By Kathleen Poe Ross '01
This summer, Westminster opened Barge Commons, its new official front door. Designed to foster connections and welcome the world to our School, the building has quickly become an essential part of campus life.
In December 2019, Westminster broke ground on the final building project within the first phase of the Campus Plan—a center of welcome and connection for the School. Construction fencing covered in green banners separated Askew and Robinson Halls at the top end of Westminster’s main campus from the active construction site. From foundation and frame to bricks and blocks of limestone, a new entryway took form at the head of the quad. Now, nearly two years and one pandemic later, the new building stands as a symbol not just of welcome but of Westminster’s perseverance, proudly welcoming Wildcats back to campus and looking boldly toward the future.
The project was first introduced to the community as “Westminster Center,” a multifunctional building intended to serve students and faculty as well as welcome visitors, prospective Wildcats, community partners, and city leaders to campus. Situated at the top of the historic quad, the building was conceptualized as a home for leadership development and community engagement, meant to facilitate the many ways a Westminster education is enhanced by deep connections with the city and world beyond our gates.
Early in 2021, John Barge ’64 reached out to Westminster looking for meaningful ways to give back to the School, a place that has had a lifelong impact on him. From those conversations, a transformative gift of $10 million emerged—the lead gift earmarked for the building —and “Westminster Center” got a new name: Barge Commons.
Once John and his wife, Olivia, got involved, their contributions went far beyond the financial. They became close partners in clarifying the building’s significance and purpose. In the weeks after their initial discussion with Westminster, the Barges met with the architects, toured the building, reviewed the larger campus plan, and learned more about what the School’s leaders envisioned for the space. “Westminster is a world-class school with a world-class faculty and administration, and it deserves physical facilities to match that,” John said. “I wanted to give this gift before I saw the building, but it’s spectacular.”
An Enduring Gift
On a sunny morning at the end of June, the Barge family and more than 100 guests—friends and extended family, members of the Board of Trustees and the Alumni Association Governing Board, and many of the donors who helped build Barge Commons—gathered on campus to officially open Westminster’s new front door.
A wide Westminster-green ribbon stretched across the entrance to the building. On the plaza, a string quartet of student musicians played as a live-scene painter captured the event on canvas. Th e ribbon-cutting ceremony and coffee reception celebrated the generosity of John and Olivia Barge and their fellow donors, the vision that catalyzed the project, and all the possibilities of the new space.
“Barge Commons is classrooms and meeting spaces, offices, and a chapel,” Westminster President Keith Evans told the crowd outside the building. “But more than any single function, Barge Commons is the place our Westminster community both gathers and reaches out to our city and the wider world.” After President Evans’ welcome, John Barge approached the podium to speak. He flashed back to 1958 when, as a skinny 11-year-old boy, he first walked into Jack Shields’ seventh grade classroom and began what he called his “wonderful adventure as a Westminster student.” Outside of his home, he said, it was the most formative experience of his life.
"When I learned about this building that welcomes the world to Westminster, I knew right away that I wanted to be part of it. It gave me a welcome chance to express my appreciation and to help Westminster grow even stronger."
- John Barge
John noted how Westminster students already excelled in academics and athletics in those early days, but they also made sure to balance out the challenging atmosphere with a little fun. When he was in high school, he recalled, the boys had to wear a coat and tie on Fridays, and as a prank one week, John and his classmates secretly planned Ugly Tie Day. John’s homemade tie—a strip of raw bacon wrapped in cellophane—was easily the ugliest accessory on campus, and John noted how Westminster students already excelled in academics and athletics in those early days, but they also made sure to balance out the challenging atmosphere with a little fun. When he was in high school, he recalled, the boys had to wear a coat and tie on Fridays, and as a prank one week, John and his classmates secretly planned Ugly Tie Day. John’s homemade tie—a strip of raw bacon wrapped in cellophane—was easily the ugliest accessory on campus, and it quickly became the stuff of campus legend.
Returning to the present, John explained what drew him to this project.
“When I learned about this building that welcomes the world to Westminster, I knew right away that I wanted to be part of it. It gave me a welcome chance to express my appreciation and to help Westminster grow even stronger,” he said. “It also gave Olivia and me a welcome opportunity to honor our precious daughter, Britney Barge, who was an active student here for nine years and loved Westminster. Olivia and I made our gift in loving memory of Britney.”
