Jones Hall: Back To the Future

February 1, 1997

Nick Marinello

Henry Fry is pleased and proud. "This was an intelligent way to renovate," he says of his latest project, the restoration of the interior of Joseph Merrick Jones Hall. For Fry, the director of campus planning, the work undertaken in Jones Hall over the last year has consisted of a series of small victories over limited resources, unexpected adversity and the building's own history.

When Tulane Law School moved out of Jones Hall in late 1994, university administrators targeted the building to house Special Collections of Howard-Tilton Library, the Stone Center for Latin American Studies and the departments of Classical Studies and Jewish Studies. Limited funding required that the work done on Jones Hall be "the minimal amount needed to return the building to commerce," recalls Fry. "So the original charge was for an overhaul of the mechanical and electrical systems," he says. "The air conditioning system had gone beyond its life cycle, and the electricity and lighting were not nearly up to current standards."

In April 1996, Fry was appointed by Al Perry, associate vice president of facilities, to coordinate and direct the project, which employed the services of the engineering firm of Warren Moses Co. and general contractors Gootee Construction Inc. In addition, the steering committee for campus planning, composed of alumni, administrators, members of the faculty and students, requested that an architect be hired as a consultant.

"The steering committee wanted to ensure that the original architectural character of the building would be honored," says Fry. That character, however, had already substantially been transformed in 1970, says Fry, when Jones Hall, which was constructed in 1941 to house the Howard-Tilton Memorial Library, was converted into the Tulane Law School. "The building had been partitioned to make private offices, and the law library was laid out on additional floors sandwiched between the existing floors," says Fry.

The most satisfying aspect of the project for Fry is that his team, through careful planning, was able to go beyond the initial charge of mechanical and electrical upgrades and restore much of Jones Hall to its original condition. "The first thing to do was to return the original volumes of space to the building," says Fry, who added that while little money was spent on cosmetic renovation, a significant aesthetic was achieved by simply uncovering the building's original attributes.

"The building is really handsome with marble floors and wainscot," says Fry. "Probably the most important restoration was done by stripping the vinyl covering off an engraved marble panel just inside the Newcomb Boulevard entrance and tearing down a wall to expose the original main staircase that faces the Freret Street entrance."

According to Fry, the restoration was greatly enhanced by the consulting architect, Nathaniel Curtis, a Tulane alumnus and son of the late Nathaniel Curtis Sr., a Tulane professor and chief designer of the original building. "My father considered it his masterpiece," says Curtis, who added that he relished the opportunity to "place myself in my father's shoes and restore the building the way I thought he would have done it." Curtis calls the restoration "a jewel" and believes the project was an economical deal for the university.

"The cost of restoring that space was low," says Curtis. "At the time of its construction [in 1941] expense was no problem so they used the finest materials and fixtures. You couldn't build an elegant space like that now for anywhere near what this cost. It was a good buy for the university." "Mr. Curtis served as the soul of this project," says Fry, "and we were able to restore the original character of this building, which is really quite regal."

Not everything went smoothly, however. The scheduled completion of the restoration, initially targeted for the fall 1996 semester, was pushed back when an obscure, leaky steam valve in the basement of the building complicated the asbestos abatement. According to Fry, ongoing monitoring indicated high levels of asbestos in the basement, bedeviling workers for weeks until the valve was identified as the source of asbestos emissions.

The restoration was originally budgeted at $3.3 million says Fry, who adds that an additional $1 million was made available through strategic savings in other areas. "We installed a sprinkler system that upgraded the fire-rating quality of the building," he offers as a savings example, "allowing us to reduce the thickness--and expense--of the partitions we installed." The Center for Latin American Studies and the dean of the Faculty of Liberal Arts and Sciences also made significant contributions to enhance the restoration, says Fry.

While the departments of Classical Studies and Jewish Studies are already in place in Jones Hall, Fry says that it will be at least the end of February before the library's Special Collections and the Center for Latin American Studies move in. By then, Fry expects that the contractors "will have touched almost every surface in the building in some way, shape or form. This was not just a modernization of a structure, but a way to discover the real character of a building."

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