Normal Hall is restored to its former glory

The stained-glass dome is the flagship of the project, which artfully blends past and present.




On a hot and humid July day in 1909, the young bride of Indiana State Normal School Librarian Arthur Cunningham paid her first visit to the project that had been occupying most of her husband’s time, the construction of the State Normal Library. It was a building that he had dreamed about since becoming the school’s first librarian in 1890 and one for which he even sold his own home to the school to enlarge the site needed for its construction. Many years later, his new bride recalled that visit as quite memorable.

“After climbing a flight of stone steps and walking through the main entrance, I beheld a group of Italian artisans clad in soiled, white work clothes creating synthetic marble columns,” said Bess

Cunningham in a speech that is preserved as part of her papers in the Indiana State University Archives.

“The floor was cluttered with troughs of plaster in shades of tan, brown, orange, red, black and white. As the workmen applied different coats, they streaked the surface with strips of dark cloth. The effect was surprisingly like marble. Later, the columns were skillfully polished by hand with sand and pumice, and they were truly beautiful.”

Normal Hall prepares for renovation work to begin in April 2014.

Normal Hall prepares for renovation work to begin in April 2014.

The process Cunningham was describing was the making of the scagliola columns in the new library, which would be completed by the end of that year following two and a half years of construction. The library’s final cost totaled nearly $150,000, significantly more than the original $97,970 appropriation provided by the state. The results, however, were magnificent.

Cunningham noted how the meaning and purpose of the school’s first standalone library building was “well typified” in its art glass dome, which featured a reproduction of Raphael’s portrait of Philosophy (from the original in the Vatican), the flaming torch of inspiration and the book of knowledge from the school’s seal, the names of 24 philosophers and educators, and inscriptions related to public education from the Northwest Ordinance, the 1815 and 1851 Indiana constitutions and the 1865 legislation that created the Indiana State Normal School.

“The dome was beautiful, meaningful and artistic,” Cunningham said.

At its dedication the following June, the building, which features a neoclassical revival style design by Lafayette-based architect James F. Alexander, was hailed as “the handsomest building in the state devoted to library purposes.”

In her speech many decades later, Cunningham expressed her sadness that the dome was now gone, the columns were wrapped in green “linoleum” and that “beauty and artistry have been sacrificed for utility.”

The dome had to be disassembled in the 1950s for safety reasons caused by the glass panels becoming unstable. While some of the glass panels remained strewn throughout the building’s attic, much of the glass was destroyed in the dismantling. A false ceiling was then installed to cover up the empty dome structure. The building continued to serve as the library until 1973 when the current library was constructed. In the decades since, a few offices were located in the lower portion of the building and in the 1955 addition, but the remainder of the building, including its once-grand rotunda area, served primarily as storage.

Today, Normal Hall has been fully restored into a beautiful — and functional — home for the University College and the Center for Student Success, thanks to a $16 million appropriation from the state of Indiana augmented by private donations to cover some items outside the scope of the state-funded project. The dome has been recreated, the scagliola has been restored, the front steps have been restored and a new curved glass addition has been built to handle Americans with Disabilities Act accessibility, HVAC and other modern necessities.

“This was an exciting project because, from day one, the university’s goals were to put this building back into service in a way that went beyond just making it usable. Instead, they wanted Normal Hall to have a significant presence on campus that would serve the university well not just now but well into the future,” said Greg Miller, senior project manager with arcDESIGN, the architectural firm leading the Normal Hall restoration.

Renovation work in Normal Hall is seen in February 2015.

Renovation work in Normal Hall is seen in February 2015.

“It was important to preserve the character and as much of the fabric of the building as was practical. It is on the National Register of Historic Places, and we needed to be very sensitive to the key elements of the building that remained and some elements that had been removed during the 1955 renovation that needed to be put back,” Miller said.

The firm also had to grapple with how to bring the building up to current standards and meet the programming needs the university had outlined for the building without destroying its historic look and feel.

“The Department of Interior has some standards on how to appropriately add on to an historic building. Part of those guidelines is that you shouldn’t try to fool anyone into thinking that the addition was part of the original construction. That flies in the face of what the conventional person would think. They think that it needs to exactly match what is there,” he said.

The curved glass addition on the east side of the structure clearly meets that standard while providing a transparency that allows visitors to see the historic facade through the new addition.

“We tried to give people subtle clues that we are respecting the old building while adding the new in a way that doesn’t mislead people and makes a clear demarcation between the two,” Miller said.

That theme carried into the interior design and décor as well.

