Scaffolding to stay six more years

by Katie Prisco-Buxbaum / Beacon Staff • March 1, 2012

Scaffolding mattz
The scaffolding outside of 80 Boylston St. was constructed in December of 2009 as a precautionary measure.
The scaffolding outside of 80 Boylston St. was constructed in December of 2009 as a precautionary measure.

The metal and wood scaffolding that has lined the Little Building since December 2009 will remain a campus fixture for years to come as the college moves slowly forward on a multimillion dollar renovation project, college officials said.

After inspectors determined the aging facade of the 95-year-old building could begin to crumble, the scaffolding was erected to prevent injuries. However the proposed $70 million project to completely refurbish the structure was delayed until 2014, taking a backseat to other expensive endeavors like the satellite campus in Los Angeles, said Andrew Tiedemann, the vice president of communications and marketing.

Tiedemann said the projected start date is slated for two years from now, will take about four years to complete. Construction will begin on the Los Angeles campus center in Hollywood next week.

“It was timing,” Tiedemann said. “[The college] was already committed to various other projects including the Los Angeles campus and didn’t want to take all the projects on at one time. [It was decided] Los Angeles first, and the next big thing would be the Little Building renovations.”

The $70 million budget for the renovation — compared to the estimated $90 million spent on the Los Angeles campus —  will come from a combination of Emerson’s internal funding, according to Maureen Murphy, the vice president of administration and finance.

In the last 18 months, school officials have created a strategic plan to restore the facade, expand the cafeteria on the second floor, and make changes to dorm room configurations, according to Tiedemann. 

“The Little Building will be completely renovated,” said Tiedemann in an email to the Beacon. “Every room and system would be modernized and upgraded [under the current proposal]. Although the plans are preliminary, undoubtedly the dining hall would be expanded.”

Murphy declined to comment on the plan’s specifications, saying the proposals are still in a preliminary stage, and information detailing the finalized blueprint will be made public sometime between 2013 and 2014. 

Murphy said a plan to phase students out of the building has not been discussed yet, though architects may remove some beds, which may jeopardize the status of the already squeezed housing for underclassmen. Last year, many rising juniors were shaken when they were kicked out of the housing lottery, forcing them to find off-campus apartments earlier than expected.

According to Murphy, the cost is a preliminary estimate based on projections from Elkus Manfredi, a Boston-based architectural firm hired by the college. Emerson’s board of trustees must first approve of the design, scope, and price before more definite plans go into action, she said. 

Along with the project costs, the college pays an additional $1,000 fee to the city of Boston every month or two for the permit to keep the scaffolding in place.

“Funding for any building comes from revenue sources,” said Murphy. “Our main revenue source is tuition, room, and board.” 

Murphy said the school will begin to put a small portion of each year’s revenue toward the project to avoid large tuition increases. She said the exact allocation of funds have not been discussed and will be the next step once the proposed plans are finalized.

The scaffolding was constructed more than two years ago, after the college hired an engineering company that determined the building needed significant renewal after years of natural wear.

Tiedemann said scaffolding was set up as a precautionary measure in case small pieces of the facade began to deteriorate, crumble, and fall into the street.

“The building is perfectly safe; the exterior is perfectly safe,” said Tiedemann. “The scaffolding is preventative.” 

The long life of the scaffolding, an unprepossessing skeleton of steel bars and wooden plants, prompted the college to consider a proposal by Joe Ketner, the curator of Emerson’s Huret and Spector Gallery, to turn the structure into a piece of standing art. 

The proposal would incorporate two design aspects to make the structure more aesthetically pleasing. Ketner said he has contacted two artistsa Korean-American abstract artist, Yoon Lee, to create a design of images, and John Powell, a light artist, to create an interactive piece of light and text which would react to people walking through.

“Initially it wasn’t known how long [the scaffolding] would be there,” said Ketner. “Only after the engineering studies did they realize that this would be an extended project and that is when they contacted me to propose a solution [to the aesthetic problem].”

The Little Building was built in 1917, and was originally an office building which included 15 stores, 22 shops, a post office, restaurants, and a tunnel connecting the building to the Boylston Street subway station and the Cutler Majestic Theatre. 

Emerson College purchased the property in March 1994 and began converting the building to a dormitory in January 1995. 

Senior Jayne Bonn said she recalls when the scaffolding that lines the exterior of the Little Building first made its appearance on campus.

“It was raining outside, I believe, because I was relieved that I had a giant structure to stand under,” the visual and media arts major said. 

Bonn said she assumed the structure was put in place in December 2009 for some type of maintenance to the exterior of the Little Building.

“These days it doesn’t really bother me,” said Bonn. “It’s kind of a part of Emerson’s campus.”