Expanding Patriot Pride: Remaking Fenwick Library


On December 15, 1967, at three o’clock in the afternoon, 200 faculty members, administrators and students of George Mason College gathered along with the Lieutenant Governor of Virginia to formally dedicate the College’s newly opened library. [1] Since that mid-December day, Fenwick Library has become a cornerstone of student life at Mason. It is arguably one of the more popular places for students to study, relax, or simply meet with friends on campus. In 2013, construction began on Fenwick Library’s largest expansion in thirty years. The fifth building built on the Fairfax campus, Fenwick has a long history that begins even before ground was broken on Mason’s Fairfax Campus.

The plans to build the original section of Fenwick Library, often referred to today as “Wing A”, date back to 1960. [2] A May 1960 planning document for the Fairfax Campus of George Mason College allocates 10,528 sq. feet to a library as part of a “Phase I” building program. An additional 8,332 sq. feet was to be allocated in “Phase II” of construction. A memo dated October 26, 1960, addressed to John Norville Gibson Finley, Director of George Mason College, then located at Bailey’s Crossroads, described in detail the proposed layout for the college’s future permanent library. [3] As further plans were made for the Fairfax Campus, it was decided that a permanent library would not open in 1964 with the first four academic buildings. The library was to be temporarily housed on the second floor of “Building D,” today known as the East Building. [4]

A Library Building Committee, which included George Mason College Director Robert Reid, College Librarian Pat Larkin, and long-time George Mason College supporter C. Harrison Mann, Jr., a member of the Virginia House of Delegates, met in 1964 to make more definitive plans for a permanent library. [5] An undated library proposal, which was likely written sometime in the early 1960s, stresses the concept of the library as a “study hall” facility and urges that the building be large enough to accommodate fifty percent of the student body at any one time. [6] In November 1964 more detailed plans called for the library to include a smoking lounge for students, a staff room, and a room with a cot and private bathroom for staff or students who became “indisposed.”[7]

The plan also anticipated that the library would be able to hold 500 readers after Phase I construction was complete, and 1,250 readers after Phase II construction was complete. The college’s 1966 Master Plan depicted the college library as the center of new construction on campus. [8] It detailed how the library would look after both Phase I and II were completed, with the proposed Phase II addition bearing a strong resemblance to what would become the second library tower (later known as Fenwick Library’s Phase III expansion) in 1983. A second “site plan” from 1966 featured a reflecting pool in front of the library. [9]

The library opened in the fall of 1967 with storage space for 50,000 volumes, the requirement for all two-year institutions. [10] Construction of the Library took about sixteen months to complete, and by late October 1967 it was ready to be occupied. On move-in day library staff, along with dozens of volunteers from the student body, carted some twenty thousand volumes from the East Building to the new library to be shelved. In preparation for George Mason College becoming a larger institution, the administration immediately began the push to increase the storage capacity to 100,000 volumes, the new minimum required for all four-year institutions. [11]

On December 15, 1967 the college held the formal dedication of the new library. The hour-long ceremony included remarks by George Mason College Chancellor, Lorin A. Thompson, Architect William F. Vosbeck, University of Virginia President, Edgar F. Shannon, Jr., and Virginia Lieutenant Governor, Fred G. Pollard. A tour of the library was given afterwards. During President Shannon’s remarks he announced that the library would be named Fenwick Library after Virginia State Senator Charles Rogers Fenwick of Arlington, a long time backer of George Mason College. Fenwick had helped draw up and pass General Assembly Resolution #5 which created the college. As Rector of the Board of Visitors of the University of Virginia for a number of years, he steadfastly supported the growth of the college and participated in many of its official events. In 1963 Fenwick had turned the first shovelful of earth at the groundbreaking ceremony for the Fairfax Campus. The announcement came as a surprise to many of the attendees, most notably Senator Fenwick himself who called it “the greatest honor” he had ever received. [12]

