A $30 million gift from a William & Mary alumna who is a W&M Foundation trustee will pay tribute to former U.S. Secretary of Defense (2006-2011) and current university Chancellor Robert M. Gates ’65, L.H.D. ’98 with the first academic building in the nation to bear Gates’ name.

The W&M Foundation, which owns and operates the currently vacant Brown Hall property, will partner with the university to transform the existing structure and create Robert M. Gates Hall. The renovated building will serve as a hub for research and teaching that spans disciplines, addressing global challenges such as economic development and inequality, geopolitical conflict, national security and conservation.

A LEED-certified, state-of-the-art facility, Gates Hall will be home to three university-wide centers. All three generate research of national and international consequence: the Global Research Institute, the Institute for Integrative Conservation and the Whole of Government Center of Excellence. In addition to the lead gift, endowments have been created to support the academic centers and the long-term care of the building. 

Using sustainable design principles, the construction project will reduce waste by renovating rather than demolishing the building. Gates Hall will incorporate gathering spaces and common areas to spark collaboration and redefine how academic structures can help advance big ideas. Students, faculty, staff and alumni from across the university will connect with thought partners and industry leaders to discuss vital global issues.

The courtyard at Gates Hall (rendering courtesy of  Glavé & Holmes Architecture)

“I have long admired President Rowe’s leadership and am thrilled to support her bold vision through reimagined spaces where new knowledge can grow, and grand challenges find solutions,” said the donor, who wishes to remain anonymous. “I am thankful for the opportunity to recognize Chancellor Gates,” she added. “Given the divisions in our nation and world, we need leaders of his caliber, patriotism and integrity — now more than ever.”

As U.S. Secretary of Defense, Gates was hailed as a strategic problem-solver who transcended politics and cut through bureaucracy to strengthen the nation’s security. He is renowned for his humane and candid leadership, and his care for those who serve on the front lines, earning recognition as the “Soldier’s Secretary.” Gates is the only secretary of defense in U.S. history to serve in successive Republican and Democratic administrations.

“We are deeply grateful for our trustee’s passion for conservation and sustainability — so important to the work that will take place in this special building,” said President Katherine Rowe. “Like the chancellor, she is a true servant leader; she does not seek recognition for herself. Through her partnership, across the university, she has inspired us to aim high. Gates Hall will build on other initiatives that her generosity has brought to life here.”

Chancellor Robert M. Gates ’65, L.H.D. ’98 (Photo by Stephen Salpukas)

“William & Mary’s commitment to the values of excellence, integrity and public service is underscored by this recognition of the chancellor,” Rowe elaborated. “Throughout his career, Robert Gates has championed the power of education and scholarship to advance democracy and build a better world. In these classrooms and meeting spaces, future generations of public policy leaders, conservationists and national security experts will pursue those ideals.” 

During a recent visit to campus, Gates said he feels humbled and overwhelmed to be recognized at his alma mater through the naming of Gates Hall.

“This is the greatest honor I’ve received in my lifetime,” he said. “William & Mary is where I felt called to public service, and I can see that the call to make a difference is still felt strongly here. This building will serve as a hub for generations of students and faculty to cultivate new ideas to contribute to the nation and the world.”

Building on history

Taking on a 21st-century mission will breathe new life into a building that ended its use as a residence hall in 2021. Purchased by the W&M Foundation in 1939, the year the W&M Foundation was established, Brown Hall is located at the corner of Prince George and North Boundary streets. It sits across from William & Mary’s Historic Campus at the outer boundary of Colonial Williamsburg.

“The Foundation’s mission is to partner with the university to provide vital resources for scholarships, professorships, research and program funding. That is why I am so excited by the flexible design and the way the building can evolve to meet the needs of future students, faculty and staff,” said W&M Foundation Chair Janet Rollins Atwater ’84, P ’17, P ’20. “This is the definition of ‘adaptive re-use’ — reimagining century-old spaces for cutting-edge work, thanks to this investment by our generous trustee.”

Named in honor of a Methodist family who helped to fund construction, Brown Hall was built in 1930 by the Women’s Missionary Society of the Virginia Methodist Conference. It originally served as an off-campus residence for Methodist women students at William & Mary. Later, it served as men’s housing, Army housing, rented space for service families, upperclassmen residences and most recently a freshman dormitory. 

Archaeological digs that William & Mary faculty and students and researchers at Colonial Williamsburg have conducted over the years show that the site directly beneath Brown Hall originally had been home to the Williamsburg Bray School, which enslaved and free Black children attended in the 18th century. A historical marker at the site commemorates the Bray School’s foundation in 1760 and operation there for several of its 14 years. The surviving Bray School building was moved to a different location on Prince George Street in 1930 and relocated to Colonial Williamsburg property in 2023.