Following his remarks, John and Olivia walked over to the doors of Barge Commons and picked up the ceremonial golden scissors. With one snip, they cut the ribbon. John waved everyone inside the building for a breakfast reception featuring a champagne toast and, in a nod to John’s infamous ugly tie, a tree hung with pieces of (cooked) bacon.
Staffers working in Barge Commons—members of the Admissions Office, the Office for Institutional Advancement, and the Center for Teaching, among others—cheered from the second floor of the atrium as the guests streamed in for refreshments and self-guided tours of the new building. Joel Murphy ’76, Chair of the Board of Trustees, invited everyone to raise their glasses to John and Olivia, their generosity and care for Westminster, and their vision for a bright future.
Top Photo: John ’64 and Olivia Barge cut the ceremonial green ribbon and welcome their guests into Barge Commons.
Middle Left Photo: Fellow alumni Hayward McEver ’99, Brooks Barge ’99, Sarah Hawkins Warren ’00, and Preston Moister ’99 joined in celebrating the newest building on campus.
Middle Right Photo: Westminster Trustees Scott Hawkins, Mike Egan, Dana Ugwonali, and Joel Murphy were among the many Trustees who attended the event.
Bottom Photo: John Barge ’64 and Westminster Board of Trustees Chairman Joel Murphy ’76 enjoy breakfast from the “Bacon Tree” in honor of one of John’s favorite pranks from his high school days.
A Grand Reopening
Six weeks later, another celebration of new beginnings took place on campus: the first day of the 2021-22 school year. With updated COVID-19 health and safety protocols thanks to the widespread availability and uptake of vaccines, masks were now optional outdoors. Parents and visitors were once again allowed to join the festivities, adding another dimension of excitement.
An arch of green and white balloons spanned the campus road, and upbeat music welcomed cars onto campus. Students and families driving through the front gate were greeted by seniors lining the street, dressed in matching T-shirts and waving homemade signs that said “Class of ’22” and “Honk if you love Seniors!” Dogs barked from car windows and drivers honked their horns in cheerful response. “The atmosphere was really joyful!” said Charlotte Baugher ’22. “Just being able to cheer everyone in at the front gate—it felt like a little piece of normal had come back. And I think everyone was excited to see each other and see their full faces with no masks.”
After the seniors had ushered all the cars through the front gate, they walked together across campus to Barge Commons. Th e Class of 2022 gathered on the back steps of the building, facing the quad, for a class photo to commemorate their last
first day of school.
Behind them stood a new gateway connecting past, present, and future, the Westminster community, and the world beyond. Th is building, meticulously designed to make meaningful connections, was already fulfilling its promise.
A Place of Possibility
While Barge Commons now greets Upper School students every day, the School made a point of inviting families across all divisions to see the new building as the academic year got underway. The first weeks of school saw several groups of parents come through the building for informal grade-level coffees and self-guided tours of the common spaces.
At the gathering for eighth grade parents, President Evans spoke from the steps of the atrium about the intentional design of Barge Commons and the opportunities ahead for their children at Westminster.
“The transparency and ability to see through the building were important because we want what happens in this building to be on display,” President Evans said. “We want to stimulate curiosity in this building. We want kids to come in, see a gathering here in Blake Hall, and stop and look and see what’s going on.”
Top Photo: After cheering on their fellow classmates at the main entrance to campus, members of the Class of 2022 made their way to the steps of the newly opened Barge Commons for their first official picture as seniors.
Middle Right and Bottom Photos: Members of the Class of 2022 lined the entrance to campus to celebrate the start of their senior year and welcome the community back to campus on the first day of classes for the 2021-22 school year.
Middle Left Photo: President Keith Evans greeted senior parents in the Glenn Family Atrium in Barge Commons after their kids headed off to their first day of classes. Parents of students in all grade levels were invited for similar events in Barge Commons throughout the fall—welcome invitations after being unable to visit campus for more than a year.
