Natural History Building getting $73.4 million face-lift

Natural History Building getting $73.4 million face-lift

Sagging floors and hallways barricaded with "Keep Out" signs will soon be a thing of the past at the University of Illinois' Natural History Building.

Renovation of the oldest academic building on campus is finally underway, four years after more than half the building was closed because of structural problems.

Crews are carefully removing historically significant features, such as marble walls and wooden doors, that will be reused in the building, and heavy demolition work should begin next week, officials said Tuesday.

Today in Chicago, the UI Board of Trustees will review contracts totaling almost $8.5 million for general construction and structural steel work set to begin this fall.

The $73.4 million project will gut much of the interior and provide new classrooms, research labs and office spaces and replace the building's plumbing, electrical and mechanical systems. It will be closed for two years, with a target completion date of fall 2016 and classes scheduled to start again in January 2017.

"Everything's moved out," said geology Professor Steven Marshak, director of the School of Earth, Society and the Environment.

Built in 1892, the landmark structure designed by architect Nathan Ricker is the third-oldest campus building overall — behind Mumford House (1870) on the south Quad and Harker Hall (1878), home to the UI Foundation.

Engineers inspecting the building in June 2010, after termite damage was found, discovered structural 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. The damage was hidden inside dropped ceilings and hardwood floors for more than 100 years.

The UI ordered people in that section to move out quickly. 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 in 2012 while the UI wrangled with a state procurement board over a potential conflict of interest with the initial architect, BLDD of Champaign.

A new architect was hired, but the completion date was pushed back a year. Faculty were forced to move into temporary spaces, and in some cases put research on hold.

Most faculty moved their offices out last summer. Classes were still held in the building this past school year, but the remaining labs, classrooms and collections were moved out into other campus buildings this summer.

The building is now surrounded by fencing and construction trailers, and half of Mathews Avenue is blocked off. The demo work will include asbestos abatement and the removal of some hazardous materials built up in exhaust hoods that could pose an explosion danger if not handled properly, construction officials said.

The exterior of the Victorian Gothic building — with its elaborate gables, brick trim and slate roof — will remain the same, as the campus recently invested in new windows, masonry and roof work, officials said.

The inside will be revamped, but historic features will be preserved or reused, including wooden doors and transoms, wood trim, marble walls, and the plaster walls and ceilings in the original portion designed by Ricker, said Matt Richards of contractor Barton Malow Co.

The old Museum of Natural History, which closed around 2001, will be converted into a student hub. Its barrel-vaulted ceiling will be preserved, but the open courtyards on either side will be filled in with classrooms and labs. The entire middle section will be covered with a flat roof, with skylights to allow natural light through, Richards said.

The campus is covering the cost of the project, hoping that a substantial portion can come from private donations, Marshak said.

Once renovations are complete, the building will be shared by the School of Integrative Biology and the School of Earth, Society and the Environment, Marshak said. The latter includes the departments of geology, atmospheric sciences, and geography and geographic information sciences.

During construction, labs and classrooms for geology and biology will be scattered in Davenport Hall, Burrill Hall and Morrill Hall near the Quad, with faculty in the Computer Applications Building at Springfield Avenue and Wright Street.

Marshak said the transition will be a bit "awkward," but added, "It'll be great in two years when we're back in there."

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