“It is a juxtaposition of the two eras — the very rich woodwork, the very rich paint colors, the stained glass and the cork flooring in the historic section and then you make the transition to a very clean, crisp addition with a mostly white terrazzo finish on the floors, white walls, glass and steel railings on the stairs, a very modern and contemporary look. It is almost like the finishes flip themselves when you go from 1908 to 2015.”

arcDESIGN also employed some relatively new technology in the building’s design that they had previously used in the renovation of their own offices. The 3D-laser scanning was a first for Indiana State’s building projects, said Kevin Runion, associate vice president for facilities management. The equipment continuously sends out a laser that hits all of the surfaces and bounces back with exact measurements and surface color to create extremely accurate construction documentation.

The data points collected by the scanner are stitched together in a computer program to create three-dimensional point clouds. Those clouds are then used to construct a highly accurate three-dimensional model of the space. The model was more accurate than the original plans for the building, which the university also had.

“Some things don’t end up being built exactly the way they were originally designed. This gave us a lot more accurate idea of what we were facing,” he added.

“This technology was really beneficial to us, because it helped us find some things that aren’t easily discerned with conventional measuring approaches. Normal Hall was a great venue for using this technology, because its configuration would have made it difficult to accurately measure all of its surfaces. We found walls that were out of plumb, walls that weren’t straight, places that had bowed, etc. All that helped us understand a lot about the building,” Miller said.

Those irregularities were apparent when it came to restoring the stained-glass dome, already a difficult project.

Construction of Normal Hall dome is completed by Conrad-Schmitt.

Construction of Normal Hall dome is completed by Conrad-Schmitt.

“You can imagine if this whole skylight had been flat and not curved, how less complicated it would be,” said Kevin Grabowski, project manager for Conrad Schmitt Studios, the firm that restored the dome and the scagliola columns. The 126-year-old company is known for its conservation and restoration work, which has included the magnificent restoration of the French Lick and West Baden Springs Resort. The resort’s owner, Gayle Cook, brought the firm to Indiana State’s attention and has been an instrumental part of the project. She also has been financially supportive of the university’s historic renovation efforts.

In addition to the complexities of measuring a curved dome where the openings are not exactly the same, Grabowski noted that the size of the dome’s center panels, which measured more than 9 feet in length, added to the challenge.

“Those were the largest, curved stained-glass panels I have seen in my 18 years here, and I am sure that the guys who have been here 30 years have seen. They were really enormous,” he said.

The process also called for utilizing as much of the remaining glass as possible. This involved taking rubbings of any existing panels to use as a template. Each piece of glass is numbered on the template. Then the glass is disassembled to remove the old lead with each piece carefully inspected for damage and labeled to match its spot in the template. Missing parts or pieces beyond repair are replaced with new glass specially selected and cut to match the color and shape of the original piece.

“Only a percentage of the original glass existed. We were also fortunate that the original glass was manufactured by Kokomo Glass and that company is still in existence today and is still producing this type of glass,” Grabowski said. In the end, the new dome used about 30 percent original glass with 70 percent being newly produced.

Once all of the pieces of a panel are laid out, the panel was re-leaded using a “restoration lead” that is formulated to match the composition of the lead used in medieval stained-glass windows. Grabowski explained that during the time the original dome was constructed, artisans were using 100 percent lead, which is much softer and more pliable. Unfortunately, the pure lead has proven to be less reliable in holding up over time. The restoration lead is created in a very controlled way to include all of the impurities that the medieval lead contained such as antimony, silver, copper and traces of other elements.

“It is not pure lead, it is an alloy. It is much more rigid and that really adds to the stability of the window, and it is a lot more resistant to corrosion as well,” he said.

“Windows made in this fashion can last almost indefinitely as long as they are maintained. In Indiana State’s case, the fact that the dome is on the interior of the building is a big plus as it will not be exposed to weather. However, the panels are curved and are subject to the force of gravity 24/7 so that makes it a little more complicated. But they should last for 100years or more. I am pretty confident of that,” Grabowski said.

The firm’s analysis of the original dome’s failure pointed to a lack of reinforcing, he said. The Conrad Schmitt team came up with a system that added reinforcing bars and tied those bars to the dome’s steel frame to improve rigidity.

“It was important that we didn’t go into this project and just build it back the way it was created originally. The dome failed, and we didn’t want to build failure back into the system. That was a real challenge.”

The firm also took great care in adding the reinforcing bars where they wouldn’t impact the appearance of the dome.

“We really had to be sensitive to adding bars and making sure they were in the right spots where you weren’t going to be able to detect them, such as adding bars on the back side along the lead lines so that they aren’t noticeable from below,” he said.

