While they share a love of certain books and often a solemn sense of purpose, there’s not much else University of Chicago students generally have in common with Christian monks. Now with the renovation of Saieh Hall, they have one more thing: A 1928 seminary on the University’s Hyde Park campus that is the new home of the Becker Friedman Institute for Research in Economics and the Department of Economics.
The University hired Boston-based Ann Beha Architects to retrofit the former Chicago Theological Seminary building located at 5757 South University Avenue, and add a 48,900-square-foot addition to the building’s north side. The 100,000-square-foot main building was rededicated in October after two years of work, and the new wing is set to open in the spring.
University Architect Steve Wiesenthal, who worked with Beha’s team on the project, said the goal was to modernize the structure without neutering its historical character—to make it feel clean, but not spotless.
“The debate was what’s distracting versus what can help enhance the layers of history,” said Wiesenthal. Some icons were too expressly religious, like a massive wooden cross in what’s now a secluded hall for studying. Those elements were donated to area seminaries and religious organizations. In place of the wooden cross, Ann Beha designed six luminous rings that appear to float like angelic halos. A companion light fixture in the stairwell outside the chapel hints at the ascending volume of the seminary’s tower nearby.
But despite these sleek modern elements, Saieh Hall retains the unmistakable air of a gothic place of worship. Harald Uhlig, a professor of economics whose office is in the building, pointed out the stained glass depictions of classical vices and virtues that enliven (or haunt, if you have a guilty conscience) a conference room.
“One of the advantages of a major adaptive reuse project like this is you get interesting juxtapositions,” said Wiesenthal. Take the cloisters that now house spillover from a first-floor cafe and classrooms. The design team discovered the passageway’s red and blue bricks were merely painted, not glazed, so rather than restore their hue they let the rows of masonry fade naturally like watercolors. In the attic, which now stores graduate students instead of church relics, gothic rosette windows attempt to balance the hulking ventilation and water pipes that whir overhead as masters students and PhDs bury their noses in books.
Ann Beha’s own academic journey comes full circle with Saieh Hall, in a way—in 1975 she wrote a thesis on the adaptive reuse of the First Baptist Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to earn her masters of architecture from MIT.
There’s evidence of that thoughtfulness throughout the building, where existing brick melds with brushed stainless steel, and new lighting dispels the moodiness of a religious retreat without entirely banishing a sense of the sublime.