Making It All Work
At St. John's College
Sid Phipps, superintendent
of buildings and grounds at St. John's College, is forever teetering
on the balance between high-tech and old-fashioned. Under his
care are all buildings on the St. John's campus, some dating back
to the 1720s, others recently constructed or renovated. In the
course of his 30-plus-year career, he's seen technology transform
the standards and systems of the buildings staff and students
live and work in. But with 16 buildings, 35 acres, and a crew
of 20 to oversee, he faces daily a bottom line truth of modern
life: no computer chip has yet come close to replacing elbow grease.
This is becoming more and more apparent as high-tech systems enter
the buildings of St. John's College, saving, it often seems, not
a single minute of work for his crew. "You can have all the modern
systems you want," he explains, "but you still need a guy to change
the filters." That more or less sums up the world that Phipps
oversees: modern systems and plain old filters.
Modern systems, however, are the big news for St. John's most
recent building project: the nearly-completed renovation of Mellon
Hall, one of the college's two classroom buildings that also houses
faculty and administrative offices, laboratory and fine arts rooms,
and the Francis Scott Key Auditorium.
The current $12.9 million renovation of Mellon brings state-of-the-art
air conditioning and ventilation systems to the 1958 building.
The hallways have been transformed from industrial gray and dull
beige to wide, bright, and cheerful corridors with red linoleum
floors, light pine doors and plenty of lighting. Laboratory and
project rooms have been renovated with new cabinetry, fixtures
and workspaces. Seats in the auditorium, once leaking springs
and filling, have been reupholstered.
An addition on the College Creek side of the building contains
faculty offices and a meeting/seminar room with teleconferencing
equipment. The basement, formerly used for storage, has been opened
up by the addition and a new pottery studio and darkroom constructed.
What was once a transit-only hallway has been bumped out into
the building's courtyard; it will be enclosed with glass to become
a light-filled café.
"It's a new building," Phipps says, referring not just to Mellon's
external changes but also to its inner workings. "We're upgrading
the technology; everything will be digital."
While Phipps is enthusiastic about working with Mellon's modern
systems, his respect for the tried and true extends to the eccentricities
of the campus' old equipment. One of the more amusing quirks of
the college's HVAC systems shows up each winter as steam from
the school's heating plant is carried to buildings throughout
campus via underground pipes. Invariably, several of the pipes
spring leaks, and a few pockets of steam rise up from the ground.
The students, all of whom study Ancient Greek literature, like
to call the otherworldly clouds of steam "pathways to Hades,"
but for Phipps, the problem is one of simple wear and tear. "The
lines in the ground expand and contract. If there's a brick or
stone near them, over time the insulation will wear away and the
lines will break," he explains. "Every year we fix three or four
of these leaks and every year three or four new ones spring up."
In addition to overseeing the older buildings, there's plenty
to do in the newer ones: The Elizabeth Meyers Mitchell Art Gallery,
built in 1989, requires a top level security system and highly
sensitive climate control equipment for the world-class exhibits
it hosts. Works by Rembrandt, Vermeer, Dürer and Picasso have
been shown in the gallery and the requirements for their environments
are exacting. The Greenfield Library (built in 1934 as the Maryland
Hall of Records and renovated in 1996 to become the St. John's
library) needs special attention paid to appropriate book storage
and archival conditions.
Born in Gambrills, Phipps moved to Annapolis in 1972 when he married
his wife, Margaret, with whom he's just celebrated a 30th anniversary.
They have raised four children in Annapolis. Their youngest, Tracy,
is a junior at Annapolis High School. Their oldest, Ellen, is
a labor and delivery nurse at the Anne Arundel Medical Center.
Phipps began his career drilling wells with H.J. Greer. He learned
surveying as an employee of Reliable Contracting, worked for three
years at Trumpy's Boatyard doing plumbing on boats, and finally
settled at Dunton, Inc. for 10 years, earning his journeyman plumber's
In 1981 the former supervisor of buildings and grounds at St.
John's, Charles Wallace, asked Phipps to join the college staff
as campus plumber, a position he held until Wallace retired in
1998 and Phipps applied for and was awarded his job. The position
of supervisor is a tremendous challenge and responsibility, although
Phipps likes to say that the hardest part is keeping himself from
doing the plumbing.
Other than overseeing (not doing) the plumbing, Phipps is responsible
for college systems, including electrical, carpentry, roofing,
painting, heating and cooling, refrigeration, boiler operations,
janitorial work, grounds maintenance, automotive maintenance,
It's a lot of work for one man, but Phipps says it doesn't all
rest on his shoulders. His assistant, Chuck Wallace; the college
electrician, Gordon Carlton; technical trades helper Charles "Hop"
Harris; and plumber William Rawlings help him in immeasurable
ways. In addition, Phipps describes himself as lucky when he talks
about his entire staff. "They do a heck of a job for a small crew,"
In part, Phipps is talking about members of his staff who maintain
the high tech systems that are slowly infiltrating the campus.
But beyond them, he's giving credit to the guys who month after
month, year after year, change the filters to keep the campus