Aging Gracefully

Like thousands of schools across the United States, St. Ignatius College Prep in Chicago had been putting off needed maintenance work for years. As it struggled to keep tuition affordable and provide students from throughout the metropolitan area with a solid high school education, not many dollars were left over to spruce up the spartan facilities.

Deferred maintenance is risky for any facility. But when your building is one of the oldest buildings in Chicago, as St. Ignatius is, the inattention to upkeep can put you in a hole difficult to escape.

The Jesuit-run Catholic school boasted of its reputation as one of the city's foremost secondary institutions. But by the early 1980s, the building itself, opened in 1869, was a tattered relic.

"About 25 years had gone by with little investment in the school building," says John Chandler, the school's vice president.

Officials could no longer delay a decision. They could abandon the inner city, as many Catholic schools had done, and build a modern facility and a new tradition at a more spacious suburban site, closer to many of their students. They could raze the antiquated building and construct a new school in the cramped space available on their Near West Side campus. Or they could preserve the school's heritage and undertake a massive restoration of the school.

St. Ignatius stayed put. Over 15 years, the school has spent $40 million on a massive facelift for the campus. It modernized the structure while at the same time restoring it to its 19th-century architectural roots. The school also built two additions to provide more space for music, arts, science and athletics.

When the overhaul was completed in the late 1990s, school officials had a campus of elegant, architecturally cohesive buildings that are expected to last another 100 years.

"We did a gut rehab, outside to in," says Chandler. "It is now a 19th-century building with 21st-century amenities."

A national problem Few school buildings are as old as St. Ignatius, but thousands of facilities face challenges finding the resources to keep their buildings safe and modern. An often-cited 1995 study by the General Accounting Office estimated that it would take $112 billion to bring existing schools into good condition.

Last year, a National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) report noted that after 40 years, a school building begins to deteriorate rapidly, and that after 60 years, most schools are abandoned.

Plenty of buildings fit that age range. The NCES found that 28 percent of public schools were built before 1950. The average age of America's public schools is 42 years old; in Northeast and Central states, the average age is 46 years old.

When St. Ignatius was forced to decide how to address its deteriorating structure in the early 1980s, the main section of the building was more than 110 years old. The "new" wing was built in 1895.

"It was a dump and falling apart," says Chandler. "We reached a nadir in the late '60s and '70s. There was a lot of stagnation and disinvestment in the area. Our traditional student base was starting to go to suburban schools."

The science labs were ancient; chipped paint fell from the walls; students often had to don their coats when the heating system broke down. Beyond the limitations posed by age, the schools did not have enough space for activities such as athletics and music-a problem exacerbated when the school decided in 1979 to enroll girls for the first time.

The only parts of the campus that were relatively new were the gymnasium and "commons" dining area constructed in the mid-1960s east of the main building.

After a teacher discovered that part of the ground floor of the main building was slowly collapsing into the sub-basement, and a fire damaged the school's cramped library, Ignatius officials knew they could no longer continue with short-term fixes.

Relocate or Restore? Unlike a public school, St. Ignatius was not beholden to any geographical borders. It could move away and re-establish itself in roomier, suburban surroundings, and many of the 1,300 students would follow. The school had flirted with the possibility of relocating in the 1950s after a fire in the 1895 building, but Archdiocesan politics thwarted the plan.

After 30 more years of wear and tear on the building, the suburbs beckoned again.

"There was a strong push from some to relocate out of the inner city," says Chandler.

But in the end, schools officials couldn't leave. They had been part of the neighborhood for more than a century, and the building, though frustratingly decrepit in many ways, gave the school a unique quality that couldn't be re-created in suburbia.

"The school and the Jesuits saw, as part of their mission staying on the Near West Side of Chicago," says Chandler. "We are a unique and a distinctive school-a city and state landmark. The alumni identify the school with the distinctive building."

Once school officials decided to stay in the old building, the focus shifted from what was wrong to what was right.

As the oldest school in Chicago, history permeated the halls and walls of St. Ignatius. It is one of a few buildings that remained standing after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 and is on the National Register of Historic Places.

An engineering study showed that the building, with three-foot-thick foundation and supporting walls, could survive another century or more. The school decided that instead of just renovating the building, it would restore the structure to its 19th-century architectural origins.

The building received a new slate roof. All the windows were replaced-some of them were more than 20 feet long and had to be custom made. Workers restored or re-created the building's original characteristics, such as copper gutters, wrought-iron fixtures, wood carvings and muraled ceilings.

"This is no cement-block-and-linoleum structure like a lot of schools," says Chandler. "There has to be a lot of hands-on attention and constant monitoring and inspecting."

St. Ignatius also has taken advantage of its location to come up with a novel way of heating its buildings. The University of Illinois-Chicago campus, which arrived in the neighborhood in the 1960s, has its power plant abutting the eastern edge of St. Ignatius property. The high school takes waste heat from the university and uses heat exchangers to keep students and teachers warm.

While St. Ignatius now looks more than ever like a 19th-century facility, it is equipped with up-to-date technology, including a wireless computer network so that students can use laptops to connect to the Internet from anywhere in the school.

"We wanted the building to be flexible regardless of its age," says Chandler.

With no base of taxpayers to rely on for support, the school has initiated aggressive fundraising campaigns to pay for the improvements. Alumni and other benefactors have donated millions of dollars to foot the bill.

Amassing enough money has been a gradual process-"sometimes it's difficult to match a donor's desires with the school's needs," says Chandler-but that hasn't slowed down restoration appreciably. Because the school had to remain open during renovations, the work was done over several years.

