The exterior of historic Old Main, the oldest building on the University of Arizona campus, will look virtually unchanged when the scaffolding and construction fences that now surround it come down this summer.
The porches, though, will be all new and the metal roof will have a modern resin coating — two decisions that caused some consternation for those involved in its rehabilitation. It will look, as much as possible, like Old Main did when it was completed in 1891.
Inside, it’s another matter. The interior of the second floor will be transformed, once again, with some historical elements restored and more modern features added to make it function as the new home of the UA administration.
Old Main, the historic center of the UA campus and the only building sitting on the nearly mile-long UA Mall, has been remodeled many times over 123 years. The interior configuration of its second floor would not accommodate the contemporary uses planned for it after a $13.5 million makeover now underway.
Those uses include an all-purpose room for banquets and meetings, a board room and the offices of UA President Ann Weaver Hart and her staff.
The UA, along with contractor Sundt Construction and project architect Corky Poster, made tough decisions about what to replace and what to leave alone.
When it opened in 1891, all of the University of Arizona’s students were taught in its 12 large classrooms.
Over the years, it accommodated a variety of uses that demanded periodic remodeling of the interior — a student-run diner, offices, labs, and a bookstore among them.
High plastered ceilings gave way to corrugated metal and dropped acoustical tiles with fluorescent lighting fixtures. The original grooved-wood wainscoting was removed or covered, the eight fireplaces removed and the big classrooms partitioned into small offices.
Now, high ceilings will be restored, with new plumbing, wiring and heating-and-cooling ducts moved into an attic space crammed with gleaming new equipment.
Some of its historic configuration will reappear, notably the long east/ west and north/south hallways that form the “cross” of the cruciform structure of the building. It will become a public “Cruciform Gallery” displaying art and objects from UA museums and the Center for Creative Photography, said Peter Dourlein, UA assistant vice president for planning/design and construction,
It could be named the “Mary Smith Cruciform Gallery” if somebody named Mary Smith chooses to donate $500,000 to the Old Main rehabilitation fund being raised by the UA Foundation.
The ceilings of the gallery are being raised and the alternating dark and light wood wainscoting is being reinstalled.
Preserving the exterior of Old Main was a challenge. Some of the materials used to build it are no longer manufactured, and, even if they were, would be prohibited by contemporary building codes.
Its steel roof, for example, was coated in a mix of tin and lead, at a time when lead’s environmental-health problems were unknown. They don’t make “terne metal” anymore, and the UA has opted for a resin-coated steel roof that will match the configuration of existing roof tiles and approximate its current brownish-red color.
A 2011 Preservation Master Plan, researched and written by Tucson architect Bob Vint, suggested replacing the roof with a contemporary version of terne-metal, coated with a tin/zinc alloy, or with a copper roof.
The team doing the reconstruction opted for a more modern treatment, a resin-coated steel, cut into shingles and sheets that match the original design. The four pyramidal towers that mark the building’s four entrances, for example, have diamond-shaped metal shingles.
The color will match the contemporary reddish-brown of the roof, though the untarnished terne metal was a pewterish gray, according to the Vint report. Poster said workers found evidence during construction that the original roof was painted red shortly after it was installed.
The remarkable thing is that the roof, patched in places and replaced in others, has survived this long. Not many buildings can boast a 120-year roof. Vint, in his report, said Old Main probably has the longest-enduring roof in Arizona, possibly the nation.
The building’s 12-feet-deep, wraparound veranda — which protected the stone and brick building for all those years — had deteriorated badly. Its wood couldn’t be saved.
The new porch uses identical materials and design. Using nonwood decking was considered but rejected, said Poster. A second railing of metal and wire will be placed inside the wooden one to meet contemporary building-safety codes.
When he started the job, said Poster, “I had the notion that we really needed to save the porches.” The wood, however was rotted and braced with metal in various places.
Dourlein said the porches were unsafe and he anticipates bigger weight loads.
“We’re building to 100 pounds a square foot. It’s a public use space. We’re going to have a party or two.”
That public use was also a reason to add the second porch railing. The rebuilt wooden railing is only 29 inches high — just big enough to lean on or fall off.
Poster designed a slim metal railing to stand behind it. The added railing, which meets building codes in height and spacing, won’t be obvious when looking at the building from afar, he said. Up close it will be noticeably a modern addition. One of the tenets of historical rehabilitation is to not disguise additions as historical, he said.
