Old Main Building Renovation Reveals Hidden Secrets

Probably after San Xavier Mission, Old Main is the most important building in Southern Arizona. I don’t think you’d get a lot of arguments about that. The importance of it relative to the University of Arizona, and the importance of the University of Arizona in this community. And so when you get to work on that, that’s spectacular.

Old Main Building Renovation Reveals Hidden Secrets

When you get to work on a building that is not just important, but as we’ve worked on the building, we’ve come to understand what a great building it is. What a great building it is for this climate, for the U of A campus, for this community.

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And to get to follow in the footsteps of the architect and builder who did that project in 1887 to 1891 is privilege. How often do you get to do that? The way we practice architecture is very much tied to this place, a sense of place, and Tucson is a very demanding climate.

Old Main Building university of arizona

And it’s also a location with a big, long cultural history. And the buildings that we try to do, that are contemporary buildings, all need to respond to the desert environment, and all need to be responsive to the culture of this place. And that’s what I mean by sense of place. And people use it in terms of art.

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Old Main contemporary bulidings desert environment 2

People use it in terms of music. It’s the connection between an art form or a design, and the location in which it’s placed. So when we first started the project, there was this rumor floating around. And the rumor floating around was that the floor between the upper level and the lower level was filled with dirt.

there was this rumor floating around

And we didn’t know if that was true or not. It was a pretty strong rumor and, sure enough, the entire floor, about 12,000 square feet of floor between the first and second, has about 2 and 1/2 inches of dirt covering the entire space between the floor and the ceiling.

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inches of dirt

And the reason they did that was for sound attenuation, that you had a wooden floor with a wooden structure sitting over classrooms over classrooms. And people were worried that as people walked on the floor, that the sound would reverberate down.

And a good way to deaden sound is with a massive material, a heavy material, and so dirt was the perfect material to use. So when you opened up the floor,  you were looking at all dirt, and we were looking at the floor after they took the dirt out, and we noticed that there were pieces, every once in awhile, that were painted.

original construction sign

And we couldn’t figure out what that was until we took all those out and put them together in a puzzle, and it turned out it was the original construction sign with the name of the contractor on it. And they just cut that up in little pieces and used that for the shelving.

original construction sign 2

What the architect, James Creighton, did is he understood that over the years this building was going to grow and change. The demands on it were going to change over time. And so what he built was a very simple structure, in which it consists of a cruciform, and then he built four quadrants, four big rooms. And then he built two wings, north and south, which were all originally empty.

he understood that over the years this building was going to grow and change

And he designed that so that all of the people at the University of Arizona that followed could modify those spaces as they needed them over hundreds of years. And so our intent is to take this historic shell and make it back the way it was when it was first built, and then go in and fill in that shell with all brand new uses, with new technology, and new offices, and new furniture, and be able to tell the difference. So when you walk into Old Main, you will understand that you’re looking at a modern interior in a historic building.  I’m going to really honored to be part of this next iteration this next group of users that try to respect that original building.

modern interior in a historic building

We had a really nice visit with President Hart. And we were standing in this big open space, and we were talking about the glass walls and the contemporary materials. And I just turned to her, and I said you know this gives me a little bit of goosebumps, because this is exactly what James Creighton intended us to do when he finished the building in 1891. He knew that 122 years later, folks would be in here doing exactly what we’re doing.

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