William & Mary is partnering with The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation to uncover, document, preserve and disseminate the history and legacy of the Williamsburg Bray School. The W&M Foundation has provided three time periods for excavation on the site during the past three years, including this spring and summer, in addition to earlier archaeological work in partnership with Colonial Williamsburg and the university.

Plans call for exhibits inside the new Gates Hall that will honor and tell the story of the Bray School and the children who studied there, with input from the school’s descendant community in designing the commemoration.

“It’s fitting that this building will honor Chancellor Gates, given that during his tenure, William & Mary has advanced its partnership with Colonial Williamsburg, has undertaken the Bray School project and has engaged with the community to tell a more expansive history of our university and the nation,” said Ann Marie Stock, the university’s presidential liaison for strategic cultural partnerships.

“I’m exhilarated to think about world leaders converging at Gates Hall on the site where the Bray School once stood and where enslaved and free scholars were empowered by learning,” she said. “While new discoveries are being made in this vibrant research hub, we will also continue the archaeological and genealogical research and oral histories that will further illuminate the rich history of the Bray School.”

A modern mission

Scheduled for groundbreaking this fall after archaeological work concludes, Gates Hall is set for completion in time for the nation’s 250th anniversary in 2026. Williamsburg anticipates millions of visitors throughout that year and beyond to celebrate the historic milestone.

Gates Hall will host prominent events such as the bipartisan Gates Forum, chaired by Chancellor Gates. Launched in 2022 to convene leaders from across the political spectrum to reform and strengthen U.S. non-military instruments of power, this annual convening is a model for others the new academic hub will host.

Prior to the opening of Gates Hall, GRI, IIC and WGC will be operating from and in partnership with Swem Library in a new section they’re calling The Hive. They have already collaborated on projects, including the Nepal Water Initiative to examine fish biodiversity and the Whole of Government Center’s National Security Conference. In addition, WGC and IIC are developing a geographic information system course, and GRI faculty teach in a military training program led by WGC.

By bringing these three academic centers together, William & Mary fulfills important strategic goals in Vision 2026: to expand the university’s reach, educate for impact and evolve to excel.

“Gates Hall will provide room to host thought partners from outside W&M, which could include diplomats-in-residence from the U.S. Department of State, military experts, scientists from Conservation International or linguists from Tokyo University. The next generation of national security leaders — whether at the U.S. Army Special Operations Command or through the Global Innovation Challenge for undergraduate students — will receive training that leverages the talents of the combined centers in ways that traditionally siloed buildings cannot,” said WGC Director Kathryn H. Floyd ‘05.

The classrooms and shared spaces also will be available for use by all W&M students, faculty and staff.

“We are thrilled that state-of-the-art technology in the new building will allow our students and faculty to connect with partners around the world in new ways,” said Global Research Institute Director Mike Tierney ’87, M.A. ’88, P ’15, the George & Mary Hylton Professor of International Relations. “But there is something about face-to-face engagement that ignites the creative process. Random interactions spark ideas that lead to creative solutions. This new building is designed to encourage those spontaneous encounters.”

The W&M Foundation is partnering with the W&M Real Estate Foundation, which will serve as the construction manager for the project. Plans for the building incorporate bio-design elements that reflect qualities fundamental to the IIC.

“Thanks to the donor’s extraordinary leadership and vision for how William & Mary can make a difference in the world, Gates Hall will serve as a hub for addressing global challenges that cut across the mission of IIC, GRI and WGC,” said IIC Executive Director Robert Rose. “The building will be the home for many undergraduate courses and programs, bringing hundreds of students together each year to enrich their academic journey with interdisciplinary courses and applied experiences.”

Once the renovation and expansion are completed, Gates Hall will encompass two wings with a courtyard in the middle. A spectacular atrium, an outdoor balcony and an outdoor learning space are among the ways in which the design will connect the built environment with the natural environment, the inside to the outside, people to nature and people to people.

Information about giving opportunities and ways to support the work taking place in Gates Hall can be found online.

Statement from Colonial Williamsburg:

The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation applauds William & Mary’s innovative approach to creating Robert M. Gates Hall, which will be an important site for addressing global challenges through multidisciplinary teaching and inquiry. The project reflects the university’s commitment to preserving history ― through the reuse of the existing building and, in partnership with Colonial Williamsburg, relocating the Williamsburg Bray School that once stood on the site for complete restoration and continuing research.

Statement from Merchants Square Association:

The Merchants Square Association welcomes this transformation of the currently vacant Brown Hall into a dynamic new facility. Our members look forward to the opening of Robert M. Gates Hall on the site, and to the vibrance it will bring to the corner of Prince George and North Boundary streets.