC, Bill Thomas
Water Feature Components: Delta Fountains
Brick: Boxley Block, LLC

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August 19, 2019, 10:27 am PDT

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