Natural History Building becomes part of the 21st century

By Emma Palatnik, Contributing Writer

The Natural History Building was originally supposed to open this semester but unforseen issues have delayed opening for a year.

“When they took off the wood floors above it and stripped it right down to the concrete you could jump up and down on the floors and they bounced,” said Stephen Marshak, a geology professor and director of the School of Earth, Society and Environment.

In 2010, an inspection of the building found that the floors in the 1908 addition were non-load bearing. As a result, the departments housed there had to move to the safe part of the building until a decision could be made.

Marshak said the delays were due to surprises that “couldn’t be seen until the walls were taken down.” They found walls that were non-supporting and had termite damage and concrete degassing moisture.

The Natural History Building is on the National Register of Historic Places, which meant that knocking it down was not an option. Given its poor condition, it was decided to renovate the entire building as opposed to just the floors. The building was completely closed in 2014.

Marshak said that they gutted nearly the entire building. Support columns, floors, walls and some historic spots were left untouched. 68,000 square feet of floors were redone.

“Right now when you go in the building, if you’d been there before the renovation, you wouldn’t recognize the place. It has a different floor plan, different spaces — it’s vastly different than it was before,” said Marshak. “In effect, it’s going be a 21st-century building inside a 19th-century shell. When you look at it from the outside it’s unchanged; when you look at it from the inside it’ll be completely modern.”

Marshak said the new building will house two schools. The School of Earth, Society and Environment will have all three departments for graduate students, faculty and laboratories located in the building. The School of Integrated Biology will have all of its undergraduate classes held there as well.

The estimated cost for the renovation is $70 million. The bulk of the funding comes from the University; however, the goal for the School of Earth, Society and Environment and the School of Integrated Biology is to raise $7 million to help pay for the cost.

“To date we have raised close to $1 million,” said Jean Driscoll, senior director of development. “This is being funded by alumni and donors who are interested in the project. In fact, as I look through the list of people who have donated, it’s alumni who graduated with degrees in either geology, geography and geographic information science or atmospheric sciences.”

Driscoll said they attract donors through naming opportunities. There are donors naming the student microscopy lab, the remote sensing laboratory, department head offices, faculty offices and graduate student offices.

“It’s the first time in its history that it has had these type of naming opportunities. We are hopeful that our alumni and friends will help invest in the future of modern higher education by naming a space within the Natural History Building,” said Sean Williams, assistant director of development.

Driscoll said when donors give $25,000 or more, they gain naming rights. They also have the option to pay the donation in full or pledge a commitment for up to five years.

This renovation does not simply benefit the School of Earth, Society and Environment and the School of Integrated Biology. It gives value to the University as a whole.

“We’re really working hard, and you can see that in a lot of facilities around campus that have been constructed or renovated to compete with our peer institutions, to make this a very much modern, 21st-century teaching facility,” Williams said.

Williams said that prior to its close, a large number of students had at least one class in the building. Marshak said that once it reopens, thousands of students will pass through the halls each week.

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Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that a $2,500 donation was required for naming rights. The correct amount is $25,000.