Global EngagementUC HomeAbout UCUC AcademicsUC AdmissionsUC AthleticsUC GlobalUC HealthUC LibrariesUC ResearchNews


UC’s Oldest Standing Building Is the Newest Building to Open on Campus

Restorations to the Van Wormer Library make the building an architectural landmark that draws glances on and off campus.

Date: 1/26/2006 12:00:00 AM
By: Dawn Fuller
Phone: (513) 556-1823
Photos By: Lisa Ventre; Dottie Stover and University Archives

UC ingot  

Van Wormer today
A view of the Van Wormer Library today

A major $10.7 million renovation to UC’s only remaining 19th-century building on the Uptown Campus has literally left it glowing with glory. The new dome atop the Van Wormer Library, and its new lighting, make this landmark a gleaming architectural gem that can be spotted from miles away, both day and night.

The move-in to the renovated classical architecture-style building is set for Jan. 30. Dedicated as UC’s first library building in 1899 and opening in the summer of 1901, the Van Wormer building – later converted into a university administration building – will house the Office of the Senior Vice President and Provost for Baccalaureate and Graduate Education as well as the Graduate School offices.

Van Wormer with the original dome
Van Wormer with the original dome

Dewey Enderle, UC senior staff engineer on the restoration, says Van Wormer’s last major renovation was in 1930, when the building’s original glass dome was removed due to structural problems. The new dome was erected on the ground at the renovation site last summer and lifted into place by a crane.

Inside the building, renovations included cutting a circular opening into the ceiling of the first floor through the second floor, allowing a view into the spectacular dome skylight from every floor of the building. “Because this building was so unique and so exquisitely designed, our goal was to adaptively restore the building – not just to bring it back to its original qualities, but to improve on them,” explains Leonard Thomas, UC project manager for landscape design and construction.

interior view

That included delicate restoration of the building’s elaborate ornamentation, particularly along the ceiling areas inside the building. Thomas says Beyer Blinder Belle Architects & Planners of New York were brought in because of their expertise in preserving historic buildings. The restorations were also carried out by THP Limited, Inc. and Lorenz + Williams Incorporated.

Adding to the complexity of the project was the fact that this building was first designed to be a library, so a site that was created primarily as a storage space for books was later converted into a building to house offices. Enderle says the new work involved tearing out a wall that had been installed over the original stairwell, as well as restoration of that existing marble stairwell. A new interior back stairwell was added, allowing the removal of an unsightly fire escape from the exterior of the building, and an elevator was installed. The ceiling height of third floor was high enough to add a partial fourth floor, opening room for additional office space and a new conference room. That meant adding onto the stairwell and yet blending the new section of the stairwell with the old.

Also blending preservation with progress – all new audio-video equipment was installed in the updated conference rooms, and the entire building now has wireless Internet access. Glass partitions open the upper portions of the walls of all of the offices to allow natural light from the dome into the interior spaces. On every floor, lighting is rimmed around the tops of the windows to add to the night lighting of the dome. Additional mechanical updates include an entirely new HVAC system that was installed on the first floor, with the duct work located underground.

Van Wormer without the dome
Van Wormer without a dome

Time had taken its toll on the exterior of the building, and those restorations are aimed at preserving the building in the decades ahead. The entire exterior surface of the sandstone building was restored, plus a new granite skirting was added around the exterior of the first floor section of the building, where the original sandstone had been damaged from weather and time. The deteriorating steps to the front entrance, a mix of sandstone, concrete and limestone, were removed and replaced with solid granite steps and bronze railings that are a mix of nickel, aluminum, iron and copper. Thomas says the mixture creates an alloy that will not corrode. A circular concrete-and-granite entryway to the front steps highlights the landmark along McMicken Circle. The work on the exterior will continue throughout the spring.

“Ultimately, the landscape is part of the site and part of its preservation,” Thomas adds. The peripheral trees were protected during the course of construction. Four trees – two to the south of the building and two to the north – are Pagoda trees, the only such trees on campus. “These are symbolically very important trees and are known as ‘Scholar Trees,’” Thomas says. “The tree, which is native to the Orient, is purportedly a source of great inspiration, and it’s believed that ancient philosophers taught their students under its canopy.” Thomas says other landscaping in character with the building’s classical architecture includes Yews and Boxwoods, which were popular landscapes in the late 19th and early 20th century.

Dome construction
Dome construction

The building’s origins are chronicled in “The History of University Libraries,” written in 2005 by UC’s Don Heinrich Tolzmann. Tolzmann writes that in 1898, the University Board of Directors took the first step toward the building’s construction by accepting 1,000 shares of stock in the Cincinnati Street Railway Company, worth $50,000, from Cincinnati businessman Asa Van Wormer.

The stone tablet that pays tribute to Van Wormer remains in the building, and reads, “Erected with the money given by Asa Van Wormer in memory of his wife, Julie Van Wormer, and himself.” The total cost of the original construction was $60,000. The Van Wormer Library was designed by Cincinnati Architect Samuel Hannaford. University Historian Kevin Grace says Hannaford also designed UC’s original McMicken Hall, St. George’s Church and Cincinnati’s City Hall.

The building’s historical renovation, with its softly lighted new dome, is a shining example of how UC is preserving its rich and reverent history while transforming the campus into a new urban research university for the 21st century.