The School of the Art Institute of Chicago had a problem. Although it serves around 3,500 students and owns and rents several buildings throughout the Chicago Loop, it had no signature structure, no galvanizing facility to act as a heart and soul of its academic community. So when a restaurant that had rented the ground level of its 37 South Wabash Street building closed, the school sniffed an opportunity to change that state of affairs. It hired local firm Valerio Dewalt Train Associates (VDT) to design a student center in the former eatery.
The 17,800-square-foot LeRoy Neiman Center opened in May of 2012. Viewable from a glass exterior, white walls—perfect for hanging art—meet exposed concrete floors. Overhead, glass panels and lighting fixtures visually break up the expansive ceiling. A colorful mural by LeRoy Neiman graces the space above the elevator bank. The center, as firm principal Mark Dewalt describes it, looks “simple, sophisticated, just edgy enough to be appropriate for an art school, but not too overpowering for performances and exhibits.”
The design materialized only after years of brainstorming with various stakeholders (the lengthy list included deans, student-government groups, students, and faculty). Dewalt’s plan boiled down their needs to this program: a flexible performance space that could fit 70 standing people; easily accessible administrative and student-government offices and meeting rooms; street-visible student-run galleries; a comfortable, open-late cafeteria; and a sizable area for faculty, staff, and students to congregate.
To improve access to the second-floor cafeteria, Dewalt inserted a dramatic, sculptural staircase. “We created a large opening, so it’s obvious the student center has a second level,” Dewalt said. “If [students] had to get in an elevator to go upstairs to the food service, that never would have worked.” Bright, modular furniture tops and concrete floors define the perpetually busy cafeteria—the school’s first and long overdue meal plan. The ceiling features diagonally running Tectum panels, spaced apart to allow custom-designed light fixtures to poke through the gaps.
Adapting the building—a 1902–04 Holabird & Roche creation—was no easy feat. Food service piping had to be delicately installed near a neighboring condominium tower’s elevator; an inventive heating/cooling system was needed to pump air out through sidewalk vents; walls and windows were extensively treated to block the rumble of a within-spitting-distance El Train; and, puzzlingly, the 56-foot-long mural needed to be fit in the 40-some-foot-long lobby (ultimately bent around two walls).
The attention to detail was well worth it, as evidenced by the throngs of students and faculty who enjoy the center around the clock. “If you had an hour between classes prior to this, you’d have to find a café and camp out over a cup of coffee,” said Dewalt. “Now you can open your laptop, meet your friends, talk to your professors.”