History in the Making: Historic Buildings Offer Lessons from the Past and Context for the Future, but Bringing Them Up to Speed Requires More Than Textbook Construction Strategies

By Fliegler, Caryn Meyers | University Business, June 2008 | Go to article overview

History in the Making: Historic Buildings Offer Lessons from the Past and Context for the Future, but Bringing Them Up to Speed Requires More Than Textbook Construction Strategies


Fliegler, Caryn Meyers, University Business


THE RENOVATION OF THE MAIN BUILDING AT WOFFORD College in Spartanburg, S.C., was part construction project, part archeological adventure. "Old Main" dated back to the mid-1850s and had housed classes for every single Wofford student from then to the present. As the project team worked on modernizing its technological and interior infrastructure and returning the building to its original appearance, they uncovered original brickwork built by slaves. The brick pillars had been hidden from view for years.

Rather than demolish the pillars or put them out of sight, the team opted to permanently expose a piece of the brickwork behind a glass window for all to see. Wofford officials commissioned an African-American poet to write about the slaves who toiled to build Old Main, creating a moving monument to history and an opportunity to connect the present with the past. "When we found those pillars we wanted our kids to understand that there was more to this building than just a place to have classes," says Robert Keasler, senior vice president for operations and planning. "When you look at something, you have to really look inside of it."

Historic projects like Old Mains renovation help to unify institutions' identities and provide compelling lessons for students, alumni, faculty, and staff. Building rehab and restoration produces rich rewards but takes detailed detective work and thoughtful decision making. "Any time you go into an existing building there will be some issue that comes up, whether it's a structural issue or trying to match a material or make it look exactly as you want to," says Laura Wernick, principal at Cambridge, Mass.-based HMFH Architects. "Ultimately, the benefit to the users and to society of passing on a treasure to future generations is worth a lot. Most universities these days understand that the histories and traditions of the campus are embodied, to a large degree, in their buildings. They are resources that need to be preserved."

The value of updating a significant structure is straightforward, but the road to successful completion of a historic construction project is not. Here are some rules for completing a successful historic project while respecting budget barriers.

SWEAT THE SMALL STUFF EARLY

Frances Halsband, partner in R.M. Kliment & Frances Halsband Architects in New York City, encountered a dubious administration at Yale University when she first began evaluating the Sterling Divinity Quadrangle, designed by the architects Delano & Aldrich and built in 1932 to house the Yale Divinity School. "It was one of the great ADA projects--when we started there were 37 different levels," says Halsband, describing the need to bring the quadrangle, which is spread over a sloping hill, into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. To many campus officials, keeping the building intact seemed impossible.

[ILLUSTRATIONS OMITTED]

According to Halsband and other architects and construction managers, before going public with project plans, a thorough evaluation of a historic building's condition should be conducted to unveil potential problems and issues. "We did a pure feasibility study before the president announced anything. Our study was, Can you save this building and reuse it for its original intention?"

Ultimately, the project team and Yale concluded that the quadrangle was too emotionally and historically important to demolish. The project team crafted a solution to the ADA accessibility issue by installing just one elevator in the back of the structure and putting in interior walkways linking the different pavilions (which run along a hillside and are a bit over two feet apart in height). The team also opted to renovate some parts of the building while leaving other parts alone for future work. Much of the interior space was restructured and rebuilt, with new walls shoring up a roof that had been so structurally unsound that building evacuations would be necessary after several inches of snowfall.

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