For the first time in years, the Busch Student Center (BSC) at Saint Louis University is a hive of activity.
Thanks to a $22 million renovation and expansion project of the old center at this St. Louis-based Jesuit school, students are using the newly updated space to study, congregate, and hang out between classes. And what’s more, they helped pay for it.
Fed up with the dim, cramped, and uninviting old student center, which was built in 1967, students voted to tax themselves $50 per semester to contribute more than $3 million to the construction project. For their efforts, they also got a say in how the new student center should be renovated, making up 50 percent of the university’s project design and planning committee, which conducted surveys and collected input and feedback about the possible changes to the student union.
“Students weren’t coming over here before. The old center was just a meeting space for the university. It wasn’t a place to hang. It wasn’t a place to be seen,” says Saint Louis University Vice President of Student Development Kathy Humphrey. “We moved from a dark, dull, dingy building to a vibrant, well-lit, well-trafficked building. It’s constantly humming.”
The university credits St. Louis architect Mackey Mitchell Associates for the transformation. The new BSC boasts 51,000 square feet of added space for a total of about 160,000 square feet of new and renovated space.
Only the shell of the old center remains on the northeast corner of Grand Blvd. and Laclede Ave. When you step inside, it is impossible to tell where the old building ends and the new construction starts.
“They did a fabulous job transitioning the building to make you think it was one building from the start and not an addition,” Humphrey says.
The Mackey Mitchell design team worked more magic than just seamless construction and architectural design. They transformed the dark, outdated facility into one full of light, color, whimsy, and a multitude of services geared to the needs of the students and university community.
“It looked like my dentist’s office from grade school. It was really horrible,” says Mackey Mitchell Principal Angela Fedderssen-Heinze, of the old BSC. “It was dark. It had these crazy metal switchback stairs, funky plants, and other things. It was used, but not nearly as much as it should be. It really needed life breathed back into it.”
The design team’s palette of bright colors won over the university committee. Mackey Mitchell had done a similar project for a nearby university. Saint Louis University representatives toured the site and loved the bright colors.
Color is everywhere in the new Busch Student Center. Columns at the main entrance are painted a vivid green. Ceilings in various areas also shine with this hue. Walls and other surfaces throughout the facility boast such vivid shades as electric blue, dark rose, and grape. Much of the carpet is fairly neutral but is accented with flecks of color that coordinate with the wall palettes. There was a practical strategy to color placement, Fedderssen-Heinze points out.
“We concentrated some of those finishes in the main circulation spaces to give it punch as you travel through the building. We also tried to apply color to things that could be changed if necessary. You have to be careful that you’re not doing something too trendy so it will live through time,” she says.
Humphrey echoes this sentiment. “It’s paint. When the colors go out of style, we can just repaint.”
The boldly colored and patterned upholstery on lounge sofas and chairs looks hip, and yes, a bit trendy. But that’s how they want it, Humphrey says.
“These are students. We know that within 10 years we’ll have to replace [it] because of wear anyhow,” she says.
The focal point of the new center is a concave curtainwall in the building’s two-story atrium. The glass wall overlooks a picturesque courtyard and waterfall and connects the building to the campus’ main circulation spine. “The whole design of the building came around that glass wall,” Fedderssen-Heinze says. “There is a walking path that runs from the northwest corner of the site to the southeast. The building originally turned its back on that walkway. You couldn’t even get to it easily. The wall reinforces that path and celebrates it.”
The curtainwall also adds much appreciated daylighting to the formerly dim center, which now draws students in rather than deterring them from spending time in the space. The design team used not only daylighting, but some indirect lighting techniques with incandescent bulbs to add a cozier warmer feel than the facility’s previous fluorescent lighting could provide.
“The atrium is a real community gathering place, both inside and out,” Humphrey says. “It’s probably one of my favorite spots, too.”
The atrium, however, isn’t the only spot where you’ll find students congregating. The new BSC offers a multitude of places for them to gather, catch a meal, pick through their snail mail, check their e-mail, and more.
In the new Grand Market cafeteria area, students may choose from several dining options, including pasta, pizza, home-style cooking, Asian foods, and specialty salads. If those don’t satisfy, the new center also has an Au Bon Pain, a 25-year-old bakery café chain that has breakfast and lunch entrees, and The Billiken Club, run by Wackadoo’s Grub and Brew, which serves up pub fare amidst pool tables, Skee-Ball, virtual reality entertainment, and arcade games.
Other amenities in the center include a Barnes & Noble Bookstore; a full-service U.S. Bank branch; Champion Dry Cleaners with dry cleaning and laundry drop-off services; Indox, a copy and mail center that also features 7,000 mailboxes for all undergraduate students, both commuters and residents; the full-service Salon Ktizo, whose services include hairstyling, manicures, and facials; and Nettie’s Flower Garden, where students, staff, and faculty can purchase floral arrangements, gift baskets, and decorations. The center also features wireless capabilities for laptop users.
Most of the student activity offices have been consolidated into the center, while only a few ad—ministrative offices exist.
“We worked hard not to fill it up with administrative offices,” Humphrey explains. “This space is primarily for the students. If there are offices here, they’re ones that the students need to go to regularly.”
The new Busch Student Center also provides about 27,000 square feet of rentable space, including a large multi-purpose space that can be divided into four smaller rooms. When used in its entirety, the room can seat up to 1,600 people. Décor in this area is more neutral than the rest of the center. Design focused around the fact that this would be a space where brides might want to hold their wedding receptions or where high-level donors might gather for a fancy sit-down dinner.
The center also has a number of smaller meeting rooms on the second level, which can be used for more intimate functions or as breakout rooms.
“We worked with a consultant to truly make the building work for the university and be its own profit center,” Fedderssen-Heinze says.
Profit center or not, the center exists primarily for Saint Louis University’s students. Soft seating lines the corridors, encouraging them to come in, relax, and use the space. There are nooks all over the building where groups meet, friends hang out, and students cram for exams. And it works.
“I was taking some people through on a tour when we first opened, and as we were walking along we came across a student stretched out on one of the couches, sleeping,” Humphrey recalls. “And that’s perfectly okay. It’s their space. We want them to do that. They really are enjoying the facility.”
Robin Suttell (email@example.com), based in Cleveland, is contributing editor at Buildings magazine.