JOLIET – The University of St. Francis this spring will build new instead of remodel in the latest expansion of its Joliet campus.
USF on Friday celebrated the pending construction of a 35,000-square-foot science building. The LaVerne & Dorothy Brown Science Hall will be the first new building on the Joliet campus in 30 years.
But USF has not been standing still.
“We’ve been renovating classic buildings,” USF President Arvid Johnson said.
Those buildings include the old Mode theater downtown, the onetime Guardian Angel orphanage on Plainfield Road, and even the Motherhouse, the familiar face of the USF main campus. All three of those buildings have been remodeled in recent years as they have been converted or updated for a university that has found ways to grow in an urban environment where available land can be scarce.
“For schools like us that are in an urban area and want to stay in the community, this is what we do,” Johnson said.
USF actually counts three campuses in Joliet. Downtown buildings are grouped as the St. Bonaventure Campus. Guardian Angel Hall, being remodeled for nursing programs, will be part of a new St. Clare Campus.
The excitement last week was at the main campus, where USF held the ceremonial groundbreaking for the LaVerne & Dorothy Brown Science Hall.
The brick-and-glass building will add a bit of modernity to a campus, where new construction is rare, while also keeping with the tradition of the buildings that border it.
“The idea here is to complement Tower Hall, which it will be directly adjacent to,” Johnson said, while quickly adding that the new science building will have a number of features designed for more-modern methods of education.
“We will have a green roof that will essentially be an outdoor classroom for biology and environmental classes,” he said. “It was designed very much for faculty involvement with students, even to the point that each floor of the building has a theme according to the sciences that are studied in the building.”
Microbiology professor Ben Whitlock joked during remarks he made at the Friday ceremony that the building will include “a glistening new cadaver lab probably filled with glistening new cadavers.”
But Whitlock also talked about a building suited to modern ways of education.
“The days of the science professor delivering his lecture and then disappearing are long gone,” he said. The new building, he said, is designed with a vision that “our students learn more by doing than by hearing.”
The building is another sign that USF is staying in the same Cathedral Area neighborhood it has called home since 1920.
USF owns land on the far West Side of Joliet, an acquisition made years ago raising concerns that the campus could be relocated.
That won’t happen, Johnson said.
The undeveloped land “was acquired in the event that the university wanted to build a larger, single-integrated campus. That no longer is the intent,” he said. “We have doubled down – I would say tripled down – on our commitment to Joliet.”
The St. Bonaventure Campus and St. Clare Campus both have developed since the acquisition of the far-west parcel, reflecting USF’s commitment to remain an urban college.
“It would have been a real detriment to the neighborhood to have that whole campus empty,” said John Kella, president of the Cathedral Area Preservation Association.
USF and its neighbors are at times at odds over parking issues. Most students are commuters, meaning USF has a lot of cars to accommodate. The university has been buying up houses in the neighborhood to open more parking lots.
Kella said student cars parked along the streets can be an issue, especially for residents who live close to the campus. But USF offers amenities in the neighborhood, too, including plays, concerts and college classes within walking distance.
“They keep in close contact with the neighborhood,” Kella said, noting that USF representatives attend CAPA’s monthly meetings.
Mayor Bob O’Dekirk, a resident of the Cathedral Area, called USF “a real anchor in the neighborhood” as well as an asset downtown.
The science building will be constructed on Lot A, the largest parking lot on campus just outside the Sullivan Center. The plan is to replace parking on lots already acquired as construction takes place.
“Some are lots where houses have already been knocked down, and others have houses that will be demolished,” Johnson said.
The groundbreaking ceremony Friday was a symbolic one, mainly because USF needs the parking lot where it will be built for its May commencement ceremony.
Construction starts in late May, and the plan is to have classes in the LaVerne & Dorothy Brown Science Hall in the fall semester of 2017.
The building will make room for growing numbers of students taking classes in the sciences. According to USF, 45 percent of entering freshmen and transfer students declare a major in the sciences.
Sister Dolores Zemont, president of the Joliet-based Sisters of St. Francis of Mary Immaculate that founded USF, said after Friday’s ceremony that she agreed with a number of the speakers who said the building was needed to enhance education in the sciences.
“It’s a wonderful thing for the university,” Zemont said. “But it’s also a wonderful thing for the Joliet community and beyond.”