Design of new UI cultural center unveiled


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URBANA — A modern glass-and-brick building designed to provide a "home away from home" for black students and reach out to the broader campus is slated to replace a deteriorating cultural center at the University of Illinois.

Final designs for the new $5.5 million Bruce Nesbitt African American Cultural Center will be presented to UI trustees when they meet in Springfield next week.

The old center at 708 S. Mathews Ave., U, originally built as a house, was closed in spring 2014 for safety reasons.

The cultural center was moved to temporary quarters in a campus recreation building on Gregory Street in Champaign.

The campus announced plans last year to build a new $4.9 million center at the original location on Mathews, just across the street from the UI Quad.

The budget has increased by $600,000 since then because of rising labor and demolition costs, pushing it above the $5 million threshold requiring trustee approval, said Michael Bass, senior associate vice president for business and finance.

The project will be funded with a mix of donations, UI institutional funds and student fees supporting diversity programs and facilities. A fundraising campaign targeting black alumni was launched in 2014.

The two-story building, plus a basement, will provide 8,000 square feet of offices and activity space for the cultural center, which was founded in 1969 and later named for its longtime director. Construction is due to be completed by December 2018.

The design is strikingly contemporary, though it uses brick and limestone elements like more traditional buildings on campus.

A wall of glass covers the west side along Mathews, the transparency meant to invite the public in to learn about the center's mission, said architect Dina Griffin of Interactive Design Architects.

"People can walk by and see what's going on," she said.

Griffin, an African-American UI graduate, said the Alma Mater was an inspiration for the design, calling it a symbol of "the history and prestige of the university, her open arms welcoming students of all races, ethnicities and backgrounds, enriching the campus environment and experience for all."

The south side, and main entrance, along Nevada Street is made up of two sections of brick — one dark gray to represent the "strength and guidance" the UI provides for its students and one in varied colors of tan, brown and gray reflecting "the multi-toned hues" of students on campus, Griffin said.

"We wanted the building to wear its identity and be easily recognizable on campus," she said.

The first floor includes a multipurpose room and activity spaces; the second floor is more private, to encourage more study and education and provide a haven for students, she said.

Outside, a flat awning evokes the feel of a front porch, a common feature of Southern houses, she said. A wraparound limestone bench runs underneath and then inside the building, creating an indoor-outdoor seating area to help welcome others into the space, said Gigi Secuban, the associate vice chancellor for inclusion and intercultural relations.

Secuban said the original design was even more contemporary, "way out of the box." After several presentations, architects revised the plan and included more traditional materials, as the center is "so close to the Quad," she said.

Students, faculty, staff and alumni of the center, who worked with Griffin, didn't want the building to look too traditional, Secuban said.

"They want it to reflect African-American heritage. This was a nice balance between what was required for that part of campus and what the community wanted," Secuban said.

"The whole point was that it wasn't supposed to look like the other buildings, but still have some way of fitting in somehow with the overall design aesthetic that's over there," she said.

The building also sits across Mathews from the 1960s-era Foreign Language Building, the only modern building on the Quad.

The center's new director, Nathan Stephens, likes the new cultural center design.

"It's exciting that we're going to have an opportunity to have this brand-new facility on our campus and available to our students," he said.

Demolition of the old house is slated to start in late June, he said. Sometime before that, Stephens hopes to have a ceremony to give people a chance to say goodbye to the old building.

The plan is to sell bricks from the old building to raise money for the project, either for people to keep or to incorporate into the new center somehow, he said.

"The facility itself meant a lot to people," he said. "We want to try to offer an opportunity for those folks to have a piece of that institutional history."


Julie Wurth is a reporter covering the University of Illinois at The News-Gazette. Her email is, and you can follow her on Twitter (@jawurth).