“The vision that gave rise to this building was rooted in Thacher’s commitment to creating metaphorical and physical spaces of connection and belonging...we dedicate this dining hall to the power of living, working, learning, playing, and breaking bread together.”
Head of School Blossom Beatty Pidduck CdeP 1992
Michael Kent and Joy Sawyer Mulligan Hall—or Mulligan Hall, if you are in a hurry, which Thacher students tend to be—opened its doors with the beginning of the school year this fall and has rapidly become the new heart of the School. Made possible by the Next Peak Campaign through the generosity of current and former trustees and the broader Thacher community, Mulligan Hall was named to honor Michael and Joy’s decades of exemplary leadership, vision, and service to the vibrant community they did so much to strengthen.
Designed to fulfill many roles and functions, Mulligan Hall is fundamentally a place to gather, to eat, and to converse, whether that be over Formal Dinners, Family Weekend brunches, or a lunch on the fly between classes. But the new building is also a testament to Thacher history, traditions, and values, with trophies and plaques inscribed with the names of Thacher students going back to the earliest days of the School. It is also an educational platform for helping students learn about the food they eat, where it comes from, and how it is prepared. With roof lines that echo the surrounding mountains, expanses of glass to both take in and reflect the views, and an expected LEED certification, it is also powerful evidence of Thacher’s long standing commitment to and celebration of the environment and our place in the East End of the Ojai Valley.
For the first time in many years, Thacher has a facility that can comfortably and efficiently accommodate large community meals. The entire student body and faculty—as many as 412 people—can congregate in one room for the time-honored tradition of Formal Dinner. That capacity expands for large events, like Fall Family Weekend, Graduation, or Reunion, when the floor-to-ceiling sliding glass doors along the south wall retract to incorporate outside seating. The eight-person dining tables (more intimate than the ten-tops in the old dining hall) and the acoustically engineered space better support conversations. And a state-of-the-art, programmable sound system makes it possible for presenters to be heard throughout the dining area. “These improvements have afforded us the opportunity to revitalize Formal Dinner and its role in creating and sustaining community,” said Ms. Pidduck. “Here we have created a match between a community and the place it calls home—one that is mutually supportive, mutually inspiring.”
The outside of the building includes ample outdoor dining areas, most of it shaded. For unobstructed views of the valley, head to the west end of the building where you’ll find the Class of 2018 terrace, given by the parents and students of that graduating year in honor of Michael and Joy.
What does all this mean for the meals themselves? Whether you attribute it to improved ambiance, updated equipment, a dining hall staff reenergized by their new workspace, or all of the above, the word around the tables is that the food itself tastes better, and variety has increased with the size of the serving space. Favorite programs like the Healthy Food Initiative and the Eat Local Challenge—which keep healthy, locally-sourced organic ingredients at the center of our meals—have only gotten better.
Emblematic of these improvements is the soft-serve machine itself, a beloved element of the old dining hall that has been replaced by a newer model—delivering the same basic goodness to young and old, but with improved capacity and dependability—and an expanded variety of flavors.
Although Mulligan Hall was substantially complete by the beginning of the school year, work has continued inside and out as various teams complete the installation, commission systems, and apply finishing touches.
The facility, which is on track to be certified at least LEED silver once all work has been completed, was designed to support and advance school-wide sustainability goals. Lighting and climate control systems maximize comfort using minimal energy. The Herbert Dining Room* and the Tobin Kitchen** are designed to take advantage of our Southern California sunshine while shades and skylight louvres ensure that light and temperature remain at comfortable levels. Natural lighting is augmented by low-energy LED lights that automatically adjust to sunlight, dimming mid-afternoon and brightening as the sun sets.
Looking through the expanses of glass at the surrounding mountains, one might expect exorbitant heating and cooling costs. But, those walls of windows are double-paned, insulated, tinted glass. A roof-mounted solar system preheats fresh water before it enters the traditional gas-powered hot water heaters, which promises to reduce water heating costs by 25 percent annually. The 5,000-square-foot roof above the back kitchen and serving area is covered with plantings, a living roof that acts as an insulator, absorbing sunshine and keeping indoor temperatures stable. It also creates a lovely view from the Hills Building.
