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URBANA — Few buildings on campus are as historic, or distinctive, as Altgeld Hall.

Like the nearby Alma Mater statue, the Altgeld “castle” is an iconic part of the campus and the backdrop for countless graduation photos.

Plans to renovate the 122-year-old building have been kicking around for at least 13 years and in a serious way since a 2010-11 feasibility study. The project has been high on the UI’s list of state capital funding requests since 2015.

It’s now moving forward with a major funding infusion from the state, though construction is still a couple of years away.

The new Rebuild Illinois capital program approved in May — to be funded by tax increases on gas, cigarettes and expanded gambling — includes money for the Altgeld renovation.

The UI had asked the state for $43.2 million toward a $100 million-plus project to renovate Altgeld and replace Illini Hall across the street with a new Data Sciences Center. The buildings are home to the math and statistics departments, respectively, which are closely aligned and in desperate need of bigger, updated facilities, faculty say.

The capital appropriations bill approved in May includes $100 million for a new “math, statistics, data science collaboration center, and other capital improvements.” UI officials say that includes at least $43.2 million for the Altgeld-Illini Hall project, though the amounts are still being sorted out.

Separately, the campus announced last year that $40 million of the $500 million promised by the state for the Discovery Partners Institute would go toward the new Data Sciences Center.

“We couldn’t do this without the state’s involvement,” said Matthew Tomaszewski, executive assistant provost for capital planning. “The announcement through DPI allowed us to move forward with the Illini Hall component, and this additional money makes it all possible.”

None of the money has been released. But architects are finishing up conceptual designs and new cost estimates for the twin projects, Tomaszewski said.

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Faculty members are thrilled that Altgeld, home to one of the country’s top 20 math departments, will finally be restored — and brought up to date.

“People have been talking about the renovation for a long time,” said math department Chair Jeremy Tyson.

Designed by architect Nathan Ricker, the Gothic-style building includes the signature bell tower, turrets and even a gargoyle over one entrance.

“It’s an amazing building,” Tyson said. “I’m sure I can’t name any other math department in the country that’s in a building quite as unique as this one. My kids when they were younger used to say that daddy works in a castle, which is in some ways true.”

It’s named for John Altgeld, the Illinois governor instrumental in the UI’s early growth. When it was built in 1897, only two other buildings stood on what is now the Quad — Harker Hall and the Natural History Building, which were both renovated in recent years.

Altgeld Hall first served as the University Library and over the years housed the university’s business office, the board of trustees and president’s office, and the College of Law.

What is now Altgeld’s Mathematics Library is a jewel of the building, with its painted arches, murals representing the first four colleges of the university, and its sunny reading room with original coffered ceiling, wood paneling and period reading lamps. Surrounding the library are mosaic tile floors, ornate wrought-iron stair rails and doorplates, and carved woodwork everywhere.

The former president’s suite, now home to math undergraduate offices, includes two ornate fireplaces and a curved seating area with tall windows inside one of the building’s turrets.

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Altgeld has been home to mathematics since 1956. That was also the year of the building’s last major renovation, and it shows.

Water-damaged plaster visible on the library’s ceiling sometimes drops onto the circulation desk below. The murals have faded. The lone elevator is old and slow. And the hallways and ramps connecting three different sections of the building can be a confusing labyrinth for visitors.

“Every semester we have somebody come to the office and say, how do I get out?” said Jane Bergman, office manager for the math department.

Accessibility is a particular problem. Every Altgeld entrance has stairs except one on the northeast side, and that leads to a spiral staircase. To get to upper floors, people unable to use stairs have to traverse a series of hallway ramps all the way around the building to reach the elevator in the south addition.

Not all floors are fully accessible, even with the elevator. The 1950s addition, on the east side, was “built off half a level from the rest of the building,” with four floors instead of three, Tyson said.

Advisers have to go downstairs to meet with students unable to get to their third-floor offices.

“As you walk around, there are small half-steps, flights of stairs that go up and down half-levels and make it virtually impossible to reach certain parts of the building in an accessible way,” Tyson said.

Tomaszewski said architects are still trying to determine the best way to fix that, whether it’s realigning floors or adding elevators or both.

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Tyson is also looking forward to having modern, flexible classrooms for lectures, group study, tutoring or student projects, rather than the current “one size fits all” model with chalkboards.

CannonDesign was hired earlier this year to develop conceptual designs for the project, determining “how much space we need to build to accommodate the program we need, and how much it will cost,” said math Professor Sheldon Katz, special assistant to the dean of the College of LAS for the project. He first broached the subject of renovating Altgeld back in 2006, when he was department chairman.

The architects’ report will update information from the 2011 feasibility study, incorporate changes such as the decision to replace rather than renovate Illini Hall, and provide more precise cost estimates, Tomaszewski said.

The original price tag was estimated at $100 million, but it’s likely to rise, he said.

The plan calls for $10 million in private funding. Tomaszewski said there has been strong donor interest, though he didn’t have fundraising totals. The campus has also pledged $27 million from a student fee reserved for deferred maintenance projects for academic buildings.

CannonDesign is developing timelines for the project and, depending on the option selected, construction on the new Data Sciences Center could begin in 2021, Tomaszewski said. Work on Altgeld would follow, with completion in 2025, he said.

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The project can’t come too soon for Katz and Tyson. While they appreciate the building’s historic value, “it’s difficult to recruit new faculty with these facilities,” Katz said.

The math department is overflowing, and growing, with almost 100 faculty members and 150 Ph.D. students as well as 1,200 undergraduate majors. Offices for math faculty and graduate students are scattered in several buildings across campus, Tyson said.

The explosion of interest in “big data” and data sciences has opened up the potential for collaborations between math and statistics and other departments across campus, and the new Data Sciences Center “zone” will facilitate that, Tyson said.

“It’s a wonderful opportunity for the university to renovate one of its signature buildings, one of the postcard buildings right on the campus, and at the same time make it functional and usable for our units, math and statistics — and tie the whole project into data science,” he said.

Campus planners are “absolutely” committed to preserving Altgeld’s historic features, but they know that may be costly, Tomaszewski said.

In the math library, for instance, the wrought-iron shelving system for the book stacks is integral to the structure, which will complicate any renovation. Ideally, they’d like to open up the east end of the library that was closed off years ago, restore the murals and re-create its “open airy feeling,” he said.

Professionals are removing layers of paint in sections of the ceiling and walls to try to find the original designs and color schemes.

A small renovation project a few years ago uncovered pristine wood floors under old linoleum in a hallway that was once part of the library. Katz is sure other “gems” will be discovered as the renovation gets underway.

Some alumni have questioned the decision to raze Illini Hall, which was built in 1907 as a home for the University YMCA. In 1919, it became the Illini Union — before the current union opened in 1949 — and later housed The Daily Illini.

The campus had originally planned to renovate Illini Hall but it couldn’t accommodate the space needs of the two departments or the plans for the Data Sciences Center, Tomaszewski said. The UI is working with the state’s historic preservation office to document the building’s history and may retain some of its elements, he said.

“Many of our alums have spent many enjoyable days here in Illini Hall,” Katz said. “The condition of the building is not anything that anybody has fond feelings for. After careful consideration, we realized there was no way to preserve that building while meeting the needs for University of Illinois students for the next century.”

News-Gazette

Reporter/Columnist

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