Students and faculty from 50 colleges around the country have found their schools on an “Ugliest” list, and Stony Brook University, along with four other New York campuses, made the top ten.
“I never wanted to go here,” sophomore psychology major Maya Perry said. “I applied only because it was a SUNY school. I came because it was cheap.”
Her friend, fellow sophomore psychology major Olga Leus, said the campus is so-so.
“I don’t think ours is terrible,” Leus said. “I guess I’m indifferent. What do you expect? It’s a SUNY school.”
Three of the five New York schools that made the list’s top ten are SUNY schools.
But who made this list, and how did they compile this information?
Kathryn Henderson, a Rochester Institute of Technology graduate (number three on the list), blogger and design critic based in Brooklyn, ranked colleges for Complex.com based on location, planning, decentralization and “inappropriately mixed styles of architecture.”
So that is what got Stony Brook on the list.
When Ward Melville donated 478 acres in Stony Brook to a fledgling state college in 1958, he envisioned “a small liberal arts college with a colonial architecture in keeping with the Three Village area,” like nearby Historic Stony Brook Village and Three Village schools, according to a New York Times article from 2002 and the suburban legend.
The state quickly erected a bunch of boxy brown brick buildings and opened the new Stony Brook campus in 1962. In 1980, three years after Melville’s death, the spaceship-like hospital opened.
“Ward Melville would have rolled over in his grave,” a Setauket resident said, who declined to be named because he formerly worked for the university.
It was not until Shirley Strum Kenny’s tenure as Stony Brook University’s fourth president that significant improvements to the campus aesthetic appeared.
As scaffolding popped up all over campus, so did new landscaping. To the chagrin of administrators, so did skateboarders, who were drawn to the new pavement and sleek concrete.
”Truthfully, I don’t think anyone could have welcomed such large and massive construction in their backyard,” Kenny told the Times in 2002. “We have made serious efforts to ameliorate that antipathy.”
In spite of her efforts, the new and the old did not quite mesh well. Some buildings look space-aged and high-tech, like the Wang Center and the renovated Javits Lecture Center, while others resemble a Cold War prisonscape, like the perplexingly-named Ward Melville Social and Behavioral Sciences building. It quickly becomes clear on a walk across campus that Henderson’s charge of “inappropriately mixed styles of architecture” is valid.
“It’s like day and night,” freshman computer science major Alex Green said of the new construction compared to the old. “On some campuses I was awed when I walked on. This campus was bland.”
The new buildings, he said, add some life and color.
“It’s not as bad as it used to be five or six years ago, it was really ugly,” Perry said.
Five years before that, it was even worse.
“There has been a real effort to improve the environment at Stony Brook,” said Dr. Robert Frey, a longtime professor whose name appears on the newly renovated chemistry building, Frey Hall. “As someone who has been around the campus since the 70s, the campus has improved tremendously.”
Even some of the new construction looks strange and even out of place among the newest buildings. The orange and gray Nobel Halls present a stark contrast to the nearby West Side Dining. Functionality is also an issue.
“The new Kelly Dining [West Side Dining] is nice looking but it’s not efficient at all,” Perry said. “I didn’t even care how ugly old Kelly was because it worked. There was room to sit.”
The campus is still a work in progress, university president Samuel Stanley has indicated in several appearances and interviews. New, green construction has popped up in recent years, and the new look seems to have a more focused aesthetic.
Millions of dollars in donations from wealthy alumni like James Simons and Glenn Dubin have resulted in some sharp new architecture which is slowly overtaking the “neo-penal” chic of the older buildings.
If the school keeps heading in the same direction, the mismatch will fade into memory, just like Melville’s vision of a sprawling colonial campus.