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UW Aims To Preserve ‘Then’ And ‘Now’ With New Historic Preservation Plan

A stone building called Old Main on the University of Wyoming campus in the summer
CC BY-SA 3.0

Historic sandstone buildings, granite boulders, giant spruce trees: step onto the University of Wyoming campus, and you know where you are. As new construction projects begin, the University wants to make sure the designs adhere to its iconic image. To that end, the University is working with a team of architectural consultants to come up with guidelines for how to preserve its historic character. 

Peter Benton gazes up at a crack on a stone column of UW’s Ross Hall. Camera in one hand, and binoculars in the other, he steps around the building, calling out rock types to his partner taking notes. “It’s a grey mortar, with a smooth, flat strike. OK?”

Benton is the University of Wyoming’s consultant for historic preservation. UW recently began the process of updating its building preservation plan, and Benton is here to help. He photographs every building, identifies every rock and brick, and decides how each building serves the campus character.

“We’re looking A) for historic fabric.” That is, understanding where the building fits into the historic timeline of campus. “And number 2, we’re looking for maintenance issues,” he adds; things like fractured stone and open joints.

The new preservation plan will be completed next year and will follow Benton’s advice for how to fit new buildings into the historic feel of the school. He might suggest sandstone exteriors, original-style windows, or old-fashioned banisters.

"We're trying to project that we all belong in a continuity of time. We belong to the future, and we all belong to the past, and we're only here for a short time. And we want to contribute what we can."

And, what is the image, the character of the UW campus? Larry Blake, the Interim Director of Facilities Planning, says a part of the campus identity is in the way it reflects the local landscape. “[Of] course it used, originally, sandstone from a local quarry...” And boulders from Vedauwoo, and trees from Happy Jack—it’s hard to imagine the campus being anywhere but this state.  Peter Benton says because it’s the only university in the state, it should be, well, Wyoming. “We’re trying to evoke sense of place,” says Benton: Place in geography, and place in time. Nature and history are elements that make this University unique, he says. 

“We’re trying to project that we all belong in a continuity of time. We belong to the future, and we all belong to the past, and we’re only here for a short time. And we want to contribute what we can. And so I think this continuity of generations, of decades, of centuries, really, has an importance that speaks to people who come here to be educated.”

Earlier this month, the UW Facilities Planning office hosted a public meeting to discuss ideas for the new plan. But not everyone was convinced UW needs one. Joe Holles lives in Laramie, and he was a student at the University of Virginia, a famous historic campus designed by Thomas Jefferson. 

“One of the unfortunate aspects is today that there are some very severe constraints on new buildings on campus, being forced to be built in the Jeffersonian style,” he explains. Holles says these restraints have made it a bland campus, “And I think that in fact Jefferson himself would be upset and probably bored that in 200 years, nobody’s made any architectural advances beyond what he did when he designed the campus.”

So here’s the issue: is it possible to weave modern technology into the historic fabric of the school? The University of Wyoming recently approved plans for a new Engineering Building. And will this building be all historic sandstone? “Floor to ceiling glass panels, where people who are walking by in hallways can see into research laboratories,” envisions Krista Lauresen), project manager for the new building. She says contemporary science just doesn’t work in old buildings anymore. “In some of these older buildings it’s difficult to build in modern teaching laboratories, modern classroom spaces.” For this Engineering Building to be successful, it needs to be modern.

And what of history? Preservation consultant Peter Benton says, “We’re here to say change is going to happen, and we’re here to facilitate change.”

Back at Ross Hall, Benton finishes his survey of the sandstone wall. As he checks for any last cracks, he says his role is not to restrict. 

“We want to advise the planners and designers on the best way to accommodate change while still retaining significant historic features.”

Benton wants the architecture of today to speak of its time, as the historic buildings speak of theirs. It’s less about making everything look the same, and more about ensuring that everything fits together. So we know, whether it’s 1887, or 2014, that we’re seeing the University of Wyoming.

Cordelia Zars is excited to be a new volunteer for Wyoming Public Radio this winter; she is currently taking a year off of college and is exploring opportunities in the world of public media.

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