Poster said the porches are a big part of the reason that the building still stands. “The building is nearly in perfect exterior shape because it had a spindly little wooden porch around it for 120 years. We came to the conclusion that it’s a permanent building surrounded by a sacrificial porch.”
Own a piece of history
Some of the brick used in the porch’s supporting columns also had to be replaced. In that case, the UA was fortunate to have a supply on hand.
Architecture professor R. Brooks Jeffery salvaged brick from an earlier remodeling of the interior and stored it in the basement of the historic Smith House, which serves as headquarters of the Drachman Institute, for which he is director.
The original thought was to use those bricks as gifts for donors to the $13.5 million fund needed for the rehabilitation.
The UA Foundation is now offering donors the opportunity to purchase mounted and framed sections of the old metal roof. They will be enclosed in glass in case any lead remains in them, said J. Lance Cavanaugh, UA vice president for regional development and campus initiatives. The price matches the date Old Main was completed — $1,891.
The brick columns were never intended to be support structures. The brick is a veneer around wooden posts that rotted over the years.
Those posts were replaced with metal ones, which will be hidden behind the restored veneer.
Those, by the way, can also be sponsored. If you donate $25,000, you can have a brass plaque with your name affixed to one of the porch’s 112 support posts.
No “ivory tower”
Inside, the project will restore some of the building’s historical elements, while reconfiguring it as a new home for the president, her staff and senior administrators in 17 offices.
(The president’s office, if you’re interested and have $500,000, could be named for you.)
That symbolic gesture of bringing the president out of the “ivory, or brick tower” to the center of campus will also serve to restate Old Main’s claim to being the heart of campus, said Jeffery.
The building is “a lesson in the intelligence of vernacular architecture,” said Jeffery. The building was designed in 1887 by James M. Creighton, a Phoenix architect with a number of Arizona buildings on the National Register of Historic Places, including Old Main and the second Pinal County Courthouse, also finished in 1891.
Architects say it is still possible to honor the building’s history as it is updated. It’s a puzzle, but also a privilege, said Poster, a partner in Poster Frost Mirto, who taught architecture for 30 years at the UA and walks his Siberian husky, Pima, by the building every day.
“This is a building I’ve been tracking for most of my career. It’s just a spectacular, sensible and beautiful building. As an architect, No.1, and a preservationist, No. 2, you always dream about working on the best buildings. This is at the top of my bucket list from a preservationist point of view.”
Poster thinks Creighton would be pleased that his building is preserving its function after all these years. He said he’s come to know him through learning the intricate details of Old Main’s construction.
“With a project like this you get to immerse yourself in a building and what the architect was thinking. In this case, you get a channel into a really brilliant architect.”
Poster said Old Main is an honest expression of a very American architecture, despite the “French touches” such as the metal mansard roof.
Old Main “is really an American building and not set off track by European trends. It escaped the virus of neo-classicism,” he said.
The center of campus
It’s also a smart building. The cross-ventilation afforded by the building’s 128 windows and the deep porches, aided by the cooling effect of the stone-walled, sunken first floor, made it an early demonstration of passive solar cooling.
The architectural committee considered restoring the windows to full use, but decided to leave them painted shut and inoperable. The alternative would have possibly meant another modern addition to the facade and a significant additional expense.
“There are compromises to be made in any kind of historical rehabilitation,” said Jeffery, a member of the UA Historic Preservation Advisory Committee.
The changes made in this reconstruction “do not take away from the integrity of the building,” he said.
Old Main is the centerpiece of the UA’s Campus Historic District — 35 buildings, surrounded by historic landscaping and the lava-rock wall that defines the western edge of campus and its Main Gate entrance at University and Park.
It has always been a visual icon but its uses — a mix of university programs in small, cramped offices — haven’t invited visitors, said Jeffery.
Now, with the president moving in, it becomes ”a spatial and functional icon representing the center of campus,” said Jeffery.
Visual cues will inform visitors and users of the building that this is not a historical restoration or reproduction, said Poster.
Interior walls will be separated from the exterior with glass panels, making the point that the outside is old, the inside new, said Poster.
The same is true of the “clouds” — suspended ceilings that hold lighting, projection equipment and other modern needs. Gaps between the walls and the clouds will announce that this was a very different building at many times in its history.