Peirce Hall Reborn

Web Extras: Video and Photogallery

See more images of Peirce Hall, including its legendary stained glass windows, and a student-produced video tour.

Not Your Father's (or Mother's) Food Service

Peirce offers everything from bagels to veggie wraps, from caramel apples to vegan tomato soup.

Food Service Stats

How many hamburgers, fruits, and vegetables do Kenyon students eat? Find out.

The Nuts and Bolts

The ambitious renovation of Peirce Hall was top-to-bottom. Find out more behind the scenes.

Food with a Face

AVI has a goal of spending 80 percent of its food dollars on local food. This year the total spent reached 40 percent. Find out how Kenyon is buying local.

Taking full advantage of her senior savvy, Marielle Ebersol shifts into scramble mode in the Peirce Hall servery.The scramble is not about eggs. The scramble is the time-tested approach to a smooth dining-hall experience. But Ebersol, of Litchfield, Connecticut, is part of the only remaining Kenyon class that carries the Peirce-dining DNA.

While underclassmen are stalled in a queue behind a stack of trays, silverware, or salad, Ebersol glides around and aims for, say, a plate of pizza. If she has targeted a tomato slice to top off her salad, she makes a calculated lunge and lift. "I just go in there and get it," she said of the tomato pinch.

"Freshmen, especially, don't tend to know the way we're used to doing things around here. Most of my friends, we just come in. We're not going to stand in line for trays. You go in and get what you need and then you might want a tray. The line will slow down and then you can maybe reach over.

"Scrambling, you can just get what you want."

The collective memory of most of the student body draws a two-year blank when it comes to most things Peirce. The $28 million renovation of Peirce and Dempsey halls started in June 2006. The 1929-vintage Peirce was shuttered and Dempsey, dating to 1964, was razed. New versions of the buildings were unwrapped for the 2008-09 academic year, opening for food service on August 23.

The reviews for the new dining complex are strong despite some unanticipated wrinkles and adjustments. Tom Lepley, director of facilities planning, is happy with the project he oversaw as the Kenyon liaison with the Albert M. Higley Company, a Cleveland-based construction firm. "The building is ten-fold better than it was before," he said. "As far as I'm concerned, it's good for another hundred years."

Students vote with their all-you-can-eat appetites. The head count for one September dinner was 1,622. Attendance reached 98 percent in the early weeks at Peirce, swamping the industry standard of about 55 percent.

Shrochis Karki, a senior from Kathmandu, Nepal, and the Student Council president, is a sharp critic of food and recalled his boarding-school days, when he preferred hunger to an unsatisfactory meal. He has not missed meals at Peirce. "I've been very impressed," he said.

He quickly got his bearings in the new servery, which is about four times as large as the original. The servery is designed for the scramble or scatter system, said Holly Miller, the project architect for the Gund Partnership of Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Newcomers to the Peirce experience may have contributed to the long lines that stymied their student peers in the opening days at the servery, but they can be forgiven. Dining there is novel in many ways for everyone.

The College and AVI Foodsystems tinkered with meal hours and improved signs, and resurrected an old, two-sided salad bar to ease bottlenecks evident during the shakedown cruise.

Let's Eat

To an uninitiated observer, this new servery scene resembles the controlled chaos of a bee hive. Individuals face a cornucopia of choices in food zones arranged in an arc running between the entryway from the Borden Atrium on one side and the doors to the Great Hall on the other. The bee line can lead to the grill for a hamburger and French fries, to the deli bar for a custom-made submarine sandwich, to pizza pies just pulled from a stone-hearth oven. The footfalls take students to a row of drink options, a "wellness bar" (flaked tuna, hummus, tofu items), and a dessert lineup. A crisscrossing rhythm develops as choices are made, lines form and dissolve, and bodies bob and weave. Collisions are headed off as if by inner antennae. Trays bearing rotisserie chicken, tortellini, and carrot cake are then steered into the warm embrace of the Great Hall or the cool chic of the new and neighboring Thomas Hall, the dominant dining room in the reborn Dempsey.

Joining the two dining halls is the atrium, which functions as the entry point to the servery, a handy venue for student groups, and a retreat with soft seating and natural light flowing in around images
of doves etched into overhead glass. Subtle supporting beams are painted in the color "intellectual grey." Defying incongruity, the outside is now in, with the Collegiate Gothic east wall of Peirce bracing the atrium's smooth modernity.

And the vibe is good for the food served at Kenyon, where the reach is for sustainability and the grasp is on local produce and meats.

"It's really good," Ebersol said. "I like the different options. The pizza tastes really good. They have mixed spring salads. They have a lot of really good, fresh food this year that I haven't seen before. It's local. It's not mass-produced. You can always get fresh fruit, even at dinner."