More Room Needed The restoration transformed the 250,000 square feet in the main building to a showplace, but St. Ignatius still lacked space. So in the mid-1990s, construction commenced on two additions: a 38,000-square-foot Center for the Performing Arts and Sciences, which includes a theater, several music rooms and science labs; and a 50,000-square-foot dining hall and athletic facility.

To make room for the athletic facility, called the Chicago Center, the school tore down the 1960s-era commons building (although the gymnasium built at the same time was spared).

"It was not worth keeping," says Chandler. "It was an orange shoebox."

Each addition was designed to complement the architectural style of the original building. Together, the renovations and additions have created an environment that school officials believe reflects the high academic standards the school has long stood for.

"It is a distinct atmosphere for learning," says Chandler. "You can look around and appreciate art and music and finer things."

But, Chandler emphasizes, it is not a museum. "Kids are everywhere-in the hallways, passageways."

The students recognize the special environment the school offers them.

"We have almost zero graffiti," says Chandler. "Students have a respect for their surroundings. We don't have to push them to respect it. When the school was falling apart, it was not as well-respected."

Living in style Sixty years of student living can take its toll on even the sturdiest facility. That was the case at Principia College, an institution geared for Christian Scientists in Elsah, Ill., north of St. Louis. Two residence halls built in the 1930s have recently been restored to modernize the facilities and bring out the original details created by noted architect Bernard Maybeck.

The campus buildings were on the National Register of Historic Places, but over the years ad-hoc repairs and misguided renovations had detracted from the original beauty of Maybeck's work.

"I've never seen anything built like these," says Jeff Clark, an architect from Metropolitan Design & Building who designed the project. "They are like concrete bunkers, defense forts."

Yet, over the years, the original steel window frames were replaced with wooden sills that couldn't hold up to the typical student treatment; the college installed acoustic tiles and covered the exposed concrete ceilings.

Given the historic status of the campus, Principia decided to embrace more fully its architectural treasures.

"These are pretty spectacular buildings," says Gary McKean, the college's director of capital projects. "Maybeck designed the campus to look like a 600-year-old English village. The buildings look older than they are."

While the buildings-Anderson House and Rackham Court-were only 60 years old, not 600, they still lacked features desired by students and demanded by fire and building codes.

"We had to put in new fire doors to get up to code and upgrade the electrical wiring, plumbing and bathroom facilities," says McKean. "We replaced the heating system and installed a system that supports air conditioning. We wired the building to give every room phone and computer access."

Built to last Like St. Ignatius and unlike so many of the school buildings constructed on the quick and cheap during the baby boom of the 1950s and 1960s, the Principia buildings were made to last.

"This renovation is good for 300 years," says McKean. "These buildings are like bomb shelters. This concrete is so tough, it was burning up the construction workers' machines. It's as hard as nails. There's no way it will fall down."

McKean says the school intends to restore four other residence halls that Maybeck designed. The school never considered replacing the structures, given their solid construction and architectural significance.

The same can't be said for residence halls Principia built in the 1960s, which McKean says "look like Pizza Huts."

Preserving historical and architectural significance can make a school renovation more costly, but officials at St. Ignatius and Principia say they have come out ahead in the rewards they and their students have reaped.

"It's worth it to go through the pain and the hassle if you've got something like these buildings to work with," says McKean.

Since it was founded in 1898, Northeastern University had served the Boston area well as a commuter campus. But when college officials began to evaluate its urban campus in the 1980s, they saw a collection of buildings less and less appealing to prospective students.

The campus buildings themselves were not necessarily obsolete, but the overall feel of the campus was out of date. Many of the buildings had no relation to each other-just uninspired office buildings from the 1940s and 1950s with no architectural detail.

"The campus was almost a parking lot-an asphalt jungle," says Mark Boulter, the university's director of building services. "You used to be able to drive up to just about any building. There was no green space."

More students were telling school officials they wanted the university to feel more like a residential campus than a commuter school. University leaders pondered whether they could compete for students with a campus so unappealing.

So, beginning in the mid-1980s and continuing through the 1990s, the university used landscape design to remake Northeastern and create a haven of sorts from the surrounding hard urban landscape.

"The feel before was, 'Get in, take your classes, and go home,' "says Boulter. "Now we want people to come and hang around and be a part of the community."

For instance, along World Series Way, what had been a grim, unadorned concrete corridor between two nondescript buildings, has become a curved brick walkway lined with trees and shrubs.

The university removed a parking lot to create a large green space called Centennial Quadrangle. A sculpture park was added near the library and student center.

"We used grass and curbing and curved paths to soften the feel of the campus," says Boulter. "The landscaping almost masks the buildings and softens them aesthetically."

To free up land for green space and make the university more pedestrian-friendly, Northeastern relegated nearly all parking to the periphery of the campus.

"That was difficult," says Boulter. "We had to change the culture of the university."

In the meantime, the university has responded to the desire of students by building more residence halls. Boulter says recent or ongoing construction is adding about 1,100 rooms.

The 28,000 students who attend classes there now might not be aware of the transformation, but alumni like Boulter say the difference is remarkable.

"If you took an aerial photo of Northeastern in the early 1980s, you would see a sea of automobiles," says Boulter. "Now what you would see are curved pathways leading from one building to another.

"Some of the alumni, people who haven't been here for years, say they can't recognize the place."

Hide comments

Comments

  • Allowed HTML tags: <em> <strong> <blockquote> <br> <p>

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
Publish