The chance reading by a trustee of an article written by Ralph Adams Cram of the Boston firm of Cram, Goodhue and Ferguson put one of America's foremost architects in charge of planning and designing Sweet Briar. By 1903 Cram had devised a campus plan and, until his death in 1942, he continued to develop it and to design many of Sweet Briar's core buildings. For many of these years, Pendleton S. Clark of Lynchburg was associated with Cram. By 1929 Clark was apparently the principal architect of the school's buildings, although Cram was still a consultant. At Cram's death, Clark's firm was named as the college's architects.
Cram, America's greatest Gothic Revivalist of the early twentieth century, here bowed to Virginia's tradition and architectural style and designed the campus in Georgian Revival, albeit more allied with urbane English Georgian architecture than with the simpler Virginia version. He probably was also influenced by a combination of the interest in classical motifs aroused by the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago and the Jeffersonian Revival that was also part of the Beaux-Arts movement at the beginning of the twentieth century. Spotlighted by the publicity surrounding Stanford White's remodeling of the University of Virginia's Rotunda, the quadrangle of Jefferson's school became a popular method of collegiate spatial organization.
Cram's plan featured a quadrangle with an east–west axis and two minor north–south axes to create an orderly yet complex hierarchy of spaces. These spaces are further organized by formal plantings, parterres, and a large oval pool. Colonnades, balustrades, and terracing connected and partially enclosed the axial, but not symmetrical, quadrangle. Many, though not all, of Cram's north side buildings, which included all of the early academic buildings, were constructed. Heavily influenced by Cram's ambitious 1903 design, they are Georgian Revival. Most of the later south side buildings did not follow the plan and, except for the Grammar dormitory of 1912, are less organized and less elaborate. The result is a little unsettling. Both sides are in the traditional red brick of Virginia instead of the yellow brick that Cram proposed. From the south side, a road leads down to the western section of campus with its later Colonial Revival brick buildings. The east end of the axis, on the location planned by Cram, was closed with a brick Classical Revival chapel (1966) designed by Oliver and Smith of Norfolk.
The earlier, north side of the campus can be divided into two main groups of buildings. On the west end, Benedict (1906) and Fletcher (1925) halls, both by Cram, flank the recessed Mary Helen Cochran Library (1929) to form a U-shaped courtyard. Fletcher Hall is a stripped-down version of Benedict, and the library, primarily a design of Clark, brings playfulness, even Mannerism, to the already freely interpreted classical themes of the campus. The north side's eastern grouping centers on the Pannell Center (former Refectory; 1906, Cram), flanked by two dormitories with two others behind them. The old Refectory is clearly part of Cram's early and fully embellished building era. It is rich in detailing from its stone first floor to second-floor windows set in stuccoed arches below round windows, bays separated by Ionic pilasters, a prominent modillion cornice and pediment, and a louvered tower with a cupola. The balustraded arcade that connects the old Refectory to the front dormitories is part of the elaborate balustrades and arcades that were to unite Cram's 1903 quadrangle. Gray (1906), the dormitory to the left of the Refectory and connected to it by a colonnade, is an archetype for the early dormitories--a rectangular brick building laid in Flemish bond with stone belt courses and keystones, glazed headers, paired chimneys, and shallow projecting gabled bays. A balustraded brick arcade connects Gray with a bell tower that seems oddly situated only because the planned corresponding south bell tower was never built.
Like many plans, Cram's was never fully realized. Its Beaux-Arts grandeur and strict hierarchy of spaces have been watered down, and the formal Beaux-Arts landscaping was eventually deemed inappropriate (and probably too expensive) for a rural setting. In 1929 Richmond landscape architect Charles F. Gillette, who had come to Virginia to work on the University of Richmond's Gothic Revival campus by Cram, began developing a plan that over the years has been implemented and, in large part, maintained. Gillette's landscaping gives Sweet Briar a more curvilinear, naturalistic look, a happy reflection of its hilly setting. But the circle is a full one. Virginia may have changed Cram's plans, but Cram changed Virginia. The publicity around his beautiful drawings and fine buildings stoked the fires of the fast-moving twentieth-century Colonial Revival in Virginia.