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October 8, 2010

5757 building meeting tempers concerns

The Milton Friedman Institute for Research in Economics (MFIRE) hasn’t made too many friends over the plan to convert a historic campus building into its home, but a community meeting held by the University Wednesday aimed to do just that, or at least to clear the air.

Renovators of the future home of MFIRE, 5757 South University Avenue, will seek to connect the main quad and Woodlawn Avenue and make the building more accessible, they said, while also converting it for academic use. However, the price of the controversial project has been left unresolved until further design is done.

University architect Steve Wiesenthal and Boston firm Ann Beha Architects offered an audience of about 30 its vision of 5757 South University Avenue at a lunchtime meeting Wednesday in Ida Noyes Hall. It was the first community meeting on the project, and the first time Ann Beha Architects spoke on campus about the project, for which it was hired in May.

A faculty group called the Committee for Open Research on Economy and Society (CORES) has opposed the formation of MFIRE since its inception in 2008. This spring it gathered more than 100 signatures on a petition protesting the University’s commitment to establishing MFIRE and moving it into the building currently housing the Chicago Theological Seminary and Seminary Co-op.

Community members also spoke out against removing the building’s stained glass windows and other modifications, arguing that it would reduce the building's architectural beauty. However, relocating the windows to the Theological Seminary’s new location was agreed upon by both parties when the University bought the building in 2008 for $44 million, along with McGiffert House on 58th Street and Woodlawn Avenue.

Administrators and architect Ann Beha painted a picture of an “adaptive reuse” of the historic building that respects the architecture while providing a space suitable for academic use and integrating 58th Street and the section of Woodlawn Avenue behind the building with the campus proper.

“The building is very special, and it’s really our pleasure but also our responsibility to work on a project like this. It takes a modicum of respect,” Beha said.

Beha, whose firm began a year-long research phase into the building this summer, said that 5757 South University will need renovation to meet fire code and accessibility standards. The design will focus on transforming ecclesiastical spaces into academic ones, including the building’s two large chapels.

Beha presented similar projects her firm has completed, including the adaptive reuse of Boston’s Charles Street Jail, built in 1851, into the Liberty Hotel. The firm’s goal with such projects is to “create buildings that are associative of their former use but also public spaces,” Beha said.

Wiesenthal, University architect since 2008, said a reused 5757 would serve as a public space as well, and evoke the feel of being on campus. It would be “more about the landscape and the pedestrian than it is about through-traffic,” he said.

He suggested it would include Woodlawn Avenue from 57th street to 59th street more in campus life. Community members in the audience agreed in principle that such a move would be positive, though it would depend on specific design.

Citing on the one hand the way the Booth School’s Harper Center references the nearby Robie House, and the “mistake” of the McGiffert House on the other, Jim Mann of the 5800 block of Harper Avenue said, “that’s why design standards on that block, that corridor, are so important.”

Construction on 5757 Sout University itself is slated to begin in Spring 2012, Wiesenthal said. He added that Ann Beha Architects would assess whether the renovated space would also fit the Economics Department.

But Wiesenthal and Vice President for Strategic Initiatives David Green could not say how much the project would cost when asked by the Maroon and CORES member Bruce Lincoln, a professor of religion.

University spokesman Steve Kloehn clarified in a later e-mail to the Maroon: “Part of the design process is balancing projected costs against the needs of the project, in the context of the resources available. For that reason, we will not have a solid budget for the project until we have been through the design process.”

Philip Chen, of Ann Beha Architects, said in an interview that the firm’s clients “sometimes” presented the firms with a target cost, in his experience.

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