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Newly renovated Willard Hall rededicated in open house

President Schapiro hails respect for history, future of 80-year-old residential hall

EVANSTON - Northwestern University President Morton Schapiro hailed the renovation of Willard Hall Wednesday (Jan. 24) and praised the “brilliance” of preserving the best of the traditional building while transforming it into a state of the art residential house.

The President joined some 200 members of the University community at a Willard Hall open house to celebrate the makeover of a building built in 1938 that has been home to generations of students, including famous alumni such as entertainers Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Stephen Colbert and Seth Meyers.

“Eighty years doesn’t seem like a lot, but it’s hard to take a building that is historic and make it into today’s standards and to bring it back,” President Schapiro observed. “You can see what they did — that it respects history, respects great architecture and respects the history of our great University.”

Welcoming visitors, staff, faculty and students for a reception and tours of the newly renovated residential house, Patricia Telles-Irvin, vice president for student affairs, said the students who moved into the refurbished Willard Hall told her they “are loving it and can’t get enough of it, and so I am thrilled, because that is exactly what I wanted to hear.”

Telles-Irvin underscored that the renovation of Willard is just one example of the University’s 10-year plan to encourage community, engagement and diversity in a transformed residential experience — aimed at creating houses and neighborhoods to bring students together and create an inclusive atmosphere of home away from home.

Looking around the crowded room, Telles-Irvin gave praise and thanks to the members of the University community who had worked so hard for so long to bring this vision to life in Willard. They ranged from the architects, Weese Langley Weese, and the contractor, W.B. Olson, to officials in Student Affairs, Facilities Management, University Police, NUIT, and Athletics and Recreation.

“I really love this one,” President Schapiro said of the newest renovation in a series envisioned by Northwestern’s Housing Master Plan, scheduled to run through 2025. “Because people come back for reunions and homecoming, and they walk in here and they recognize it; but then their kids and grandkids come in, and they see this is state of the art, and you can ask for nothing better than that.”

President Schapiro praised the vision of both Telles-Irvin and Gordon Segal, the former chair of the Educational Properties Committee of the Board of Trustees, for their critical roles in the restoration of Willard into a modern home for Northwestern students.

Earlier this month, Northwestern reopened the newly renovated Willard, which can house 260 students and includes the second Engagement Center supporting the Southwest Neighborhood. It also includes air conditioning and new furniture in sleeping rooms, a redesigned Fran’s Café with full menu service and snacks for students, lounges, classrooms, multi-functional spaces, newly remodeled bathrooms, a fitness room in the lower level and a laundry room on each floor.

In addition, a Faculty-in-Residence apartment has been integrated into Willard. Northwestern’s fifth Faculty-in-Residence will be appointed to start a three-year term beginning in September. The new position represents a step toward a goal of having ten Faculty-in-Residence apartments spread across five anticipated “neighborhoods.” 

The University unveiled a framework Jan. 18 for a new residential experience for its undergraduate students. The proposed new approach is designed to help students thrive by creating distinct, robust “neighborhoods” with access to common facilities, support structures and programs.

The innovative framework, outlined in a report by the Undergraduate Residential Experience Committee, was released by Telles-Irvin and Provost Jonathan Holloway. The goal of the recommended framework is to preserve the traditions many students have come to define as synonymous with their residential experience, while building on community connections and helping students thrive in new, distinct and robust “neighborhoods” across the Evanston campus.

The University community now has the opportunity to comment further on the proposals in the plan. President Schapiro praised the residential housing plan and encouraged community members to give their feedback as the process unfolds.

During the celebration at Willard, the president called out to his friend, co-teacher and co-author, Gary Saul Morson, Lawrence B. Dumas Professor of the Arts & Humanities and Faculty Chair of Willard Residential College, asking Morson his reaction to the re-opening of Willard.

“It’s fabulous,” Morson replied. “It says, ‘We’re proud of who we are,’ and the students just love it.”

Under the direction of Paul Riel, assistant vice president for residential and dining services, the renovation focused great attention on history — preserving, restoring and even recreating various elements, from wood paneling to florets on stair railings.

In an effort to preserve tradition, the majority of the floor plans in the residential areas were maintained, in part, because Willard Hall is well known for its unique room configurations. The living room in the new Faculty-in-Residence apartment still has the original wooden “Common Room” sign over the wooden arch.

The new Engagement Center in Willard Hall continues the model of creating common spaces to draw in students from surrounding buildings. These spaces are connecting students in new ways, making it possible for students to enter buildings that, in the past, may have been closed off to them.

The collaboration room includes more mounted glass whiteboards to complement the monitors with wireless display capabilities in order to facilitate development and sharing of ideas, noted Brad Zakarin, director of academic residential initiatives. It also has a workbench and an industrial sink for messier projects, and there is ample seating to simply relax.

There is a classroom as well as a seminar room, both of which are booked this quarter with courses, sections and academic support. The classroom has integrated lighting and can be converted easily for amateur performances, student meetings, student government speeches or other uses.

John Haas, associate faculty chair of Willard Residential College, noted, “The students are so thrilled to be back in Willard Hall. This renovated space not only provides the students with a beautiful place to live, but also space to interact with each other, to build student communities, collaborate on projects and exercise in the new workout facility. 

One student sitting and doing homework in the collaboration room Wednesday was Siobhan Ihenacho, 18, a first year who lives in nearby Public Affairs Residential College (PARC) at North Mid-Quads, but enjoys visiting Willard Hall now as part of the Southwest Neighborhood.

“I am in the ‘neighborhood,’ and I have access to Willard,” she said. “My mail comes here. I think the new Willard Hall looks really beautiful, and I hope to live here next year. I like the gym, and I use the fitness room and the collaboration space. I like studying here. I like the fact I might be able to have classes here.”