On this day, Ebersol took a solitary seat next to a soaring window in Thomas Hall, where she absorbed the view of the gently rolling terrain to the east of the Hill and then did some reading over lunch. On other days and in the company of friends, she prefers the Great Hall, modeled after an English college dining hall. "I just love the atmosphere of the Great Hall," she said. "My little brother likes it because he thinks it looks like Hogwarts, from the Harry Potter books."

As in times past, the Great Hall is a gathering place for athletic teams and social clubs. On a day in October, Lords football players claimed their places in the southeast corner of the Great Hall, following the lead of senior Dan Gajewski of Brunswick, Ohio. "I guess it comes from my freshman year," he said. "We had these two tables. We always come to sit together."

And if a hapless first-year student finds himself sandwiched between a linebacker and a fullback? "Eventually they'll get the picture," Gajewski said.

Gajewski and the Lords with him endorsed the chow. Tyren Bynum '11 of Danville, Illinois, said, "I like the building, and the food is great. I talk to a lot of my friends at other colleges, and our food is definitely much better. It's nice to know that it's fresh and it comes from around here, from farmers who work around here."

Karki also eschews Thomas Hall in favor of the Great Hall. He often dines with his Alpha Delta Phi fraternity brothers at their regular table, "from years before," about midpoint in the hall.
But he believes the venerable room lost a little of its old-school, Gothic charm when it was refurbished to look more "polished and glittering."

A "vast improvement" is evident in Dempsey Hall, Karki said. The Alumni Dining Room on the lower level of Dempsey is bordered on one side by the forty-eight-seat Leach Dining Room and on the other by three, smaller venues—the Chadeayne, Marriott Society, and Ramser dining rooms. The rooms have been in high demand for meetings, said Lorie Shults, coordinator of campus events. "A lot of departments want to showcase Peirce as the jewel in Kenyon's crown," she said. "There are very few times when the spaces aren't reserved."

Beneath the Great Hall, the twice-as-nice Pub, with its snaking, decorative LED lighting and new pool and foosball tables, opened in October. Outside, the granite stones for the patio were put in place that same month, making a stage for Indian and Pronghorn Antelope, a stirring bronze sculpture by Paul Manship. Manship, who anticipated the Art Deco movement, created this piece in 1914. Architect Graham Gund '63 is sharing the sculpture on a long-term loan.

The Eye of the Architect

Miller started the design work in February 2005 on a mission to restore Peirce Hall to its "former glory." Three additions, the first dating to 1957, had obscured some of the beauty of the building, she said, and lines in the old servery intruded into the Great Hall. A dishwashing room added in 1982 prevented natural light from reaching two of Peirce's windows, leaving them illuminated from behind by fluorescent light. Modernizing the room without sacrificing its classic good looks was a challenge. "We removed the ceiling," she said. "The plaster between the beams was all removed." The ceiling was insulated, plumbing for the sprinkler system was fitted, and ductwork was added.

Miller pronounced the room "fantastic."

The Thomas dining hall had to be different but "respectful to the Great Hall" and had to take advantage of the view to the east. Thomas is "sort of a contemporary interpretation of the Great Hall," she said. "The Great Hall is an inward-looking space. Thomas Hall is oriented to the landscape."

If the Great Hall is the heart of the complex, it's the servery that keeps the pulse going. "Our goal for the servery was to really highlight the farm-to-table program," Miller said. "Instead of all the cooking being in a kitchen and having a cafeteria line, we wanted to bring everything up front and make it visible. Almost all of the cooking is done in the servery." Char-broilers, the Mongolian grill, and stove tops are in full view.

Expectations were high for the new Peirce, said Bill Clapp, the former AVI district manager who supervised the opening weeks. "The theory is to bring the food forward," he said. "Prep it, bring it up to the floor, and then finish it off for the students so it's as fresh and as hot as it can possibly be. This whole building has been set up for that."

AVI, with a crew of about eighty, made a skillful turn-around in twelve hours, shifting from dinner on August 22 in Ernst Hall to breakfast the next morning in Peirce. The early days were "bumpy," Clapp said, as the crew adjusted to the space and equipment. The staff became frustrated with a lack of counter space for baking and shifted some baking to the Gund Commons kitchen. A lunch grab-and-go service at Gund has made life easier for students on the north side of the campus.

In Peirce, workers also found the need for more storage space and continue to juggle and adjust. And a circular conveyor system for returning soiled dishes and trays tended to outpace behind-the-scenes workers or too often came to a halt thanks to a sensitive electric eye reacting to a tray edge or protruding plate. Carts were rolled out to handle extra trays, and a worker is sometimes asked to stand by and keep the conveyor system moving.

"We've made great leaps and bounds," said Dennis Bean, a chef and director of culinary operations education for AVI. "The food itself is pretty much as good as you can get. It has quality. It's local.
It's fresh."

Compliments do not satisfy Terrence Webb, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America and one of two executive chefs working for AVI at Peirce. "The food is good," he said. But he added, "Once we get all the bells and whistles in this new property worked out ... I think our application will be phenomenal."

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