Project Profiles: Education

Grand Staircase, Natural History Building, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

Renovations at the Natural History Building includes restoration of its grand staircase.

Renovations at the Natural History Building includes restoration of its grand staircase.

Retrofit Team

Architect: LCM Architects, Chicago
Richard Lehner, AIA, LEED AP, partner
Jonathan Lundeen, AIA, LEEP AP, project manager
Alec Thornton, AIA, project architect
Todd Douglas, AIA, LEED AP, project architect
Ewa Kolacz, interior designer
MEP/FP Engineer and Technology Consultant: IMEG, Chicago
General Contractor: Barton Malow, Chicago
Historic Preservation Consultant: Harboe Architects PC, Chicago
Stair Fabricator: Heritage Restoration & Design Studio, Peoria, Ill.


The stairs were custom-designed and -fabricated.
Varnish: 275 VOC Premium Clear Conversion Varnish from Gemini Coatings
Wood: solid white oak, quarter sawn
Railing: The steel and glass guardrail extensions were custom-built to comply with code requirements; the glass was chosen to minimize obstructing the original woodwork.
Lounge Chairs: Krefeld by Mies Van der Rohe and Risom by Jens Risom, Knoll
Table: Risom Child’s Amoeba by Jens Risom, Knoll
Lighting: Sequence pendant from Visa Lighting

The Retrofit

Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Natural History Building has undergone three building additions since it was built in 1894. The additions created a complex of distinct structural systems and fragmented spaces. Driven by a need to stabilize the structure, there was an opportunity to unify the interior and modernize the building while reviving a historic gem during the $70 million renovation that took place between 2014 and 2017.

Among the beautiful renovations is restoration of the building’s grand staircase. The original 1894 structure featured an intricate wood ceiling and symmetrical, ornate stairs from the first through fourth floors. In the 1950s, the north stair was removed to allow the installation of mezzanines and an office. The remaining south stair, though still functional, had suffered in appearance over time.

Discovering the original condition and existence of both stairs was like an archaeological dig. After sifting through historical documents and peeling away layers of physical alterations, the LCM Architects’ design team presented the idea of returning the original function of the grand staircase by using historic photographs as reference to restore the existing stair and duplicate the detailed design of the wood to reconstruct its lost companion.

Harboe Associates detailed the historic decorative pattern, devised and detailed the steel under-structure, and coordinated assembly. Harboe Associates also detailed the restoration of the wood ceilings and other historic details.
Heritage Restoration & Design Studio provided superb craftsmanship in restoring the existing stair and producing its match. Each element of the existing staircase was photographed, cataloged and drawn for fabrication.

The resulting stairs are a dramatic overall statement. Entering the building from the north, visitors experience an elegant space where all architectural elements lead to the symmetrical stair. The stains and pattern of the bamboo flooring echo the strong lines of the original dark wood coffered ceiling, which was uncovered during demolition, cleaned and restored.

An unexpected and delightful surprise awaits visitors as they progress to the second level. The intricately carved wooden stairs come alive against a field of light-colored walls and an open, brightly illuminated well. Multiple collaborative zones, defined by different colors and patterns of bamboo flooring, are furnished with classic modern pieces in nature-inspired colors and fabrics with occasional accents of red.

The entire Natural History Building project received a 2018 Heritage Award from the Preservation and Conservation Association, Champaign, Ill.

Photos: Scott McDonald, Gray City Studios

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