Student Centered

Highsmith Becomes More than Just a Building
A rendering of the new Highsmith Student Union, now under construction. Images provided by Little Diversified / Workshop.

UNC Asheville’s Highsmith Student Union has experienced three decades of activity, and this fall, when the lights in the front of the building shine once again, it will fully embody the student union of the 21st century. Renovations in 2017-18 redefined the building, adding or expanding meeting spaces, an art gallery, the intercultural center, and coffee shop. An expansion will add a much-needed multi-purpose room, inviting the campus and community for events.

What you won’t see are the offices that used to face University Heights, and that face-lift is intentional, says Bill Haggard, vice chancellor for student affairs at UNC Asheville. “It’s an objective of the current renovation that we bring the student activity front and center in the building.”

Highsmith University Center and Highrise (now Founders Hall) in 1984.

The evolution of the building from a single-story student center to a multi-story university union that reaches the street level at University Heights also coincided with key moments in the university’s history. From his time as a senator and chief of staff of Student Government Association in the ’80s to his current role as Director of International Students Services Robert Straub ’91 has had a front-row seat.

“The design of the building and space allowed the expansion of programming for students and by students. That was really important,” Straub says of the renovations that elevated Highsmith Union in 2004. Building upon the foundation, from the boiler room and what is now the Bike Shop, the Highsmith Union of the new century featured wide hallways, connecting student organization suites, offices, the food court and bookstore, as well as a post office.

The timing of construction also offered at least two opportunities for the university, as Kevan Frazier ’92, director of student life at the time, recalls. Before being demolished, the prior building hosted a Homecoming to remember, as students transformed the bookstore to a beach, complete with truckloads of sand, and staged an Alice in Wonderland theme in the dining hall. Then, the building became the site of a statewide terrorism and structural collapse exercise, covered by The Fire and Rescue Journal and preparing 250 participants through mock drills and exercises. Sections of the 35,000 square foot building were also demolished so that rescuers could practice working with heavy machinery.

That demolition set the stage for the renovations and additions in 2002 and sparked campus’ creativity. In 2005, UNC Asheville Professor of Art S. Tucker Cooke led the project to create and install a full-scale reproduction of the 16th century Vatican fresco by Raphael, The School of Athens, with the addition of two UNC Asheville Bulldogs. The painting—which took two years’ work by students, faculty, and community members—still hangs above the food court, preserved during the current construction.

“The goal had been to make it a signature building for campus,” says Frazier. “The architect was interested in the revival of internationalism, so we embraced that style even in the details of furniture and font choices for the signs.”

Students make their mark on the new Highsmith Student Union, signing a steel beam destined to become part of the building.Students once again have had a hand in selecting the finishing details for the updates, and this spring they signed their names to one of the steel beams in the new addition, leaving a lasting mark on campus to come.

“As a result of the renovation, UNC Asheville will have a student-centered facility built with an intentional design that advances a stronger sense of community for students, faculty, staff, and alumni,” says Stan Sweeney, director of Highsmith Student Union & Student Activities. “It is our hope that Highsmith Student Union will help position UNC Asheville as a leader in student engagement and success among public liberal arts institutions.”

UNC Asheville will celebrate the re-opening of Highsmith Student Union in 2018-19, and many areas of the building have remained open during construction.