The system also allows for the panels to be removed if necessary because of work being done on the building or other issues.

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Artisans at Conrad Schmitt piece together a stained-glass panel

As Bess Cunningham noted, the center of the dome featured a fresco painting of Raphael’s portrait of Philosophy. An artist from the Conrad Schmitt firm, Will Kolstad, had the task of recreating the dome’s central feature. Painting on a dome poses its own challenges.

“When you paint something on a flat surface, you don’t have to account for the distortion a curved shape creates,” Grabowski said. “When you paint on a dome, you have to anticipate what it’s going to look like for the viewer from below, because figures are going to be shortened. Therefore, you have to elongate the figures in some cases so the viewer will see it the way you see it. That’s always a challenge.”

One surprise that happened in Conrad Schmitt’s restoration work was the discovery of more scagliola columns that could be restored. The columns were found after a wall that had been added in an earlier renovation was removed. Some of the building’s columns had been completely replaced with plaster or were half plaster and half scagliola, so the firm initially thought there were only a few scagliola columns that could be restored. The rest would be painted to match. The discovery of the additional columns resulted in a total of nine columns that feature this unique example of artistry. It is a form of craftsmanship that should be displayed and respected, Grabowski added.

“I would hate to give the impression that this is the cheap version of marble. It’s incredibly labor-intensive to create. It takes a lot of artistry to pull it off so that it looks just like marble,” he said.

Restoring the scagliola involved removing the material covering the columns, cleaning away any mastic, old varnish and wax to get down to the original surface. Then, the artisans inspected the surface for any needed repairs, including missing scagliola and hairline cracks. The biggest challenge came in selecting the colors needed to add new scagliola.

“You have to match the colors that are there. You are using dry pigments and mixing small batches and letting them dry. You literally are weighing the pigments with each batch to get the color right. And the color changes as it dries. Once you have gotten several sample batches to produce the right colors, you can weigh out all those pigments and replicate larger batches to do your repair work,” said Grabowski.

After the repairs are completed, the polishing procedure must be redone ending with a polishing of aluminum oxide, a really fine slurry put over the entire column and polished out to give it a beautiful low sheen. The last touch is to protect the scagliola with a final coat of carnauba wax just as would have been done originally.

The building also features lighting reproductions that replicate the original lighting fixtures as much as possible. The furniture in the rotunda of the building is either a reproduction designed to match original pieces or, in a few instances, original furniture that has been refinished.

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A piece of the Normal Hall stained-glass dome is seen.

Other historic features of the building have also been restored, including the marble tile entryway in the main entrance, the intricate plaster moldings and a section of the stacks.

“When you put this building together with what the university has done with University Hall and Federal Hall, you have three really nice projects that have taken great care of some historic buildings and historic fabric of the university. It really says a lot about the direction that the university is headed and where its values are,” Miller said.

He praised the entire project team for their responsiveness in addressing some unanticipated challenges that inevitably come up in a restoration project.

“The partnership we have had with ISU has been tremendous. When Weddle Brothers came on as the contractor, their focus on problem-solving and keeping things moving forward has just been great. It has been really rewarding pushing through the challenges that a restoration project brings to you,” Miller said, specifically referencing the work of Indiana State employee Seth Porter and Weddle Brothers’ Brad Boring and Ben Weiler.

The result is a building that closely resembles what a student in 1910 would have experienced with the added comfort of modern conveniences, such as an elevator and air conditioning.

“When someone walks into the main floor of the renovated building, it will be as close as modernly possible to the same experience they would have had originally,” he said.

Miller also commented on the appropriateness of using the building to house University College and the Center for Student Success. Normal Hall is the third oldest building on campus (behind Condit House and Fairbanks Hall) but is the oldest and only remaining building that was originally constructed for use by the Indiana State Normal School.

“This is the most significant building on the ISU campus as far as its vintage and its prominence. The fact that the university has focused its use on student success screams volumes about how it views its students and invests in them. That tells me that Indiana State really cares about its student body and is taking the steps to ensure their academic success,” Miller said.



2 Comments

  1. This is so exciting to discover that isu’S original library has been so amazingly restored to glory! I was an interIor design student in 2001, & our class worked on a restoration proposal for this formerly grand structure. I am thrilled that the dome has been restored, & wonder if they kept the incredible green sheer glass walkways that were in the stacks—they were definitely one-of-a-kind! If i ever pass through terre haute again, i Must see this building! ?

    • a PORTION OF THE STACKS WERE KEPT AND RESTORED. tHE PAINT WAS REMOVED AND THE GLASS WAS SANDBLASTED FOR AN OPAQUE APPEARANCE.

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