Old Main, now fully rehabilitated, was dangerously close to being lost to the University of Arizona and to this community.
Old Main is at the center of the university’s universe — physically, historically and emotionally. If the UA were a solar system, Old Main would be the sun. The campus spins out from this original center.
It is fitting that Old Main would be programmatically at the center of the university. But without the current rehabilitation efforts, the building would not have had a future: the roof was past its useful life, the veranda was condemned, there was water-caused foundation damage, and the floor of the second level could not support the required occupancy.
The current rehabilitation ensures that Old Main will not only be safe for future generations, but that it will continue to fill its important role. It will be the first contact new students will have with the University of Arizona, through recruitment, admissions and enrollment. It will also be the center of leadership for the UA, with President Ann Weaver Hart and her administrative staff finally positioned at the university’s center.
Old Main will be the public face of the UA: the Silver and Sage Room will be filled with public events, the Board Room will house high-level meetings and symposia, and, at the center, the public Cruciform Gallery will exhibit extraordinary samples from the UA museum collections. This central place will embody the university’s identity as a student-centered research university.
Old Main was the first building on the University of Arizona campus. Designed by Arizonan James Creighton, it was completed in 1891. The building is an authentically territorial piece of Tucson architecture. Built in the decade following the 1880 arrival of the railroad, it was able to combine local indigenous brick and stone with newer technology from outside Tucson — a metal roof from the east, redwood from California and structural lumber from Oregon.
Old Main was designed six years before the 1893 Chicago Exposition. The Chicago cultural event changed the course of American public architecture, sending it into a 50-year romance with neoclassical European styles. (Note, for example, the contrasting neoclassical design of UA’s 1904 Herring Hall, nearby.)
Because Old Main preceded the Chicago Exposition, it gives Tucson a fine and rare example of a truly authentic American architecture.
Old Main was built with a clear sense of place in the Sonoran Desert. It sits three feet into the cooler ground like the Native American pit houses; It is self-shading, with a protective veranda that wraps the entire building, and the attic vents away the accumulated heat.
The wooden veranda protects the core masonry structure from the sun, wind and rain. A testimony to this wisdom is the near perfect condition of the core masonry shell. The veranda has bravely done its protective job and has had to be completely replaced as part of this current renovation.
Poster Frost Mirto has had the privilege of leading the design team for the 2013-2014 Sundt Construction rehabilitation of Old Main. Our approach was to bring the shell of Old Main back to its original grandeur — repairing what could be repaired and replacing (like-for-like) what had to be replaced.
In the interior, our approach was different; We placed a 21st century university in a 19th century shell, like a ship in a bottle. Following good preservation practice, we clearly distinguished old from new. We used contemporary furnishings, and we brought the building into compliance with current safety and ADA codes, best-practices in energy, lighting and electronics.
Old Main architect James Creighton clearly understood that the uses and requirements of Old Main would evolve over time. He designed it so it would gracefully accept those changes.
The University of Arizona’s current students and employees are stewards of that vision, and the rehabilitation of Old Main honors his foresight and the history that has been enabled by it.