Gothic revival

Princeton University residence hall is modernized and restored to its original Gothic style
August 11, 2010

As Princeton University's first residence hall designed in the Collegiate Gothic style, Blair and Buyers Residence Hall is one of the more decorated structures dotting the campus of the famed Ivy League school. The snake-like, double-wing building was constructed in 1896 and has since served as a major campus entryway, with its long flight of bluestone steps that lead students through the tower arch and onto the campus.

But after 100 years of service, the structure was in desperate need of an overhaul inside and out. Mechanical, electrical, plumbing (M/E/P) systems had long outlived their expected life cycle, while fire- and life-safety systems were virtually nonexistent. For instance, the building had no sprinkler system. In addition, the building's 75,000 square feet of interior space needed to be rearranged to meet Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requirements and to provide modern amenities, including bathrooms on all floors, which were located in the basement.

The $15 million restoration and renovation project was led by Albany, N.Y.-based Einhorn Yaffee Prescott Architecture and Engineering (EYP). Princeton, N.J.-based Durell Builders served as construction manager for the project, which was completed in August 2000.

Creating new spaces in tight places

The main challenge for the building team was to modernize the structure with new living areas utilizing very confined spaces, while maintaining the building's historic character.

According to Mark Thaler, project architect with EYP, creative design and construction approaches helped the team make all necessary modifications without significantly reducing the number of students the hall could house. For instance, new habitable space was reclaimed in the basement, which formerly housed large public bathrooms, dungeon-like study lounges and underutilized mechanical spaces. The existing basement floor was lowered 18 inches, providing enough headroom for new bedrooms, lounges and bathrooms. Twenty-eight new casement windows were punched into the walls of the south-facing side of both wings to deliver natural light to the new spaces. The new windows were set in tooled limestone surrounds to match the detailing of the original basement windows.

Similarly, at the very upper portion of the residence hall, previously unused attic space was transformed into bedrooms for new, two-story, townhouse-style quads. The lower floor, which acts as a study area, was created from existing rooms on the second floor, which were restored to their original state. New stairways were installed leading to the bedrooms above.

"Because the attic was not meant to handle regular floor loads, we had to beef up the floor structure," says Thaler. "To do so, steel beams were threaded parallel with the roof slope to pick up and distribute some of the roof loads."

While much of the new interior space was not designed to replicate the original spaces, certain features are meant to be sympathetic to the original architecture. For instance, the wood floors and color palette of the new attic bedrooms match the rooms downstairs. In the basement, an existing brick and stone bearing wall — which was covered with paint and plaster — was repaired, cleaned and left exposed. Moreover, all of the building's casement and double-hung sash windows were restored, and various fireplace mantels — with 100 years of student carvings — were saved to serve as the residence hall's "autobiography."

To meet ADA requirements, the building team went to great lengths to install two elevators in the building: one providing access to the five-story tower and the west wing and the other allowing access to the east wing.

"The first elevator required modifying an existing entry door with a limestone surround," says Thaler. "The floor area inside the entry was lowered to match the exterior grade and new tooled limestone surrounds were created to extend the doorway architrave." The second elevator, he says, required the creation of new carved limestone window surrounds and coping stones, as well as installation of new schist, a crystalline rock, to infill former window openings. "It also required raising the limestone crenellated parapet that runs along the roof battlement," Thaler adds. "The difference between the old and the new is virtually imperceptible, yet the effect of the insertions made 60 percent of the building accessible to everyone, whereas before it was almost entirely inaccessible."

New systems are squeezed in

Because Blair Hall was not originally designed to accommodate modern building systems, the building team had to take careful measures to install the new M/E/P and fire- and life-safety systems. "The architects and engineers evaluated every chase, void and architectural feature of the building in developing the best strategy to weave the engineering and technology into the building with minimal impact to its historic fabric," says Thaler.

An existing mechanical corridor that runs along the north-facing wall in the basement was utilized to distribute all utility lines throughout the building. "Due to low floor-to-floor heights and limited ceiling plenums, the building was essentially wired vertically versus horizontally," says Richard Barcori, mechanical engineer with EYP. "Instead of trying to run the utility lines horizontally on each floor, which would have reduced ceiling heights, the basement serves as the horizontal distribution and then utility lines rise up three stories at a couple of dozen spots."

All utility lines — from hot-water pipe and electrical wire to fiber-optic cable and telecommunication lines — were carefully threaded vertically to the upper floors. Especially difficult, says Barcori, was ventilating the new bathrooms on the upper floors. "Due to space constraints, we had to locate the ventilating units in the basement and then run ductwork up through the floors to all the bathrooms, which was extremely difficult due to the size of the duct."

To maximize space in the mechanical corridor, electrical conduit was installed under the basement slab, and "since the building has wood-floor construction, the wire, cable and piping infrastructure for the three upper floors was distributed within the space created by the floor joists," adds Thaler.

In addition, a new fire-protection system, fully concealed sprinklers and a security system at all entrances were installed. Fiber-optic cable was wired to each room to provide students access to the university data system.

Polishing the exterior

While extensive measures were required to modernize the building's interior spaces, more standard approaches were taken to update the hall's stone façade, slate roof and other exterior elements. The masonry exterior — which consists of a semicoursed ashlar of local schist and decorative accents made of Indiana limestone — was in relatively good shape. Where needed, stones were repaired and the façade was cleaned.

The building's existing slate roof was not in good shape, though, and it was replaced with a new gray/green slate roof, along with new copper flashings, downspouts and roof windows. Eleven of the building's 14 ornate brick chimneys were also replaced.

Construction Costs

General conditions $1,100,000
Sitework 100,080
Demolition 924,550
Concrete 325,347
Masonry 482,561
Structural steel 358,900
Elevators 115,988
Roof 518,820
Doors and windows 1,182,613
Mechanical 1,261,898
Electrical 1,118,580
Plumbing 567,000
Fire protection 254,000
Interior finishes 4,135,864
Miscellaneous 2,553,799
TOTAL $15,000,000