Fenwick Library had undergone two major renovations in its first sixteen years. In 1970, George Mason College administrators realized that the original Fenwick Library structure (which did not include the proposed “Phase II addition”) was not large enough for the rapidly increasing student population. [13] In November 1974, George Mason University opened a five-story tower connected to Fenwick Library as part of a new “Phase II” expansion. A second tower opened in 1983 as part of Fenwick Library’s “Phase III” construction. [14]

In the mid and late 1980s, administrators at George Mason University Libraries began drawing up plans for additional library towers as part of a “Phase IV” and eventually “Phase V” expansion project. [15] This building program was eventually abandoned when the University Libraries instead decided to propose what would become the George W. Johnson Learning Center, which opened as the University Learning Center in 1995. An innovation was the combining of state funding for two separate projects--a library and a Student Union--into a single, larger project.

[16] As student population growth continued into the 21st Century, library administrators returned to the Fenwick Library expansion concept. The University’s 2007 Master Plan included an addition to the existing Fenwick Library buildings. [17] The new library opened in 2016.

Regarding Fenwick Library’s expansion, University Librarian John Zenelis noted that “Over the decades, Fenwick’s appearance and size has changed, but its function of serving the university community as Mason’s main research library has remained constant.”[19] The main library on George Mason University’s Fairfax Campus has come a long way from its early life as part of the second floor of the East Building. The expansion project leaves Fenwick Library poised to become one of the largest buildings on the Fairfax Campus. As Mason’s largest library continues to grow and modernize, it will certainly continue to play an essential role in lives of all Mason students.

[1] “VIPs Open Library, rapid growth forecast,” The Gunston Ledger, January 11, 1968. Broadside Archives, Box #2.
[2] “Revised Stage I [Building] Program,” May 9, 1960. GMU Library Archives, Box #138, Folder 22.
[3] Memo from John Finley to SRS (possibly Steve Salmon),” October 26, 1960. GMU Library Archives, Box #138, Folder 22.
[4] “Letter from Dean Lee Potter to Chancellor Joseph Vaughn,” September 27, 1963. GMU Library Archives, Box #138, Folder 22.
[5] “List of Library Committee Members,” 1964. GMU Library Archives, Box #141, Folder 4.
[6] “Library Final Draft,” undated. GMU Library Archives, Box #138, Folder 22.
[7] “Library Building, George Mason College of University of Virginia, Revised Preliminary Program,” November 15, 1964. GMU Library Archives, Box #139, Folder 10.
[8] “Master Plan,” 1966. GMU Library Archives, Box #139, Folder 6.
[9] “Site Plan,” 1966. GMU Library Archives, Folder #139, Folder 6.
[10] “GMU Asks for Increase in Construction Funds,” The Gunston Ledger, September 29, 1967. Broadside Archives, Box #2.
[11] “VIPs Open Library, rapid growth forecast,” The Gunston Ledger, January 11, 1968. Broadside Archives, Box #2.
[12] Ibid.
[13] “Mason’s First Building Boom: Filling out the First Forty Acres during the 1970s,” George Mason University: A History.
[14] Womble, Francis. “Fenwick Library Gets Ready to Expand,” George Mason University News, October 24, 2012. http://newsdesk.gmu.edu/2012/10/fenwick-library-gets-ready-to-expand/.
[15] Keyes Condon Florance. “George Mason University, Fenwick Library Phase IV, Third Floor Plan,” 1987. GMU Library Archives, Box #140, Folder 6.
[16] “The New Center of Campus: The Creation of the George Johnson Center,” George Mason University: A History.
[17] Muraca, Frank. “Fenwick Library to double in size with new addition,” Connect2Mason, September 13, 2012.
[18] Womble, Francis. “Fenwick Library Gets Ready to Expand,” George Mason University News, October 24, 2012. http://newsdesk.gmu.edu/2012/10/fenwick-library-gets-ready-to-expand/
[19] Womble, Francis. “Fenwick Library Gets Ready to Expand,” George Mason University News, October 24, 2012. http://newsdesk.gmu.edu/2012/10/fenwick-library-gets-ready-to-expand/.