I-House renovates its physical space while broadening intellectually driven programsBy Jennifer Carnig
Like a phoenix from the ashes, the University’s International House is rising once again. The program and residential facility that once was slated to close is nearing the end of an ambitious three-year, $27 million renovation effort.
“We are charged with a very important mission here at the University,” said William McCartney, Director of International House, explaining that the role of I-House is to promote cross-cultural understanding, mutual respect and friendship among students and scholars and on the part of the city of Chicago toward individuals of all nations and backgrounds.
From its inception, International House was structurally designed to accomplish these goals through both year-round residential living areas and public facilities, which host numerous academic and cultural programs. This dual approach is intended to foster exchanges at both the personal and intellectual levels, creating an environment where people can be challenged and informed by diversity while remaining secure in their own identities.
Founded in 1932 by John D. Rockefeller Jr., the International House, or I-House for short, has over the years served as a home-away-from-home for more than 30,000 American and international students from virtually every country in the world. The striking neo-gothic building has housed many leading figures who have influenced world affairs including Nobel laureates Enrico Fermi, T.D. Lee, George Stigler, C.N. Yang and James Cronin, University Professor Emeritus in Physics and Astronomy & Astrophysics. I-House alumni also include literary giant Langston Hughes, former Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham, former Editor-in-Chief of Die Zeit Theo Sommer, and financier David Rockefeller.
Its history and reputation, however, were not enough to sustain a deteriorating infrastructure or boost sagging occupancy rates. In 2000, the University decided to close I-House and began a search for an alternative housing facility. That kind of talk ended quickly, however, when alumni, students and faculty petitioned the Committee on the Future of International House to keep the building open. The University allocated $27 million—only $5 million in the form of a loan—needed to make fire and housing code changes as well as upgrade the building so it could again become a desirable address.
Since then the project has been completed in several phases. The building’s exterior has been extensively refurbished with the roof completely replaced and the faćade cleaned and restored. Inside the residential wings, fire alarms have been updated and the bathrooms have been redesigned with new fixtures and plumbing. Every residential room has been completely gutted, with new floors, wiring, ceiling fans, ventilation systems and new modular furniture as part of the upgrade. There is a new café on site and for the first time in six years, all of the rooms are open and ready to be lived in. Now International House will face its next great challenge – finding 500 students to call it home, and preferably by next school year.
“The applications are all ready, and so are we,” said Maria Acosta, the Senior Coordinator of Admissions. During the renovations, the facility was able to house around 200 people, and less than that limit are living there now. “We provide a very unique service to the campus and community, so we will find our residents,” said Acosta. “Really, though, I-House is so much more than a building or a dorm—it’s a point of reception for the international community, and an educational and cultural center for residents, the University and the entire city of Chicago,” she said. In addition to housing graduate and advanced undergraduate students, the building is a site for hundreds of educational and cultural programs including musical performances, forums, lectures and debates led by distinguished guests. Many of these programs are co-sponsored with University departments as well as numerous international business, cultural institutions, performing arts groups, non-profit organizations and student groups. Last year alone, the Global Voices Lecture Programs provided over 11,000 attendees with opportunities for discussion and engagement in community, national and world affairs.
“When you live here, you have a global connection. You can go anywhere in the world and have a connection” said Symon Ogeto, Senior Coordinator for Marketing and Events. “World events are not just something you read about in the paper. Events of the day become palpable and students truly become citizens of the world. I-House promotes the interactions that allow diversity to mean something.”
With new rooms and a passport to the world promised for becoming a resident, it may seem like a no-brainer that the facility can more than double its occupancy in a few months time. However, the challenges of renovating a 75-year-old building while remaining open for limited occupancy have prompted negative reports in recent months about building cleanliness and fumes from the new paint.
“Managing a community living environment is always a challenge,” McCartney said, explaining that he takes every complaint he receives seriously. In the case of the fumes, several careful investigations by the University Office of Safety and Environmental Affairs have shown the paint to be safe and that the fumes are not toxic. The conclusion is that the odor problem experienced by some residents was nothing more than an unfortunate nuisance. In response to concerns over this issue, International House allowed residents to break their contracts and leave if they desired. To date, only two students have done so.
“International House is very much on an upswing,” McCartney said, noting how the restoration and renovations have garnered notice and respect throughout the community. On Saturday, Feb. 25, the University and International House were honored by the Hyde Park Historical Society for preserving one of Chicago’s architectural gems.
As another sign of its renaissance, International House will soon roll out an expanded Residential Fellowship Program offering 140 new fellowships of $1,000 each to both American and international students. Twenty-five third-year and 25 fourth-year students in the College will be appointed as International House Collegiate Fellows on the basis of merit and the ability to contribute to the social and intellectual aspects of International House.
The remaining 90 fellowships will be open to graduate students in the professional schools and the divisions on a competitive basis.
If you are interested in touring the newly restored International House, located at 1414 E. 59th St., contact the Office of Programs and External Relations at (773) 753-2274. For housing information, visit http://ihouse.uchicago.edu or call (773) 753-2270.