Mulligan Hall occupies an area of campus just below and to the west of the old dining hall in the Hills Building, between the Forest Cooke Garden and the upper tennis courts. (The boulder and plaque marking the Forest Cooke Garden is now positioned beside the stairway connecting the Hills Building to Mulligan Hall.) The two upper tennis courts that were removed to accommodate the new facility have been commemorated with a historical marker that will soon be installed. Additionally, stones from the old retaining wall above the courts (a portion of which was left in place) were repurposed to build the fireplace and hearth in the new dining room.
The Walker Bell, Thacher’s dinner bell for as long as anyone can remember, is still calling the campus community to enjoy meals together. Only now it does so from atop the new structure and now the walk to dinner involves one more set of stairs than it used to.
Many of the iconic wooden award plaques that lined the walls in the Hills Dining Room have been hung on either side of the new stone fireplace; the others are awaiting display once more has been decided about the future of the Hills Building (the ground floor of which is currently being used as classrooms). The names listed on these plaques reach as far back as 1917 (Chair of the School) and 1918 (Gymkhana Captain). Along with the plaques, a trophy case at the building’s main entrance contains several of the School-wide perpetual awards including, the Thacher Cup, the Tutt Bowl, and the Vaquero Cup.
One more historical note is worth observing. On the wall across from the office of Food Service Director Richard Maxwell, you will find a battered section of sturdy wooden door with an ax attached. That is one of the doors from the old walk-in cooler in the Hills Building. The ax was there to break down the heavy self-closing door in case a worker became trapped inside. Thankfully, it was never used. Now, the memento hangs right outside the up-to-date kitchen to remind us of less technological times.
In addition to the more obvious advancements in capacity, acoustics, and aesthetics, there are many other improvements worthy of note.
The larger kitchen facility and its all-new energy-efficient appliances have changed the way the team prepares and serves meals. There is now an extensive back kitchen and an outer, demonstration and serving area—the Tobin Kitchen—at the center of which is an “expo station.” “One evening a week, we do an exhibition of cooking, like the build-your-own bowl stir fry or the made-to-order pasta station,” said Mr. Maxwell. “The larger salad bar gives Luke Lemper, who is in charge of the salad bar, a chance to be creative and put out more fresh produce.” More refrigerator space also helps with food prep. Robin, our baker, makes 3,000 cookies for Fall Family Weekend. “Now,” says Mr. Maxwell, “she can pre-make the dough and refrigerate it. That’s so much easier for her and more efficient for all of us.”
Even though the kitchen is offering more variety, food waste has decreased. For example, slow-cooked stocks for soups are simmered overnight in the new kettles and incorporate vegetable trimmings from food prep. At the self-serve hot stations, diners control their own portion sizes. “There is less food waste from plates, and that means we are preparing less,” said Mr. Maxwell.
A freight elevator and thoughtfully located loading area mean that drivers now make their deliveries without the assistance of kitchen personnel and without the need to drive through the center of campus. Gone are the days when the air brakes and back-up horns of delivery trucks regularly interrupted Assembly announcements.
The dish drop area, a notorious bottleneck in the old dining hall, has been designed to better accommodate lunch rush hour traffic and includes an automated rack to convey used plates, cups, and utensils back to the dishwashing station. Across from it is a series of bins to sort waste destined for recycling, composting, landfill, and for the hungry hogs being raised by the students on the Environmental Action Committee. Someday, those hogs themselves will find their way to the dining hall as an object lesson in food production, but that is another story.
Every new building, every change across the campus, is an opportunity to strengthen the School’s commitment to community, sustainability, and our traditions. Next time you are on campus, enjoy a meal with a view, treat yourself to some soft serve, and walk over to the stone wall to be reminded of Thacher’s foundations.
*The Herbert Dining Room is dedicated to Cecilia and Jim Herbert and their daughters, Alex CdeP 2002 and Deirdre CdeP 2006. Cecilia is a former trustee and in 2006 the family established the Herbert Family Fund to support the Equestrian program.
**The Tobin Kitchen was made possible by the Tobin family in memory of Edith Andrews Tobin, loving mother of two Thacher Toads, JosephCdeP 2009 and Taylor CdeP 2013.