West Center impressive

Site preparation for Winthrop University's new Lois Rhame West Health, Physical Education and Wellness Center began three years ago, almost to the day, and when the new center finally was opened to visitors recently, it was $2.1 million over budget.

By all appearances, however, it was worth the wait and the extra cost.

The idea for the new center was born in 1991, when last week's incoming freshmen were 2 years old. Winthrop President Anthony DiGiorgio announced in 2000 that the university would name the new center after West, who, in addition to being a 1943 graduate of Winthrop, was first lady of former Gov. John West and helped head up the university's first capital campaign in 1998. In the same year he made the announcement, DiGiorgio began in earnest to lobby the Legislature for money for the new center.

Lawmakers came up with some of the money, but most of it had to be raised elsewhere, including through cafeteria revenues and a $150 per semester fee for students levied since the fall of 2005. The final cost was $27 million.

The center is the first stage of what DiGiorgio calls a "three-part reincarnation" of the campus. The renewal also will include a neighboring campus center and library, all clustered on the western part of the campus with the goal of creating a new "heart of the campus."

The West Center is a magnificent building, airy and modern but still inviting and comfortable. The center includes an eight-lane indoor pool that one day will serve a swim team, an indoor climbing wall, workout rooms and a variety of other activity rooms.

The building also is entirely eco-friendly, a key component to the design. Overhead lights stay off until sensors detect the presence of a person; skylights let in natural light; and a dehumidification system in the pool saves 200,000 gallons of water per year.

In another nice touch, the cornerstone for the building is made of marble from a bathroom in the old Peabody Gym, and the maple flooring in the lobby came from the floor of the gym.

The West Center is the most significant project to date in the transformation of Winthrop's campus. That transformation has been achieved, however, not by introducing glaring new design elements but by honoring and enhancing the historic character of the existing campus.

DiGiorgio, in particular, deserves credit for envisioning a health center in the heart of the campus, for realizing that it would be crucial to the growth of the university and for fighting for more than a decade to see the project through.

Congratulations to him, to Mrs. West, to all those who played a role in this project and to the students privileged to use the new center.

Winthrop's Lois Rhame West Health, Physical Education and Wellness Center is a triumph.