A French-revival mansion, a turn-of-the-century Romanesque residence and a Byzantine-style domed church are the kinds of historic structures any school administrator would feel lucky to have on campus. Older buildings can house a new campus function elegantly, but schools must address key issues: the building's architectural and structural integrity, its adaptability for the new function, and the need for new systems. Schools must work to meet the challenges that come with revitalizing prominent historic buildings.

A French-revival mansion that was built in 1896 for a prestigious private club in St. Louis has been transformed into a museum of galleries for Saint Louis University's (SLU) permanent art collections and traveling exhibits. The new Saint Louis University Museum of Art gives the Jesuit liberal-arts university the opportunity to develop an all-encompassing art education outreach program.

The mansion's prominent site on the campus' north boundary was a key to its appeal as a home for the museum. The university had considered constructing a new building or using two other existing buildings on the campus. However, it decided to use the four-story, 55,000-square-foot structure, acquired by SLU in 1992 as the home of its graduate school and the School of Public Health. It is on Lindell Avenue, a major St. Louis thoroughfare that borders the city's Grand Center, a 10-block arts, entertainment and education district.

Also at Saint Louis University, a 45,000-square-foot turn-of-the-century Romanesque mansion was meticulously restored as the new centerpiece of the School of Law. The new Queens Daughter's Law School provides elegant accommodations for formal receptions, career and legal counseling as well as alumni and faculty uses.

At Canisius College in Buffalo, N.Y., the former St. Vincent de Paul Church, a historic domed landmark dedicated in 1926, was transformed into the college's Montante Cultural Center, a multi-purpose space that seats more than 600 and is suitable for a variety of performances.

Built to last

The structural and architectural integrity of a historic building is clearly the first consideration when deciding if it is a candidate for adaptive reuse. Elegant architectural details and craftsmanship can make a building a more appealing choice to convert to a new, highly visible purpose. Most mid-rise commercial buildings completed within the last century can be relied upon to be sufficiently sound structurally.

In selecting the mansion for its new museum, SLU relied heavily on the building's potential for reconstruction as flexible interior open space. This was critical for a gallery setting. For the campus' Queens Daughter's Law School building, which was rescued from years of neglect, extensive research into details such as ornate woodwork, marble and plaster molding, and hand-painted murals preceded restoration. The restoration began with structural repairs to roofs, floors and walls.

At Canisius College, the integrity and beauty of the rare Byzantine-Lombardic architecture of the historic church needed to be preserved. The exterior was cleaned and re-pointed, and the interior re-fashioned for a new life as the Montante Cultural Center.

Adapting to change

The degree to which an old campus building can be adapted for a new function — often significantly different from its original one — is critical. For Saint Louis University's museum, budgetary concerns played an especially strong role. At the design onset, the university was seeking benefactors for the museum and had several other programs requiring capital funding. Although the budget was never strictly defined, it was understood that project costs should be modest and tightly controlled.

The architectural team began by preparing relatively detailed cost models analyzing the essential systems that would require correction. Given in ascending order and including discretionary options, the cost models allowed university administrators to draw the line at various levels of effort and produce totals that could be compared with possible asset allocations.

From an architectural standpoint, the project design was intended to be nearly invisible. A “white box” approach was followed to create spaces that would function best as a backdrop and white canvas for displaying art.

Over the years, the existing building had become a maze of many small offices, so almost all partitions were removed from the structure. Once plans for opening up the space were complete, a series of meetings was held to determine where the university's various collections might best be placed.

For traveling exhibits hosted by the museum, the architect determined that because the building had limited capability in moving large objects from floor to floor, the first floor should be designated for displaying outside collections. The design team presented options for using movable walls for display, but the university eventually chose to purchase a gallery wall system, considered standard among collections.

The key architectural focus became the ceiling, wall and floor plans. Because of the building's character, placing ductwork for air distribution became a design challenge. The team installed a cap along the ceiling perimeter that avoided concealing the windows and produced a modified loft-like appearance. For the walls of the white box, cost-effective gypsum board was specified. A UV film was applied to the windows to achieve the required level of protection. A traditional floor treatment of light oak was chosen to complement the white walls.

Distinguished by its ornate wood paneling and ceiling treatments, the existing boardroom was preserved. Other unique or noteworthy materials were salvaged for reuse elsewhere in the building, requiring the careful detailing of transitions between materials in a number of areas. The entrance was designed so that all museum guests are able to capture a sweeping view of the grand staircase with its wrought-iron and brass railings, also original to the building.

In updating the structure to comply with building codes, investment was carefully balanced with expense. Putting in an additional stair was considered to meet code requirements, but would have interrupted the open flow of space. The design team worked with the city to adapt existing perimeter stairs to satisfy code. This improved the space aesthetic and saved money.

Reviving the past

In the renovation of Queens Daughter's Law School, rich interior woodwork was patched, stripped and refinished. Extensive research was done to establish a color scheme for the interiors that was consistent with the palette for the vintage structure. A specialist restored hand-painted murals, ornamental elements and accent walls to their original splendor, making them suitable for the building's new high-profile purpose as the law school centerpiece and campus jewel. Virtually every inch of the interior was restored or renovated.

On the exterior, the rubble, limestone and clay-tile roofing was restored to its original state and trimmed with copper flashing and detailing, custom-formed to match the original. The historic building was linked to the existing law school by a simple addition and was further enhanced by a new landscaped courtyard shared by the two.

In the Montante Cultural Center, a new two-level meeting room was created and a balcony added to the interior of the church, responding to the need for additional space for small performances, meetings, receptions and lectures.

Systems update

For Saint Louis University's new museum, it was clear from the beginning that the mechanical and electrical systems had to be replaced. Although the building had been functional for more than 100 years and had been used as a departmental building for a decade, the existing systems were inadequate for the new function. The stringent requirements for humidity controls, temperature ranges and lighting to display fine art demanded that new systems be installed. That equipment became a significant piece of the project's overall budget.

Infrastructure systems in need of upgrades for contemporary uses were an especially high priority in the Montante Cultural Center and its large performing arts space. With its large dome and its vast volume of space, the existing acoustics of the church were poor and needed updating to meet the criteria for a performance space. The challenge was to introduce sound-reflecting surfaces within the domed volume, while preserving the view of the striking mosaics and architectural details. The solution led to a concept of establishing new constructed pieces as an insertion within the existing undisturbed fabric of the dome.

Creating new space in historic structures on campus can support a variety of long-range planning goals for universities. These goals raise the profile of the institution through the renewed use of highly visible, historic buildings of architectural prominence. The net result is a new campus life.

Turner, AIA, is a principal and Walsh, AIA, an associate vice president with Cannon Design, St. Louis.