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 card.

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, facility 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," he says.

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 systems running.


What event in the Annapolis area are you most looking forward to in 2006?

Powerboat Show
Sailboat Show
Renaissance Festival
Seafood Festival
County Fair

Additional comments ?

Last time we asked, "How many past issues of Inside Annapolis Magazine do you have? " Out of all the responses, we found that most of our readers keep at least 3 issues of Inside Annapolis Magazine around the house, but a couple of our readers have over several years of issues! We're glad to hear that so many of you stay with us!

Thanks to all those that voted!

Results Posted Every Issue!!

Backyard Publications, LLC. ©2004. 433 Fourth St, Annapolis, MD 21403 - Phone 410-263-6300 - Fax 410-267-8668