A Former Seminary Is Integrated into the University of Chicago as a Distinctive Department of Economics

Saieh Hall for Economics creates a bold new environment for interdisciplinary economics research, teaching, collaboration and global outreach at the University of Chicago. This project establishes a new four-building academic precinct while minimizing new footprint, repurposing historic resources and reclaiming underutilized property. The design by Ann Beha Architects, now Annum Architects, extends the historic quad, renewing and transforming existing buildings in an expanded landscape, and revives a once-neglected and isolated city street, knitting the complex into the campus fabric.

Historically, the seminary stood apart. Now it is knitted into the campus and neighborhood, open and accessible, creating a new identity and sense of place for its occupants within the larger campus.

Located in the Hyde Park-Kenwood Historic District, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, this project transformed the former Chicago Theological Seminary and the full city block in which it is embedded into an exceptional setting for learning and teaching. The design preserves and reconsiders the most historically significant spaces as unique academic resources. The project integrates a range of building typologies connecting its focal point, the historic block-long Theological Seminary, to a new 38,000-square-foot research pavilion and two renewed early 20th century historic houses. The transformation illustrates respect for neighborhood scale and texture, opening the site to improve safety and create new pedestrian-friendly outdoor spaces.

Integrated Planning

The university acquired the seminary in 2008, and it was in dire need of renewal and revival with an extensive amount of deferred maintenance needs. With its liturgical and dormitory spaces, the full-block building was adjacent to but set apart from the university—walled off from the street and campus. The project commenced with an integrated planning process to determine university needs, define project goals and establish a program that would fit on the site.

The design addressed a broad constituency—students, faculty, administrators, and the local community and neighbor- hood. The team analyzed needs and future growth, preservation requirements, technical conditions, budgets, regulatory implications and creative possibilities.

A dispersed academic community is unified in this setting for interdisciplinary research, teaching and programs.

Following months of collaborative workshops, a 150,500-square-foot program was established, accommodating 130 faculty and staff members, 200 graduate and 1,200-1,400 undergraduate students. Bringing students that were previously dispersed in several buildings back to a central location on campus was a clear goal, as was creating opportunities for interdisciplinary interaction and joint program uses.

With an established program, the planning and design challenge became how to accommodate 150,500 square feet of program with the existing 90,000-square-foot seminary building. The areas surrounding the seminary building—the “shoulders” of the site—were studied to find the space needed to fit the entire program.

To accommodate the full desired program, expansion was necessary but, with a constrained site, options were limited. Below-grade construction served as an effective and sustainable expansion strategy—resulting in a 90-seat classroom with natural light without new footprint. Excavated mechanical areas relieve the seminary building of extensive renovations for infrastructure, giving space back to programs and preserving the original building. At the former attic level of the seminary building, underutilized storage space was repurposed to accommodate dedicated workspace for more than 75 graduate students, allowing them to work and research collectively in the same building as faculty.

Throughout the project, masonry was conserved; stained-glass was repaired; and specialty wood paneling, terra-cotta tiling, historic lighting, specialty crafted flooring and limestone were renewed, adhering to set guidelines for preservation treatments.

With the support of the city and neighborhood, the final design, which emerged from months of interface and dialogue, addressed additional project goals: sustainability, alignment with the neighborhood scale and its circulation routes and passages, safety and connectivity to the larger campus. The combined initiatives explored in this project—the adaptive reuse of the seminary, strategic expansion, renovation of two historic houses, the closure of a city street and alley to through traffic, and development of the surrounding landscape and streets—work in concert to create a full new academic precinct on the site.


The Chicago Theological Seminary building, constructed between 1923 and 1928, was included in the Hyde Park-Kenwood Historic District, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places on Feb. 14, 1979. In the historic district nomination, the seminary is listed as one of 222 “sites and structures of special significance”. The building functioned as an active seminary until it was acquired by the university; the seminary then was relocated to a new facility.

The successful implementation of this significant project can be credited to many collaborative initiatives by the team. These included a preservation assessment; a collaborative and robust approvals process; onsite mockups during the design phase; and a partnering approach between the university, architect and construction manager. Each of these initiatives established mutual goals for a successful project.

PHOTOS: TOM ROSSITER unless otherwise noted

About the Author

Kathleen Gerner, AIA, LEED AP
Kathleen Gerner, AIA, LEED AP, is an associate principal at Annum Architects (formerly Ann Beha Architects). She has managed complex academic and civic projects from planning and conceptual design through project completion.

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