Top Left Photo: The Pannu Family Admissions Suite welcomes prospective Wildcats and their families into a well-defined lobby designed to celebrate all stages of the Westminster experience. Adjacent offices and a conference room enable the cross-divisional admissions team to engage in the critical strategic work of identifying future Wildcats.
Top Right Photo: The Glenn Family Atrium has already hosted many Westminster events. The space offers a warm welcome to visitors and community members alike and features a dynamic 14-by-24-foot video wall displaying content celebrating Westminster and the city we serve. Middle
Left Photo: This conference room near the Chapel on the third floor of Barge Commons is given by the Fraser-Parker Foundation in honor of Reverend Woody Barnes, with gratitude for his 39 years of service to the School’s founding Christian mission and for serving as its first chaplain.
Middle Right Photo: The Guan Café, offering made-to-order specialty drinks, pastries, and other quality grab-and-go options, is designed to meet the needs—and taste buds—of today’s students, faculty, staff, and guests of Westminster.
Bottom Photo: Blake Hall is the epitome of a flexible, modern space. On any given day, it transforms from a coveted hangout and study space for students to a conference room hosting professional development for faculty and staff to a special event space for gatherings.
President Evans emphasized to the group that Barge Commons and its spaces were designed to maximize the potential of students, aid in their development, and encourage them to learn and grow beyond the walls of our classrooms.
Head of Middle School Danette Morton felt the architects, builders, and designers of Barge Commons successfully captured the essence of this vision. The building was meant, she said, to “embrace the visitors to this campus, embrace the community outside of Westminster, and have a gathering space for the adults that support the student community—but also for the student community itself.”
When students of all ages come to Barge Commons, they have access to casual spaces to study, socialize, and eat a snack or drink coffee from the Guan Café. They might have a class or club meeting, or maybe they’ve come to volunteer in the Admissions Office or check out the lobby gallery showcasing Westminster’s talented visual arts students.
“When I first walked into Barge Commons, I saw the art gallery,” said Nishka Bahl ’22. “I thought that was a very nice way to greet people—being able to see students’ artwork that people wouldn’t otherwise be able to celebrate or see.”
Students can also come to Barge Commons to learn more about service opportunities available to them in the office of the Glenn Institute for Philanthropy and Service Learning. Meghan James, director of the Glenn Institute, is already seeing a few of the ways Barge Commons can bring the community together.
“I’ve hosted, along with my colleagues, two different multigrade events, including one for the new Civic Engagement Fellows Program,”James said. “The open space gives us an opportunity to be both inside and outside, to have collaborative conversations, for us not to be isolated but to really feel like we are an integral and important part of the community here at Westminster.”
Since Barge Commons opened its doors, the building has hosted a wide array of events for both students and the broader School community. The Chapel has welcomed weekly Friday Morning Fellowship, hosted a remembrance service to honor the 20th anniversary of 9/11, and provided a meaningful space for a memorial service for Jack Shields, the beloved teacher who made such an impression on John Barge as a student. Blake Hall and the Glenn Family Atrium have seen PAWS meetings, a luncheon for retiring faculty and staff, and the 2021 Breithaupt Athletic Hall of Fame induction ceremony, among many other events. Around and in between all of these events, the building is abuzz with the energy of minds at work.
And there’s much more to come. The plan for Barge Commons includes cultivating partnerships with local schools around Atlanta, hosting conferences and leadership events, and supporting nonprofit initiatives that serve our community and beyond.
“If this campus is an expression of our values, Barge Commons makes a powerful statement about courage, leadership, curiosity, and optimism for a future characterized by collective impact,” says Emilie Henry, Vice President for Institutional Advancement. “Philanthropy fuels the hopes and dreams of our students as well as our greatest aspirations. Together, with Olivia and John Barge leading the way, donors to this project made Westminster a philanthropic priority. We are deeply grateful for their vision and partnership and, importantly, their care for this place and its people.”
After a disruptive two years, the desire for connection is palpable The Westminster community is eager to gather again in new and meaningful ways. Barge Commons links campus and community, serving as a reminder of where we’ve been and a guide for where we’re going. The opening of our new front door signifies a poignant and triumphant moment in the history of Westminster—a celebration of the strength of our community and our vision for the future.