Horror movie set no more, Natural History Building comes back to life


Brian Bauer

The Natural History Building has reopened after three years of renovations. The new building is structured in a way that not only retains its old character, but is also conducive to teaching students.

By Jessica Bursztynsky

After three years of construction and $70 million, the Natural History Building reopened this semester.

A landmark of the University since 1892, the building was closed in May 2014 due to its insufficiency in accommodating teaching and researching demands, according to the project website.

Stephen Marshak, professor of Geology and Director of School of Earth, Society and Environment, said in an email that “in the final years, parts of the building were so decrepit that a film crew came to the building to film scenes of a horror movie.”

And it was a long list of updates.

“Before the renovation, (the building) was on its last legs, with unstable floors, peeling paint, poorly configured rooms, inadequate electricity and AC, asbestos issues, and flooding issues,” Marshak said, “Furthermore, the building wasn’t close to being ADA compliant.”

Jonathan Tomkin, Associated Director of School of Earth, Society and Environment, has had several offices in the building. He said the working environment in the building was not always pleasant.

“When I used to work here. There was a time when, in the winter, the office would get down to about 50 degrees.” Tomkin said.

Marshak said additions were made to the building in 1908 and in the 1920s, using an early make of reinforced concrete for the floors.

“This was the concrete that was deemed unsafe and led to the mandatory evacuation of a large part of the building and, ultimately, to its reconstruction,” he said.

However, after a three-year renovation with 90 percent of funding coming from the University, there have been amazing changes in the building, Marshak said.

“(Before the renovation), frankly, faculty were embarrassed to bring visitors to the building,” he said. “Now, it is a gem that houses state-of-the-art research labs and active-learning classrooms that its occupants are very proud to show it off.”

The academic units in the building include the School of Earth, Society and Environment and the School of Integrative Biology.

Tomkin said the renovation is nothing but successful. Furthermore, he thinks his updated classroom has a positive effect on students’ learning.

Tomkin said it’s a non-standard room. Instead of lines, students are sitting in groups facing the professor. The classes are student-focused with an emphasis on active-learning.

“I used to teach very similar classes in more standard lecture halls,” he said. “I find it more effective teaching in these rooms because I’m more able to talk to students individually, or in groups, (and) students (are) more able to work together on in-class projects.”

Marshak said the interior renovation of the building “removed everything except floors and support columns.” The building is on the National Register of Historic Places due to its architectural details, which have been preserved during the renovations.

“It feels like a new building,” Tomkin said but added that it keeps its character.

Cecilia Cullen, graduate student in Geology, said when she arrived on campus this fall, she was excited to learn about the history of the building.

“I’ve heard that it was one of the oldest buildings on campus, and they (spent) more money to restore it than they would spend building a new building,” Cullen said.

Cullen said one of the most impressive features of the building is the grand staircase with “century-old wood.”

Marshak said that the oldest part of the building, the northern end, was designed by Nathan Ricker, who was the first person to receive a degree in architecture in the United States. Ricker also helped found the University’s Department of Architecture.

“The building has always been a focus of scholarship on this campus, and now it can continue to do so,” Marshak said.

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