University of Chicago Saieh Hall for Economics

Photography by Tom Rossiter

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At the University of Chicago, free market beliefs often seem more religion than science. So there was some irony when the school’s department of economics and associated institutes moved to a complex that was originally constructed for the Chicago Theological Seminary. The seminary was subsequently relocated to a distant corner of the campus, demonstrating the place of actual religion within the free market of today’s university.

For the economics department, a thoughtful mix of old and new has been stitched together by Boston-based Ann Beha Architects, with the Chicago office of Gensler as associate architect. “Our old quarters [in the University of Chicago’s Rosenwald Hall] did not promote collaboration,” says John List, chairman of the department of economics. “The new building maximizes cohesiveness through its common areas.”

The handsome red brick and limestone-trimmed Collegiate Gothic style buildings, designed in the mid-1920s by architect Henry Riddle, comprise three interconnected structures, including the Hilton Chapel, a dormitory on the east side of the site, and an L-shaped academic building to the west. Adjacent to the 162-foot-tall Lawson Tower that dominates the original ensemble, Beha and her team inserted a new main entrance within an archway opening that once allowed an alley to pass through the building.

“What once divided, now connects,” says Philip Chen, a principal with Ann Beha Architects, in reference to the opening. “Let’s make the biggest challenge an opportunity.” A new stair, daylit with fivestory- tall glazing, is located at the north end of the entry, with a new three-story, 48,920-square-foot building tucked along the eastern edge of the old alley.

Reimagined interiors for contemporary, secular uses

Stitching together the new and old required some spatial gymnastics that Beha exploits and makes seamless in spatial flow. The “colonnade” is a glassy circulation space that connects the first floor main entry to the east wing office suite of the Beckman Institute. This new one-story addition to the old seminary routes users around a grand, wood-paneled room that has been repurposed as the faculty lounge. On the north side of the west wing’s second floor, a similar strategy with a new glass-enclosed corridor allowed the seminary’s library space to be reimagined as a seminar room without intrusion. A 90-person classroom is tucked below grade, under the exterior accessible ramp, which creates a varied pattern of diagonal skylights that bring natural light into the space.

The seminary’s most significant interiors have been thoughtfully reimagined for contemporary secular needs. The 50-person seminar classroom that had been a library incorporates audio-visual and technical requirements within the ornate framework of the existing shell. The former Hilton Chapel, an architectural gem that was the seminary’s first structure, is now what Chen describes as “a ceremonial presentation space.” The original exposed limestone walls have been covered with insulated wood paneling that conceals presentation equipment and warms the space both literally and metaphorically.

The second-floor main chapel is now the Graduate Commons, a soaring space with a flexible floor plan, which allows for easy reconfiguration during various student-driven events. Graduate students have individual study spaces in the previously unused attic of the original buildings. “[The former attic is] a found space that turned out to be a great space,” Chen says.

Compatible yet differentiated finishes

Ann Beha Architects, which has extensive experience with higher education academic facilities, implemented numerous high-tech teaching aids throughout. The specific needs of the economics department influenced certain features of the design. For example, whiteboards and chalkboards are prevalent in classrooms and public areas, as well as in stairwells, because economics instruction and casual dialogue require problems to be worked out in writing.

Interior finishes are kept simple, allowing the richly detailed brick and limestone of the original buildings to be at the forefront. New wood accents are understated and defer to the carved wood of the historic fabric. The new stairs exhibit the most modern implementation of finishes, with metal panels and glass prevailing. For lighting, a combination of restored and renovated fixtures contrast with new fixtures that feature bold geometries. “You want to make alterations compatible, yet differentiated,” Chen explains.

Beha and her colleagues have breathed new life into an almost century-old facility. Spaces designed as prayerful and contemplative to serve the needs of a seminary have now been rendered as thoughtful and quiet, providing spaces for a school that has produced many of the University of Chicago’s Nobel Prize winners. But now that the moneychangers have taken over the temple, it seems fair to ask: Is anything sacred?

who Architect and interior designer: Ann Beha Architects. Project team: Ann M. Beha; Philip B. Chen; Katie Gerner; Ed Rice; Nealia Giarratani; Josh Lacasse; Maryna Medvinsky; Ian Miller; Stephanie Rinehart. Associate Architect: Gensler. FF&E, Phase I: Gensler. FF&E, Phase II: Ann Beha Architects. Contractor: Turner Construction Company. Structural: Thornton Tomasetti. Mechanical/Electrical/Plumbing/Fire Protection: dbHMS. Landscape: OLIN. Civil: Terra Engineering. Lighting: Schuler Shook. Acoustics: Kirkegaard. Audio/Visual: Shen Milsom Wilke. Code: Burnham/Code Group. Masonry: Building Conservation Associates. Cost: Construction Cost Systems.
what Windows: Hope’s Windows, Inc. Exterior finishes: + Okalux; Rimex. Panels: Forms and Surfaces. Paint: Ideapaint. Glass: Safti; Innovative Glass Corp. Carpet: Creative Matters. Acoustic Wood Panels: Rulon. Interior Glass Panels: McGrory Glass. Tables: Nienkamper.

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