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Aging International House infrastructure
puts building in mothballs

image: Campus NewsFinancial and infrastructure concerns are forcing the University to close the International House building this summer--perhaps permanently, said Patricia A. Woodworth, the University's chief financial officer, in the March 16 University of Chicago Chronicle.

UPDATE


The University
of Chicago Chronicle

April 13, 2000 - Vol. 19 No. 14

Committee on the Future of International House formed to hear, respond to concerns

Located at 1414 E. 59th Street, the Gothic structure has housed Chicago's International House program since it was built in 1932 with funds provided by John D. Rockefeller Jr. The worldwide program consists of 13 independent, nonprofit institutions--including four in the U.S.--that provide housing and community for (mostly graduate) students from around the globe. The U of C's I-House building has rooms for up to 500 students, lounges, an auditorium, a cafeteria, and offices. Many cultural activities as well as Elderhostel programs are held there.

I-House programs will be temporarily relocated to either Ida Noyes Hall or the New Graduate Residence Hall. The NGR also has room for 40 of the more than 300 current I-House residents; other students will have priority for vacancies in University housing.

The I-House Board of Governors first approached the University in 1996 with concerns about its ability to continue operating I-House. In a letter to the University, the board stated, "International House is now faced with significant challenges. The limitations of its current facilities have led to substantial declines in occupancy (at present, a 30-percent vacancy rate), decreased revenues, and increasing occupancy costs due to deferred maintenance." The following year, I-House began running deficits. In a successful attempt to eliminate those deficits, the board closed 150 rooms, shut down the cafeteria, reduced staff, lowered room rates in an attempt to increase occupancy, and cut maintenance spending.

Around the same time, the I-House board and the University developed a renovation plan for the 70-year-old facility that today would cost approximately $25 million. But joint fund-raising efforts have not panned out, said Woodworth, despite annual appeals to former residents, soliciting its board, and discussions between President Sonnenschein and several key prospects. By 1999, she said, it was clear that the money needed for the renovation could not be raised.

The issue of the building's future came to a head this spring because of a city fire-code violation. In 1997, the City of Chicago ordered that a fire-alarm system be installed in the building by June 30, 2000. As of publication, the building still has no fire alarms.

The mandatory system would cost $1 to $2 million, Woodworth said, noting that the University can't simply install fire alarms and ignore I-House's other infrastructure problems. Its roof, plumbing, and electrical system are "on the verge of failure and will require an additional $8 to $10 million expenditure," she added.

Turning to the I-House endowment--valued at $9.7 million on December 31--instead of donors is not a solution, she said, noting that if the endowment were used for maintenance, "I-House would have had a substandard building and no endowment to support international programs." I-House has a $2 million annual budget.

The University and the I-House board have been searching for a new, more affordable facility for the past year, she said. One option is to build a new structure. Another is to relocate to the former Illinois Bell Building at 6045 S. Kenwood Ave., behind the NGR. The U of C would finance the renovation of that building, which could open by fall 2002.

Although Woodworth said the University will make every effort to preserve the I-House building, she also listed some of the challenges the structure presents: low and irregular floor-to-ceiling heights, large amounts of asbestos, and the need to meet Americans with Disabilities Act compliance requirements.--K.S.


  APRIL 2000
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