Antique specimens pose challenge for project

Antique specimens pose challenge for project

A wall-sized depiction of a plesiosaurus, a large carnivorous marine reptile from the Jurassic period, greets visitors to the Natural History Building.

It's not a true fossil, but the plaster cast is itself an antique, dating back more than a century, said Steven Marshak, geology professor and director of the UI's School of Earth, Society and the Environment.

One challenge facing architects planning the renovation of the Natural History Building is how to preserve the antique fossil specimens throughout the building, which are still used to teach geology classes.

"They don't make these anymore," Marshak said.

The plesiosaurus is the largest, made from a fossil found in England in 1849. Other specimens include a 230-million-year-old root from a giant Gilboa tree, found in the Catskill Mountains; several dinosaur skulls; and horns from an Irish elk, a giant deer dating back 5 million to 10 million years.

When the building's old Museum of Natural History closed, its animal samples were transferred to the Natural History Survey, including the famous stuffed buffalo. Other items went to the Illinois State Museum, but the geologic specimens, including the plaster casts, are part of the Geology Department's collection.

The plan is to incorporate them into the renovated building, possibly in an Earth Museum, Marshak said.

The soaring space on the third floor that formerly housed the museum — featuring a vaulted ceiling, clerestory windows and ionic columns, albeit with peeling paint — is tentatively scheduled to become a student hub.

Planners also hope to restore some of the building's original features, including the double staircase at the north end. Half of the staircase was filled in when the original four-story atrium was converted to offices and a hallway decades ago, Marshak said.

BLDD Architects of Champaign drew up conceptual designs for the project, but the new architect, LCM of Chicago, will complete more detailed plans in coming months.

The UI is trying to raise $7 million, or 10 percent of the project cost, from donors. The rest will come from a student fee for maintenance of academic buildings and institutional funds — money the university sets aside primarily from grants and contracts.

Interior demolition work will begin next summer, and construction will likely start sometime in 2014, officials said.