After an extensive restoration, the Whittier Research Center has opened its doors and welcomes the public to an open house and dedication from 5-7 p.m., Sept. 28. The former Whittier Junior High School at 19th and Vine streets is now home to several UNL research teams as well as the University Children’s Center.
UNL Chancellor Harvey Perlman, Lincoln Mayor Chris Beutler, UNL Vice Chancellor for Research and Economic Development Prem Paul, and former Whittier principal and Lincoln Public Schools administrator Dave Myers will speak at the event. Tours of the facility will be conducted and refreshments will be served. Formal remarks begin at 5:15 p.m. on the main steps Whittier’s south facade.
In his 2006 State of the University Address, Perlman said he envisioned a restored and revitalized Whittier as part of a new home for innovative research that contributes to the economic prosperity of Nebraska.
Four years later, the Whittier Research Center is dedicated for use by interdisciplinary research programs. Such programs bring faculty together from many disciplines to focus on large-scale challenges and projects. The center’s first occupants are the Nebraska Center for Energy Sciences Research, the Nebraska Transportation Center and the new Water for Food Institute. The building, which is managed by UNL’s Office of Research and Economic Development, also features several small conference rooms available for university and public use. Additionally, UNL’s University Children’s Center now operates in Whittier’s north annex.
“Whittier had always troubled me as a building the university owned and yet it sat there abandoned, diminishing the values and the aesthetics of a neighborhood that was increasingly vital,” Perlman said. “So it’s been a commitment of mine since I became chancellor to find a way to bring Whittier back and to do something important with it. That coincides with our priorities in research, and as we desperately looked for additional research space. And as we grew the transportation center and as we grew the alternative energy center, and now have this opportunity for the Global Water for Food Institute, Whittier became a place where we could site those centers, bring that building back and make it a real, valuable asset not only for the city of Lincoln but also for the university.
“Whittier, again, sits at the apex of the new research corridor that leads to Innovation Campus. So it is uniquely sited. It reminds us of the past, to set as an icon for the research corridor and advance the university’s research initiatives.”
Whittier opened in 1923 and was one of the first school buildings in the nation constructed for use as a junior high school. Lincoln Public Schools closed the building in 1977 and in 1983, the University of Nebraska Foundation acquired the property. It has been managed by UNL since 1990 and until 2006, various research groups were housed in the building. The building was in disrepair when acquired and over the years, maintenance and renovation were deferred due to lack of funding. The space was under-utilized especially as UNL was experiencing a shortage of appropriate research space.
In 2007, the university regents approved a plan to renovate the building into space dedicated for use by interdisciplinary research groups. Earlier, a northern annex had been approved for renovation into a child-care facility. The UNL Office of Research and Economic Development provided half the funding for the $20 million renovation; the remainder was funded by private gifts to the University of Nebraska Foundation.
The renovation, managed by UNL’s Facilities Management group, aimed to preserve the original beauty while bringing the building up to 21st century standards. Renovation of the building has been conducted in a manner sensitive to the historical nature of the building. Exterior masonry, including terra cotta moldings, maintains the building’s grandeur. Window profiles mimic the originals. Key interior architectural elements and details in public spaces, such as the existing open stairs at the main entry, the east and west “interior” open public stairs, and the various ornamental plaster decorative moldings in the corridors, have been preserved. New exterior doors provide weather-proofing but the original interior doors were retained. The graceful archway on the top floor marks the grand entrance to the original library, which was lighted by skylights. During the renovation, the skylights were converted to clerestory windows, which allow light but are more weather-tight.
The building is among the first at UNL to use geothermal heat pumps as a green-energy source. This earth-friendly energy source requires only electricity to operate the pumps, uses free renewable energy, and produces no emissions. The renovation also restored bricked-up windows, allowing natural light to flood the space a reduce need for daytime electrical lighting.
The renovation preserved unopened a time capsule placed by students in 1977, the last year Whittier served as a junior high. Items placed in the time capsule include sheet music, a broken egg, a broken director’s baton, a letter from then-U.S. Sen. Ed Zorinsky (D-Neb.) and other items. The capsule’s sign, in the main hallway off the grand foyer, did receive a polishing.
Restoration of architectural details such as the decorative corbels in the main hallways, terrazzo marble flooring, installation of true linoleum and replastering of walls required the hiring of specialized artisans and craftspeople.
Approximately half the building has been renovated; the auditorium and gymnasium have yet to be renovated, pending identification of funding.
- Kim Hachiya, University Communications