Old Main Reopens Its Doors

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University Relations - Communications August 27, 2014

The newly restored Old Main reopened before the start of the year and now houses a range of student support services, an exhibition space and the office of UA President Ann Weaver Hart.

Old Main has just undergone the most extensive renovation in its history. Among the improvements are new public meeting spaces and a permanent art exhibition space featuring UA holdings. (Photo by Jacob Chinn)

Old Main has just undergone the most extensive renovation in its history. Among the improvements are new public meeting spaces and a permanent art exhibition space featuring UA holdings. (Photo by Jacob Chinn)

The restoration of Old Main, the most iconic building on the University of Arizona campus, was undertaken with an important driving philosophy: the UA's first building should be return to its roots as the heart of campus. 

At the direction of UA President Ann Weaver Hart, the team members responsible for Old Main's renovation have preserved the building's historic features while re-establishing it as a central, open and communal space for students, employees, alumni and friends of the University.

"Dr. Hart wanted the building to be open and accessible," said Rodney Mackey, associate director of Planning and Design at the UA and project manager for Old Main's restoration. "We want people to be able to come at any time to enjoy the building and the new public spaces."

The renovation was led by the UA and teams from architectural firm Poster Frost Mirto Inc. and design-builder Sundt Construction Inc. Completed earlier this month, Old Main's structure is light-filled and elegant, harkening back to its origins.

"Dr. Hart wanted Old Main to be a living space and a space that is active and alive," said UA alumna Andie Zelnio, , a consultant to Poster Frost Mirto, and the exhibit project's lead curator.

"We wanted to help people understand why saving Old Main is important," said Zelnio, a College of Architecture + Planning + Landscape Architecture graduate and licensed architect and designer. "It is the heart and soul of the University."

It's the most extensive upgrade in Old Main's 123-year history. Among the changes and improvements:

  • Now housed within Old Main is the Office of the President, offices responsible for supporting prospective students, freshmen and transfer students, and employees responsible for campus tours.
  • The stone façade has been refurbished and the landscaping has been redone.
  • The entire veranda is now fully accessible to the public. 
  • The once-rotting veranda has been completely restored and can now bear the "weight of the UA marching band," Mackey said.
  • Conference rooms and meeting spaces are available for students, employees, alumni and friends for meetings and social events.
  • The Alexander Berger Memorial Fountain is, for the first time since it was constructed, now accessible to those using wheelchairs and walkers.

Another prominent new feature is the second-floor exhibition space, funded by the 1885 Society, a donor leadership group of the UA Foundation.

There, within the cruciform hallway, are permanent displays of artwork and artifacts provided by the Arizona State Museum, the UA Museum of Art, the Center for Creative Photography, the Mineral Museum and UA Special Collections.

Prints of photos by famed photographers Lola Alvarez Bravo and Louise Dahl-Wolfe, western Apache and Hopi-Tewa basketry and precious gems and minerals, including copper, malachite, wulfenite and calcite specimens from southern Arizona and Mexico, are among the pieces on display.

"We are a repository of so much world-class art, and people may not even be aware of that," Mackey said. "It is a showcase of the strengths of the UA."  

A heritage display contains a copy of the state law that led to UA's establishment, historical photographs of Old Main, the first commencement program, a 1911 yearbook and an original silver and sage pin dating back to the late 19th century. A banquet room also contains a display of UA yearbooks spanning several decades.

"Dr. Hart wanted to present and highlight the cultural treasures we hold – the unique, valuable and rare materials we have," said Bob Diaz, an associate librarian for Special Collections, a unit within the UA Libraries.

"This presented a great opportunity for us to show what we have here," Diaz said, noting that Special Collections especially benefits from being able to inform the community that its holdings contain not only books, but also portraits, paintings, sketches, sheet music and other materials.

Old Main had fallen into extreme disrepair in recent years. But with its restoration, placement of student support services offices on the ground floor and the introduction of the exhibition space, the renovation team hopes people will develop a newfound connection with the UA and its first building.

"We hope it spurs interest and stimulates discussion," Zelnio said. "This is the birthplace of the University, and this is where it all began." 

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