Thursday, December 27, 2012

Wash U learns from recent mistakes

I can't say how much protest and outcry there was 6 years ago when Washington University demolished Prince Hall. The small sampling of comments I saw ranged from my own howls of protest, to some general agreement and "isn't it a shame" head-nodding, to the also-typical endorsement of the status quo - "Well, it was a hard building to work with" and "Oh, you can't save every building."

Maybe, though, just maybe, Wash U heard some of those protests, and listened, and learned.

The recently completed renovation of Umrath Hall has taken a building of similar size, scale and difficulty, and radically transformed its interior into a modern academic setting, while leaving its venerable stone exterior untouched. The solution was both extreme and extremely creative - take off the roof, remove the entire interior, and rebuild it from the inside out. Umrath was built as a dormitory, and like its demolished contemporary Prince Hall, it was divided by load-bearing walls into a warren of small spaces and non-communicating interiors. The gut rehab removed those walls to allow an all-new interior to go in with modern hallways and larger spaces.

It is the kind of respectful, thoughtful, and inventive project that should have happened at Prince Hall. But Prince was less prominently visible - Umrath forms a busy and popular plaza space along with the 1970s Mallincrodt Hall and also has a striking relationship with Graham Chapel. Prince was also less aethetically striking - Umrath has a prominent central archway and tower that makes it one of the most charming buildings on campus. Prince had no historic interiors, while Umrath had the original men's dining hall, a flexible space with beautiful wood trim and carvings. And Prince had something of a reputation as the red-headed stepchild of campus, the little building that nobody wanted. Booted from department to department over the decades, saddled with a misguided sunken plaza from the 1950s, it didn't inspire enough love or loyalty to save it from the wrecking ball.

Whenever the University touts the amazing collection of circa-1900 buildings that forms the core of the main campus, they must forever acknowledge a permanent black mark on the list. Perhaps that mark because a lesson that helped push Umrath towards renovation instead of replacement - but it remains a heavy price to have paid.

Read a full account of the Umrath renovation here.


Anonymous said...

And now the Wash U medical campus expansion is bent upon tearing down the last two brick/limestone buildings from the 1900s on Kingshighway to put up more stucco/glass boxes.(sigh)

Anonymous said...

This is off topic, but...

You referred to a 1989 Post Dispatch article about Rodney Winfield on your Built St. Louis website. Would you happen to have a copy of that article?
Ruthie Kirk

sara said...

I'd like to use one of your pictures on the Built St. Louis Site for non-Commercial purposes. How can I contact you?
Kind regards