Roosevelt University Eyes the Future

By Matt Baker

Edward Sparling was president of the YMCA College in Chicago in 1945 when he refused to provide the school’s board with student demographic information, fearing a quota that would limit the enrollment of women and minorities. When the board insisted, Sparling resigned in protest and many of the school’s faculty and staff joined him.

This group of educators without a school voted to create a new college and, according to legend, purchased the Auditorium Building—the arguable masterpiece of Adler and Sullivan—from the city for $1. “They picked up buckets and mops and literally scrubbed the building back to habitability,” said Lesley Slavitt, Vice President for Government Relations and University Outreach at Roosevelt University. “We have lovingly tried to not just repair, but restore it to its historical elegance.”

Moved by their actions, Eleanor Roosevelt allowed the new school to be named after her and the late President Franklin Roosevelt who had died just two weeks after they received a charter. Decades later, the school has grown but changed little. Roosevelt University now has a second campus in Schaumburg and an enrollment of around 7,000, two-thirds of which are first generation college students.

Most of the Chicago campus classes are held in the Auditorium Building and student housing was split between the University Center—which also serves students from Columbia College, DePaul University and Robert Morris University—and the Herman Crown Center.

Chicago’s new sprinkler legislation forced Roosevelt’s hand on the Crown Center; it was deemed cheaper to build a new structure than to attempt installing sprinklers and performing other upgrades.

So, the building was demolished. Carefully. The property sits nestled mid-block, surrounded by three landmark buildings. VOA Associates, the firm tasked with the site’s design, had to avoid the foundations and infrastructures of those landmarks while also tying into them as students will still need to have access to the Auditorium Building’s classrooms and facilities.

“I think we spent more than half our fee trying to figure out those connections,” said Chris Groesbeck, a principal with VOA and the lead on the Roosevelt project. Further complications arose with the building’s footprint; the university wanted classrooms, lecture halls, student services, dormitories and other facilities on a 17,000 square foot lot. To accommodate all these needs, there was nowhere to go but up.

Roosevelt and VOA ultimately decided on the undulating, 35-story, blue gem that has risen up from behind the cliff of buildings along Michigan Avenue. The 420,000 square foot building, whose zigzag façade is inspired in part by Constantin Brâncusi’s sculpture, The Endless Column, also features an offset core to suit the many large assembly spaces needed on any college campus.

Because the northern exposure was the only one in danger of being occluded by future development, they suffered little loss by moving the core to the north and losing possible views.

Constantin Brâncusi’s The Endless Column

Shifting the core and hanging dozens of stories over open, column-free spaces created a challenge for MKA, Inc., the engineering firm of record on the project. In addition to internal cantilevering, the whole structure cantilevers over the Auditorium Building so as not to interfere with its foundation.

But to Groesbeck, this isn’t just a building, it is a vertical campus. The floors are color-coded on a neighborhood concept; green is at the bottom and contains administrative offices, the red floors contain dining halls, a fitness center and student activities, classrooms and labs are orange, the yellow floors house the business school and topping it all are the dormitories on the blue floors.

The views were dedicated to where students would spend most of their time. Most floors have a common area overlooking the lake to the east and several atria connect floors to facilitate pedestrian traffic. The exit stairways, with their glass-front doors on each level, are also meant to be used on a daily basis in lieu of the elevators.

“If you had taken this program and spread it out somewhere else, you’d be taking up a lot of land, you’d be extending infrastructure,” said Groesbeck. “The actual savings in energy and resources by staying here is enormous.” The building will achieve at least LEED Silver, though Groesbeck is hopeful for Gold.

They employed several strategies to hit high Silver, such as FSC-certified wood products and low-VOC paints and adhesives for superior indoor air quality. During demolition, all of the Crown Center’s concrete was recycled and 92% of all waste was diverted from landfills.

The incredible views aren’t the only reason the building has floor to ceiling windows; high stress was put on daylight harvesting. Automatic, adjustable shades were installed and the use of task lighting ensures that the high-rise has a very low watt per square foot ratio.

The roofs are just over 50% vegetated. With such a small site footprint, and a need for rooftop mechanicals, this called for some creativity. Several setbacks, some no more than a few feet deep, were planted with green roof trays to achieve the necessary requirement. Onsite rainwater detention mitigates stormwater runoff.

There are some operable windows, but the envelope is mostly very tight and claims better than an R-20 perimeter. Flooring also adds to the building’s sustainability. Rapidly renewable bamboo was used, as were recycled rubber mat flooring in the fitness center and Plyboo support flooring. Signage through-out the campus educates students, faculty and visitors about the building’s sustainability.

Some have questioned Roosevelt’s supposed folly of expanding in the midst of such a horrendous economic slump. But everyone involved sees the university’s new tower as not just an expansion, but a commitment to the community.

“This will do better for the block and for the neighborhood, as far as sustaining a sense of activity,” said Michael Siegel, Associate Principal with VOA. “[The students] are here 24/7, they don’t go to work during the day and disappear.”

Roosevelt’s new campus is the second tallest educational building in the Western Hemisphere and Groesbeck sees many parallels between it and the tallest. That honor belongs to the Cathedral of Learning on the campus of the University of Pittsburgh, which was conceived of during the Roaring Twenties, but not constructed until the Great Depression.

If the new Roosevelt University campus stands for anything, it is the future and the possibilities that lay therein. It says that Roosevelt is not going anywhere; they’ve committed themselves to Chicago, to the Loop with its 65,000 resident students. Plans are currently underway for a new athletic center on the corner of Congress and Wabash.

And they aren’t abandoning the Auditorium Building, the nation’s first mixed use building. “The Auditorium Building bridges what Chicago was and what it became,” said Groesbeck. “Built before the Burnham Plan, it was at the time when we started thinking big.”

Classes will still be held there and students will have several points of access between the old building and the new. The new tower even features a warm-up space for performers to use before going on stage next door, with a special floor, acoustics and other features modeled after the Joffrey Ballet’s State Street studio.

“Roosevelt University was born out of an act of revolution,” Slavitt said. “They stood up and walked out, not knowing what was next.” On display outside the president’s current office is the original paper signed by Sparling and the other faculty members who exiled themselves, though they were unsure of what the future held. Can we not say the same today?

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