The University Record, March 12, 2001

Innovation and renovation continue for Rackham Building

By Theresa Maddix

Photo by Paul Jaronski, U-M Photo Services
The scaffolding braced against the Rackham Building’s exterior wall is hard to miss. Last week, more signs of an ongoing renovation project became apparent: The center door is blocked off with caution tape and a bright yellow ladder as the door windows are cleaned and repaired. The windows of the dean’s office, designed to enhance the interplay of natural and artificial light, are barricaded. There are boxes everywhere. Visitors’ two main questions seem to be, “When are you moving?” and “Where are you going?”

As the term draws to a close, offices and units located in Rackham will find temporary space in the Argus Building and at 413 E. Huron St. The building will close for 22 months, beginning May 1, to undergo infrastructure improvements. Rackham Auditorium may reopen in 15 months.

In an open letter to graduate students in September, Dean Earl Lewis said, “The Rackham Building, notwithstanding its glorious architectural allure, badly needs updating. The plumbing and wiring, for example, date from the building’s original construction more than 60 years ago.”

In a March 7 interview, Lewis told the Record of his plan to “renovate and innovate the entire building,” working closely with the University’s central leadership to preserve the feel of the historic building. “For 80 percent of the space,” Lewis said, “nothing will change in terms of character.” Lewis detailed each of the renovation’s phases and zones.

The ongoing Phase I, expected to cost $4 million, has focused on the exterior infrastructure—the roof, terraces, windows and exterior walls. This phase is expected to be completed by July.

Phase II, estimated to cost $25 million–$30 million is “a major undertaking,” Lewis said. It will include elevator maintenance and improved lighting, plumbing, heat and air conditioning. “The space in a few locations also will change,” Lewis said, pointing out new areas in the existing halls of the east and west wings of the lower level. When Lewis and planners looked at the building as a whole, Lewis said, they noted that Rackham’s original architects made a “lovely use of space in the 1930s.” But now it is necessary “to commandeer some of that space for modern functions.”

Changes in the floor plan of the lower level’s west wing will affect the Institute for the Humanities. Plans call for a definitive Humanities space with individual offices, a kitchen and a commons room.

The east wing, with all of the Graduate School’s student services offices, will make “a more functional use of space,” and the whole floor will receive amenities such as modern office furniture. The doors off the Huron side of the building also will be altered.

Plans for implementing Phase III are tied closely to funding. Phase III will focus on the third floor, with a new Center for Interdisciplinary Communications. Sketches show a transformation from “rooms like catacombs” to state-of-the-art, multimedia venues for use by faculty and graduate students. Lewis spoke of “flexible spaces” with eye-level partitions that could mount art exhibitions. He envisions a virtual laboratory in one space on the floor being used simultaneously with a multimedia, videoconferencing presentation in another, and an M-Pathways training program in a third area. The third floor will create a “space that graduate students and faculty will be able to claim as their own,” Lewis said.

The floor will include a Geographic Information Systems (GIS) area and an institute for third- and fourth-year students in the humanities. Lewis also hopes for an area where workshops can be held for “intensive time in the summer regarding what it means to attend graduate school.”

The Information Technology help area for the building also will be housed on this floor, along with the Center for Statistical Consultation and Research (able to work closely with GIS), the Michigan Quarterly Review and Michigan Society of Fellows.

Lewis and his planning team hope to be able to extend the planned telecommunications capabilities of the third floor to events held in the fourth floor’s Rackham Assembly Hall and Rackham Amphitheater.

With the added technological capabilities, Lewis said, Rackham could be used to virtually bring in “faculty members not on campus anymore” for dissertation defenses. “It will be nice to see [faculty] as well as hear,” Lewis said, in reference to recent experiences with judging dissertations.

For the second floor, Lewis said, plans include changes to the east and west study halls, leaving the “character of the central study area untouched.” The west study hall will be more technologically sophisticated, with mobile communication ports and the ability to make infrared or other connections with wireless computers. In the east study area, Lewis said, the plan is to create a lounge atmosphere with more flexible furniture. The east area would be a place where colleagues could sit and talk, with a possible coffee bar in the adjoining room.

Plans for the fourth floor include “upgrading and updating” the East and West Conference rooms, the Assembly Hall and the Amphitheater. Lewis also said he would like to see the terrace become more accessible.

Throughout Lewis’ interview, he emphasized the need for additional funding sources for the renovations, a special challenge, since the school and building already are named after Horace H. Rackham.