Jan. 22, 1998
Vol. 17, No. 8

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    What's new is old

    Gothic touches, meticulous matching create seamless addition to Oriental Institute

    By William Harms
    News Office

    When Frank Lloyd Wright was visiting his famed Robie House, he is said to have looked over at the University campus and referred to its buildings as "a stage set."

    While Wright may have had trouble appreciating the value of Gothic architecture created in the 20th century, University Architect Kenneth Lyon says the famous architect's remark is in a sense a compliment to the wisdom of the University's original design. "The campus is the theater for life, and it is appropriate that it be a wonderful set."

    The latest contribution to that "stage set" is the three-story, 16,000-square-foot wing being completed south of the Oriental Institute. Designed by Hammond, Beeby & Babka, Inc., the structure is built true to the original vision for the campus and appears to have been here as long as the Oriental Institute itself. The details of the building as well as its form contribute to its timelessness, said Karen Wilson, Museum Director.

    "It was a challenge to design a utilitarian structure that also would be beautiful," Lyon added.

    One challenge was how to incorporate windows -- a key element in a building's visual vitality -- into a building that is to be used primarily for storage and to house climate-control machinery. The original Oriental Institute building, completed in 1931, has numerous windows, including a large arched window on the second floor of the south wall that illuminates the institute's research archives.

    To continue that theme, the architects designed three arched stone insets on the south wall of the new addition at the first-floor level. The insets are positioned between the engaged buttresses -- tall, column-like architectural features that provide an additional Gothic touch. Windows on the second floor also break the monotony of the wall and provide light for an artifact conservation laboratory and for the institute's new book stacks.

    To further enhance the Gothic aspects of the building, the south wall is broken into vertical rectangles, or "courses," by long, beveled limestone ridges at the foundation level and on the second-floor level.

    It is up close, however, that people can appreciate fully the attention to detail that went into making the structure an integral part of the rest of the building, Lyon said.

    "We made each of the rows of limestone blocks in the new building line up with the blocks on the older building. We have 32 rows in all, each aligning perfectly," he said. In addition, the copper downspouts and gutters are covered with lead to make them fit in with the rest of the campus buildings.

    The basement and the first floor of the structure will be devoted to archive storage. Specially designed rooms will protect organic objects and metals. The third floor will house climate-control machinery, including an air filtration system that will remove fine particles and other pollutants, such as harmful gasses, from the air.

    "This air will be the cleanest possible for a museum in the Chicago area," said Joseph Auclair, the engineer who is the project manager. In addition to air filtration, the new equipment will provide state-of-the-art climate control (stable temperature and relative humidity) for all areas of the institute where artifacts are exhibited, studied, or stored.

    The work on the addition is the result of the Oriental Institute's capital campaign, which has raised $9.1 million of its $10.1 million goal.

    The existing building is being reconfigured to restore archaeological study areas used for object storage in recent years and to create an Education Center for seminars, docent events and public gatherings. The facilities improvements will culminate in the complete redesign and re-installation of all five museum galleries. The first gallery to reopen will be the Egyptian Hall, which is scheduled for a public unveiling late this year or early next year.