Renovation getting back on track at UI's Natural History Building

URBANA — To get an idea of how old the University of Illinois Natural History Building is, consider that the year it opened:

— Grover Cleveland was elected to a second term as president.

— The baseball postseason pitted the Boston Beaneaters against the Cleveland Spiders and their ace pitcher, Cy Young.

— Ellis Island became a reception center for new immigrants.

The landmark building designed by Nathan Ricker has been updated over the years, and the original 1892 section has held up for more than a century. But structural problems uncovered in the 1908 addition forced the campus to close roughly 40 percent of the building in 2010, displacing faculty offices, research labs and classrooms.

The crumbling building was already scheduled for a major overhaul, so a $70 million renovation was fast-tracked. But the project was put on hold last year while the UI wrangled with a state procurement board over a potential conflict of interest with the initial architect, BLDD of Champaign.

The project is now back on track with a new architect, but the completion date was pushed back a year, from July 2015 to summer 2016. Faculty forced to move into temporary spaces, and in some cases put research on hold, are more than ready for their limbo to end.

"It's been frustrating," said geology Professor Steven Marshak, director of the School of Earth, Society and the Environment. "We were under way; we knew the architectural team that was working here; we had begun developing relationships with them; we had a certain time structure we were following. And then all of a sudden it stopped because of the procurement issue."

"Needless to say, we're quite excited about the improvements," he said.

The Natural History Building, 1301 W. Green St., U, is the oldest academic building on campus and the third-oldest overall — behind Mumford House (1870) on the south Quad and Harker Hall (1878), home to the UI Foundation. It's listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Engineers inspecting the building in June 2010, after termite damage was found, discovered problems with the concrete floors in the 1908 addition on the south and west sides. The floors were sagging because concrete had been poured incorrectly.

Records show the original specs called for the use of twisted rebar, which concrete can grip, spaced 6 inches apart, Marshak said. But crews instead used smooth rebar spaced 24 inches apart, he said. The damage was hidden inside dropped ceilings and hardwood floors for more than 100 years.

The floors were declared structurally insufficient, and the UI ordered people in that section to move out. Professors were given a short time to grab personal items from their offices, and later returned to clean out their desks once the floors were temporarily stabilized.

Faculty offices that were hurriedly evacuated in 2010 still have file drawers standing open, papers strewn on the floor, empty soda cans on the desks.

"Everyone grabbed their stuff and left," Marshak said.

Plywood with "keep out" signs now seals off the 1908 section, except for a hallway leading to a 350-seat auditorium used for lectures by numerous departments on campus. Engineers had to brace the floors with steel columns that run from the top floor to the basement, where they're anchored in piers made of 6-by-6 beams to spread the load.

On busy class days, hundreds of students weave through the grid of columns on their way to or from lectures.

"We don't want the upper floors crashing down," Marshak said.

The Department of Geology remains in the building, with faculty and graduate student offices and labs relocated to the north and east wings. Some professors moved into shared offices. Rooms that had been part of the old Geology Library were divided into faculty spaces. A reading room was converted into a student work area.

"We did what we had to do to get labs up and running and ensure classes are being taught," Marshak said. "People have reasonable work spaces. We've been doing fine for the last couple of years. But it doesn't look great."

Peeling paint is everywhere. In the main hallway, gaping holes punched in the ceiling to check the floor structure above remain unrepaired. Molding pried off to inspect the original 1892 beams was not replaced.

"Had we known we were going to be in this condition as long as we are, we would have done a few more renovations to make it comfortable," Marshak said. "We're occupying a building that is in very poor condition."

It's been a bigger headache for some research labs. Geology Professors Tom Johnson and Craig Lundstrom had to move a $700,000 mass spectrometer to a different part of the building, which shut down their work for more than a month. The machine, one of only two dozen in the United States, is used to measure isotopes for everything from groundwater contamination to the igneous rock formation, Johnson said.

A specialist had to be brought in from Wales to recalibrate the machine so it would run properly, which cost about $5,000, he said.

"It did delay us on everything we were working on at the time," Johnson said, though it didn't affect the lab's funding.

Now the machine will have to be moved again when the building closes for renovation, and possibly a third time when it's completed, he said.

In other cases, professors have had to do their work elsewhere or reconfigure their research to work on projects that don't require particular equipment, Marshak said.

The delays and general condition of the building also started to affect recruitment of students and faculty. The number of geology majors is down, from 65 to about 50 this year, Johnson said. Students look at the building and "they don't see us as being the high-tech and forward-looking department that we are."

At least one professor turned down an offer from the department, although his reasons weren't clear, Johnson said. But the department, which has about a dozen faculty, recently landed two new professors, including an expert on global climate change.

"In the past we felt like it was hurting us," Johnson said last week. "The reputation of the institution has kept us afloat in this case."

Marshak said recruitment would be a bigger issue if the renovation were not moving ahead.

"My sense is, because we know that this is going to have an end to it, and we're going to have a very nice facility, it's near enough in the future that faculty we recruit are willing to put up with the facilities in the meantime."

Added Johnson, "We are very grateful that the campus was able to scrape together the funds to do this project."

The recent delay has also given the units more time to think about the project, Marshak said. Planners have decided to move the Department of Geography and Geographic Information Sciences into the building, to bring together all three units of the School of Earth and the Environment, Marshak said. The other two, geology and the Department of Atmospheric Sciences, were already slated to be in the renovated facility. (Geography is now in Davenport Hall, which is scheduled for its own renovation down the road.)

The renovated building will also include teaching programs from the School of Integrative Biology, as well as classrooms for general campus use.

Marshak and others are now trying to find new temporary spaces for their departments to use when renovation work begins in earnest later this year.

Faculty will move out next summer, most of them to the Computer Applications Building at Springfield Avenue and Wright Street, Marshak said. The building is used as "surge space" for the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, most recently during the renovation of Lincoln Hall.

That's the easy part. The college is still deciding where to hold geology classes, which require access to the rock samples and maps now in the Natural History Building.

"And we're trying to figure out exactly how to accommodate a number of highly technical research labs," Marshak said. The transition period may be challenging, Marshak and Johnson said, but they're thrilled the project is moving ahead.

"If you set your eyes on the target — to have a new building for the coming century — it's worth it," Marshak said.

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