Campus News

Facelift: Old College being renovated for its 200th birthday

After surviving 199 years of almost continuous use, occasional neglect, near destruction and massive interior reconfiguring, the university’s first permanent building, Old College, is getting a major facelift in preparation for its bicentennial birthday.

The work, begun in June and continuing until August 2006, will convert the landmark structure’s 20,998 square feet into office and administrative space for the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences, returning it-symbolically, at least-to its original occupants. A reopening ceremony planned for fall semester 2006 will mark the building’s 200th anniversary.

The construction will modernize the building with central heat and air, and bring it into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act by adding an elevator and a ramp for wheelchair access.

In a nod to the building’s historic past, ceilings will be raised two feet and the east side of the ground floor will be turned into a classroom.

The rest of the building’s interior won’t be substantially changed except for the addition of bathrooms on each floor, a break room, new carpets, and repairs and painting of walls.

But unlike renovations of other old North Campus structures, such as Terrell Hall and the administration building, this is not a historical restoration-mainly because nobody is sure what the original Old College actually looked like, according to Scott Messer, the project manager in the Office of University Architects.

“It’s more accurate to call this a rehabilitation,” says Messer. “We just don’t have sufficient historical documentation of the original building, and too many changes have been made over the years. And doing a restoration based on conjecture would be worse than just improving what we now have.”

Construction of Old College began in 1803 and was completed in 1806. Modeled after a Yale University building, the three-story structure reflects the no-frills values of frontier Georgia-plain, sturdy, functional. It was erected in a forest clearing and, since planners didn’t know in which direction the campus would grow, they made the front and back identical.

The oldest building in Athens and one of the oldest in Northeast Georgia, it is where the university’s first professors taught Latin, Greek, science and mathematics, core subjects of the standard early 19th-century classical curriculum. It also served as the student dormitory and dining hall.

It has undergone at least two major makeovers and numerous minor changes in nearly two centuries. One renovation, around 1908, replaced the crumbling original brick walls and literally saved the building from collapsing. Another renovation in the early 1940s, when the U.S. Navy occupied the building as part of the World War II Pre-Flight Training School, extensively reconfigured the interior.

All those changes present another barrier to historical restoration, according to Messer: virtually nothing remains of the original building to restore. The only features dating from the construction are the basement’s thick granite foundation walls and some heavy, hand-hewn timbers in the attic that compose the roof trusses. (Messer says the trusses, which still bear ax marks, represent a rare surviving example of timber-frame roof construction of this scale in the Georgia piedmont.)

“It’s sort of ironic,” Messer says. “We have an 1803 foundation and roof, a 1908 exterior and a 1940s interior. Our oldest building really isn’t. So it’s a little bit of folly to think we could recreate the building as it originally looked, even if we knew. It’s best to let the building tell its own story. That’s what preservation dictates.”

Malone Construction Co., which will perform most of the work, took possession of the site this month and erected a chain link fence around Old College and the adjacent large trees. The fence extends on the west side into part of the Herty Street parking lot, blocking the sidewalk on the west side of the North Campus quad and forcing pedestrians to detour either into the parking lot or around the east side of Old College.

As part of the renovation, workers will take out air conditioners jutting from windows around the building and remove the network of steam radiators in the building. The new central forced-air HVAC system will be tied to the university’s chilled and steam water lines. The project’s cost, about $1.9 million, is being paid from UGA’s major repair and renovation funds and physical plant funds.