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Welch Hall reopens as library and student center

Room and board. Welch Hall’s newly restored Great Hall, on the first floor, ready for the March meeting of the Board of Trustees.

Room and board. Welch Hall’s newly restored Great Hall, on the first floor, ready for the March meeting of the Board of Trustees.

By Zach Veilleux

After nearly five years of construction, the final piece of the north campus modernization process is now complete and opens to the campus this month. The Welch Hall refurbishment, which began in January 2011, has finished on time and on budget and will link the north and south parts of the Rockefeller campus together with a twenty-first century library outfitted with grand study spaces and state-of-the-art meeting rooms.

“Although the smallest of the CRC-related projects, this was also the most complex,” says George Candler, associate vice president for planning and construction. “The site was difficult to access and the historic nature of the building required that we take great care to preserve certain elements of the structure even as we carried out a major overhaul.”

The $50 million renovation, originally proposed in 2004, was postponed after the university’s finances unexpectedly worsened in 2008 as a result of the international economic downturn, but it was later given the go-ahead. By proceeding with the Welch Hall project concurrently with the renovation of Flexner Hall, the university was able to realize some savings and to minimize disruption to the community.

Much of the funding was provided by a gift from Trustee Robert Bass and his wife Anne, made in 2010, as well as from a gift made by the estate of Rita Markus, after whom the university’s library is named. In honor of the Bass’s contribution, the university has established the Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Center for Community Life. The building will function in many ways as a student center — a type of facility that, because of its roots as a research institution, the university has never had.

The centerpiece of the new Welch Hall is a historically accurate refurbishment of the second floor reading room, a grand space with sweeping views of the East River. The paneling, shelves, furniture, ceiling and elaborate chandeliers have been painstakingly cleaned and repaired, and the original cork floor has been replaced with new cork custom cut to match the original pattern. Central air conditioning has been installed. And at the north end, a new coffee lounge, featuring hot drinks, current periodicals and a wall-mounted TV, has been created in an area formerly devoted to library stacks. Eight public access computers are available in the main reading room.
On the first floor, Welch’s Great Hall, which at one time served as the university’s dining and lecture hall, has been restored and updated with a top-of-the-line audio-visual system. It will now be used for lectures, board meetings and special university events. The adjacent North Room, most recently used as an IT training room, and the former Audubon Room, known for the famous prints on display, have been re-furnished and equipped for use as meeting spaces. On this floor and throughout the building, original furniture, reupholstered and restored, has been returned to use wherever possible. Details such as doors, windows and light fixtures have been reused or custom built to match the building’s original design.

Below, on the A and B levels, previously derelict space has been opened up to house library stacks, study areas and meeting rooms. The A level now hosts a fully equipped classroom outfitted with laptops and video conferencing capabilities that can be reserved for training and seminars. The B level includes a room dedicated to use by first-year graduate students to provide them with a “home base” in the Bass Center. Modern compact shelving on the B level houses one-half of the library’s book collections.

Throughout the building renovation process, the university followed LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) recommendations — using eco-friendly materials and sourcing from within a 500-mile radius — and is aiming to earn LEED Gold certification.

Outdoors, two garden areas, to the north and south of Welch Hall, have been refurbished and landscaped and will be available for use by the community. The gardens are accessible from the new open-air campus connector that runs from Flexner Hall to Nurses Residence (during special events they can also be accessed via the first floor of Welch). A new ramp from the main driveway to the campus connector enhances accessibility to both Welch and Founder’s Hall, as well as the campus tunnels.

“Welch Hall, which for decades was the intellectual heart of Rockefeller University’s scientific community, is one of the most historically significant buildings on campus,” says Marc Tessier-Lavigne, the university’s president. “With the completion of this renovation, the infrastructure of this 1929 Beaux-Arts building has been entirely rebuilt, yet the building’s distinctive architectural features have been preserved. This improvement to our campus, developed under the Paul Nurse administration, is superb, and I hope everyone will enjoy this magnificent space.”

The Rita and Frits Marcus Library, the building’s primary occupant, will be staffed and open to the campus community and guests from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, with 24-hour access available to community members with ID cards. Members of the community may check out books using one of two self-service kiosks. Study areas and small group rooms on the A and B levels will be accessible to Rockefeller ID holders via card-reader.

“The library, which has long been a vital part of the university’s academic culture, is now better suited to the needs of a twenty-first century research institution, just as our renovated laboratories are,” says Carol Feltes, the university’s librarian. “We have new quiet areas for reading and study, and comfortable, modern meeting rooms for small groups. These areas will serve as a campus ‘home,’ away from the labs, for our students and postdocs. We look forward to welcoming the community into this fantastic new space.”

Mid-sized meeting rooms in the building will be available to reserve via the online room reservation and calendar system, after policies governing their use are reviewed and approved by the Academic Council this month. Small group rooms may be reserved through the library.