‘Some of the old, blended in with the new’: Commons opens to students


Brittany Fisher

President Caboni addresses the media on Thursday, April 14 ahead of the Commons’ opening on Monday.

Jake Moore and Debra Murray

The Commons at Helm Library officially opened to students on Monday, April 18 following delay. The long-awaited “intellectual hub” will provide visitors the space to study, collaborate and share a meal.

Announced at WKU president Timothy Caboni’s investiture in 2018, the Commons was planned to open in the fall of 2021 but was pushed back due to supply chain delays brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. Finally, the space is open for the WKU community.

“We hoped to open in the fall [of 2021], but have had nine months of anticipatory delight coming to today,” the president told the media on Thursday. “We finally get to throw the doors open, have our students have access to this remarkable new facility at the top of the Hill.”

How did we get here?

The Commons building has witnessed its fair share of history from its perch atop the Hill. Formerly known as the Health and Physical Education Building, WKU Basketball called this place home from 1931 to 1963 before moving into Diddle Arena. 

The jump circle, a nod to the building’s past as the home of the Hilltoppers’ basketball team, is prominently displayed in the lobby floor. (Brittany Fisher)

Once the basketball team vacated the premises, the building was reborn with a new name and purpose. In 1964, it was christened Helm Library in honor of librarian Margie Helm, and led a quiet life until 2019 when the doors were shut for its massive facelift. 

Caboni recalled that the idea for the Commons was first hatched in a 2017 conversation with Susann deVries, dean of libraries, both in the first year of their respective positions. The two walked out of the building knowing it was in dire need of a refresh, prompting the president to ask – “what do you think about food in libraries?”

DeVries was on board, agreeing that the space should challenge what a library can really be. 

“Well sure! We can have food in the library,” she told Caboni, to which he suggested: “How about a lot of food in the library?”

Good eats

Students have a plethora of food stops to choose from, including Rising Roll, located on the lobby floor. (Brittany Fisher)

The Commons will be home to Rising Roll, Moe’s Southwest Grill, Panda Express, Bene Pizzeria, Spencer’s Coffee and a variety of rotating vendors. Caboni said he is excited to host local businesses inside the facility.

“I’m a fan of Spencer’s and I’m really excited that we have local options in the space,” Caboni said. “We’ll have a rotating place on the ground floor where local restaurants will come through every month or so.”

The building marks the return of Panda Express to campus following the demolition of Garrett Conference Center. Caboni noted that students will surely be excited that the restaurant is back.

“I think our students are most excited about Panda Express being open on campus,” Caboni said. “I hope the folks who are preparing for Monday have a lot of orange chicken ready, because I know there’s a pent up demand on campus for orange chicken.”

Anything but common

If there’s one thing visitors of the Commons get when they open the lobby doors, it’s the sense that they’re entering a unique space. In Caboni’s eyes, the building can serve as a model for other universities.

The Commons boasts a modern open concept layout that manages to facilitate collaboration while still providing countless nooks and crannies for studying. (Brittany Fisher)

“What you have today, we would argue, is a national model for the library,” Caboni said. “Libraries are no longer book repositories, or places where folks come to copy materials — they are gathering spaces, they are intellectual hubs. What we’ve created at WKU is a place for our faculty, our staff and our students to come together, to work together and to learn together, and what better way to do that than over a meal.”

The Commons features study spaces, glass-walled conference rooms for group gatherings, skylights to usher in the sun and spacious floor-to-ceiling windows that offer an unobstructed view of the Colonnade. As a nod to its athletic past, the midcourt jump circle is preserved in the lobby’s floor.

“There’s a real history here on campus, but also we’ve exposed a lot of history by bringing in the skylights,” Bryan Russell, chief facilities officer at WKU, said. “The superstructure is original to the building. We preserve the location of the center court. So we’ve kind of taken some of the old, blended in with the new, and then we provide a great space.”

The project came with a hefty price tag, but WKU’s contract with Aramark secured funding for its undertaking.

“When you talk about the budget for the building, Aramark actually contributed $35 million to the budget,” Russell said.

What next?

It would be easy to sit back and relax following the completion of such a project, but according to Caboni, the work is never done – especially now that WKU is set to receive $74.4 million from the state budget to construct the next home for the Gordon Ford College of Business.

“We will celebrate and enjoy this to the end of the semester at commencement together,” Caboni said. “We will immediately pivot to new projects to come. We had a tremendous session — the state legislature will invest in a new College of Business building. We’ll turn our attention to that.”

Content Editor Debra Murray can be reached at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @debramurrayy.

Content Editor Jake Moore can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @Charles_JMoore.