Preserving University Legacies During Renovations

Mar 11 2024

College campuses hold a special place in the hearts of the students, faculty, and the communities they serve.

Many universities have been in operation for hundreds of years, with buildings dating back centuries. Many campus buildings have seen the need for repair of their initial building materials and the rearrangement of their interior spaces to meet the evolving needs of higher education.  

As college campuses continue to advance, university leaders are looking towards architects and interior designers to help find solutions to preserve the institutional identity represented by their campus buildings while creating efficient and aesthetically pleasing spaces that fit their unique needs.

Before embarking on a historic renovation project, there are several aspects for colleges and universities to consider:  

Consider the Past, Present, and the Future of the Building 

  • The Past – During the planning process for a historical building renovation or restoration, it is important for the entire team including university staff, stakeholders, architects, interior designers, engineers, and contractors to have a deep understanding of the building’s past. Studying original drawings and documentation and performing a site analysis or feasibility study can help the project team determine realistic solutions for the building.  
  • The Present – If a university is investing in the renovation of an existing building, it is crucial that the building is designed to meet the current needs of the institution. University leaders need to ask the important questions – what are the campus’ current needs and how can the existing building be best adapted to suit their current needs?  
  • The Future – It is imperative that the renovated space not only meets the current needs of the institution but also considers the university’s strategy for campus development in the future. How does this renovation fit into the school’s long-term goals? How can this newly renovated space support those goals? Does this renovation have the flexibility to support growing and changing programs?  

Knowing the Difference Between Renovation, Restoration, Preservation, and Reconstruction Projects 

The National Park Service describes four main categories for the treatment of historic properties: 

  1. Preservation – Focuses on the maintenance and repair of existing historic materials and retention of a property’s form as it has evolved over time. 
  1. Renovation(or Rehabilitation) – Acknowledges the need to alter or add to a historic property to meet continuing or changing uses while retaining the property’s historic character. 
  1. Restoration – Depicts a property at a particular period in its history, while removing evidence of other periods. 
  1. Reconstruction – Recreates vanished or nonsurviving portions of a property for interpretive purposes. 

The current state of the property and your institution’s goals for the building will shape which approach the design team can take to improve the structure.  

Is the Property on the National Register of Historic Places?  

Not all buildings that are assumed to be historic are registered on the National Historic Registry. The National Historic Registry is the United States’ official list of historic buildings, structures, objects, sites, and districts deemed worthy of preservation for their significance to American history.  

If a property is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it is crucial to note that significant modifications of properties on this list can result in the building being removed from the registry. Under federal law, nonfederal property owners can modify their property if the project does not receive federal funding.  

It is important to check local and state preservation laws for property owners before undertaking a historic renovation project, especially if your institution is planning to use state or federal funding or historical grants to undertake the project. 

Is the Property ADA Accessible?  

One common challenge to renovating a historic property is bringing the building up to current Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) standards. Buildings built before the 1990s were designed before the primary guidelines for ADA compliance were adopted, therefore it is common for older buildings to have ADA violations. If the proposed building has not already undergone an ADA assessment, it would be wise to add this task to the project’s scope of services so that violations can be addressed during the renovation process.  

Achieving Balance Between Modernization and Preservation

Modernization is an important aspect of any historic renovation or restoration project. This may seem like a contradiction, but achieving the needs of modern-day building users while also honoring the history of the building is what makes a historic project successful. The right team can help bring these buildings up to modern standards while still maintaining the building’s historic charm and original character.  

Project Highlights:

Elizabeth City State University Bias Residence Hall

Designed by Frank B. Simpson in 1938, Bias Hall has housed generations of students at Elizabeth City State University (ECSU). In 2021, our team was hired by ECSU to transform Bias Hall into a contemporary and attractive residence hall while still holding true to the original aesthetic of the historic district where the building resides on campus.  

The newly renovated space includes single-occupant and double-occupant dorm rooms, shared community bathrooms, common spaces, a residence hall director apartment and office, and multiple study spaces.  Updated interior finishes were incorporated throughout the building to give students a sense of pride in their home away from home. Exterior elements were selected to match the aesthetic of the surrounding buildings. 

Historic renovation of Bias Hall. A three story brick building on the historic Elizabeth City State University campus.

University of North Carolina Chapel Hill South Building  

Originally constructed in 1799, University of North Carolina (UNC) Chapel Hill’s historic South Building has housed several different university resources throughout its long history ranging from dormitories to administrative office space. Our team was hired by UNC to complete multiple alterations to the building over the past few years. 

During the first phase of renovations, our team completed a holistic building code and accessibility review of the building and provided various office and conferencing design options for the garden level, level two, and level three of the building. Alterations include an upgrade to the existing lighting, revised mechanical systems, new coffered ceiling in the main entry space, adjusted storage, and a new office area. 

The second phase of renovations is taking place on the building’s garden level. Alterations will include accessibility improvements to exterior ramps, stairs, landings, and routes. Additional work includes bringing the restrooms up to code and altering the space to better accommodate the building’s occupants. 

Exterior of UNC South Building. The building is three stories tall and made of bricks. This historic university renovation project is an important undertaking for UNC.

East Carolina University Mamie Jenkins Building

One of the six original buildings on campus, this brick building with sweeping arches and red tile roof exhibits the Spanish mission style of architecture which was prevalent on East Carolina University’s (ECU) early campus. The building was the campus infirmary until 1929 and later housed several University department offices.  

When MHAworks came on board, the building had been unoccupied for several years. There was significant water damage and structural problems. We meticulously designed a full renovation of the interior while preserving as many of the building’s historical details as possible. A new masonry ramp was also added to the rear entrance to meet accessibility codes.  

The results united the University’s rich history with modern technologies to serve the University’s ever-changing needs and goals. Today the Mamie Jenkins building is the proud home of the ECU Honors College. 

Mamie Jenkins Building, a historic brick building at ECU. The historic building has brick arches surrounding the porch of the building.

North Carolina Central University

North Carolina Central University (NCCU) has reached out to our team to assist them with several renovations of properties on their historic campus. From elevator modernizations in the Taylor Education Building to renovations of the old Alfonso Elder Student Union Building and the Bowling Center, our team has provided a variety of different services of varying size and scope to this historic university.  

NCCU is on the national registry of historic places as a historic district. A historic district is a conglomeration of buildings in one neighborhood or campus. NCCU’s historic campus is a block bounded by Lawson Street, Alston Avenue, Nelson Street, and Fayetteville Street.  

Our goal throughout each NCCU project is to maintain the campus’ history and institutional identity while helping them meet their future goals for campus growth.  

NCCU aerial image from NCCU website