Towson U.'s landmark to reopen 4 year renovation of Stephens Hall costs state $11 million

June 21, 1991|By Glenn Small | Glenn Small,Evening Sun Staff

Stephens Hall, the first and most distinctive academic building at Towson State University, reopens tomorrow after four years and $11 million worth of repairs and renovation.

The restoration of the massive 1915 structure took two years longer than expected and was more than $2 million over the original budget.

It took so long, in fact, that a whole class of students earned four-year degrees without ever setting foot in the 91,000-square-foot building, which for many years was the school's only academic building.

Lisa Alvarina, 21, a finance major who graduated from Towson last month, says she was curious for a while about the huge building with the clock tower that sits on a hill overlooking York Road.

But then, "We sort of forgot about it, except when someone made a joke about when it would open."

Asked if she wants to go inside, now that the renovations are complete, Alvarina replies, "No."

Older graduates and former administrators hold a more fond view of the old building, which housed at one time all the academic departments, the library, cafeteria, administration offices, the Lida Lee Tall elementary school, and the theater, which doubled as a gymnasium.

Norris King, 79, a 1931 graduate who spent two years inside Stephens Hall while earning a teaching degree, says he can't wait to see how the restoration turned out.

"I'd like to walk through there again," says King, who retired in the mid-1970s after 44 years as a teacher, principal and administrator in the Baltimore County school system.

"So many of the educators of that period came from the teachers training institute at Towson."

Stephens Hall, named after a former state superintendent of education, Morse Bates Stephens, was designed by Douglas H. Thomas Jr., a partner in the firm Parker, Thomas and Rice. The firm also designed Gilman School, the Belvedere Hotel and the Johns Hopkins University Homewood campus.

The ornate building, which is said to be modeled on an English manor house that was once home to Anne Boleyn, the second of King Henry VIII's six wives, features terra cotta flourishes and even a few gargoyles. Solid copper drain pipes come down from the pitched slate roof.

During the renovation, the interior of the building was outfitted with all new plumbing and electrical wiring, the classrooms were renovated, sagging and crumbling plaster walls were redone, an archaic steam heating system was replaced with a computerized, climate control one and the old theater was renovated and expanded.

The clock tower was renovated and the works replaced, although the copper cupola was left with its aged, green surface, for fear that cleaning it would damage the metal.

Dale Strait, director of engineering and construction for the state Department of General Services, says the main reason the renovation went over budget was that problems cropped up after work began.

"It's not like building a brand-new building," he says. "As you get into it, you face things you didn't expect."

For example, construction crews uncovered more than $184,000 worth of termite and wood-rot damage. When they cut new doorways through the original cinder block walls, some of the blocks began to crumble because they were soaked with moisture built up over the years. That cost an extra $240,000.

Some extra costs were by design, Strait says. For instance, after the renovations began, the university asked to have a number of the computer science classrooms wired so that at each desk a student can plug in a personal computer and tap into the college's mainframe through built-in telephone lines. Cost: $100,000.

While Stephens Hall is not a registered historic landmark, it is a significant building, says John McGrain, historian for Baltimore County government. And in any renovation, there is always the ** danger of damaging the building by altering it, McGrain says.

But, he adds, "I don't think anyone's going to complain about what they've done. They've done a marvelous job. They've gone through a lot of trouble to do it right. The main thing is that the outside looks the same as it did when it opened."

Richard Auth, deputy director of the physical plant at Towson, believes the cost involved was worth it.

"This is the landmark building. This is the building that announces to the world that this is Towson State University, so I think it's worth a few dollars more."

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