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I-House: more than meets the eye

image: Departments header The article in the April issue concerning the June 30 closing of International House ("Chicago Journal") neglected to mention something that by now is well known to everyone on campus, and probably many other readers as well: namely that the University's decision has created not only an enormous controversy, but an extraordinary effort to save this building by large numbers of hardworking people who represent a broad spectrum of the University and Hyde Park communities.

The loss of this institution would be a tragedy, all the more tragic because it is completely avoidable. The financial arguments made by the administration, and reported in the April issue, would seem to leave little alternative but to close the building. In fact, however, these issues are extremely complex and many sided, and knowing the details often casts them in a rather different light.

In 1994, Holabird and Root, the building's original architects, came up with a renovation plan, in conjunction with student input. For a cost of $14 million [at the time], that plan provided for all necessary repairs and a change from the current room configuration to about 200 dormitory rooms and 150 either private bath or bath suites, larger rooms sharing a bathroom with one other student. This plan would have gone a long way towards solving the "turnover" problem--the small rooms are fine for a year, but those of us who are here for the long haul tend to need more space and privacy.

Why, then, the larger figure? When the I-House Board approached the University for a loan in 1996, the administration insisted on revisions to the renovation plan that brought the cost up to $20 million--in current dollars, around $25 million. This second plan--which is not only more expensive, but also less desirable from the point of view of students--was forced on I-House against its will, simply because the administration felt that in 50 years all students would insist on having their own bathroom. It was a very shortsighted decision--for one thing, making all rooms have private baths left the rooms themselves rather cramped. Students here value space far more than a private bathroom. Now, more than ever, this decision, and a very sound original plan, need to be reconsidered.

Moreover, it would still cost $13-15 million to rehab one proposed alternative, the abandoned phone switching building at 6045 S. Kenwood Avenue. That building, however, would only have 150 rooms--versus approximately 330 rooms for a renovated I-House--not to mention that the "alternative" is vastly inferior in location, facilities, and appearance.

The rental income generated on the additional rooms is, conservatively, $600,000 a year. Which is more likely to be able to repay the capital costs--especially given that refurbishing the 61st Street location would require a two-year hiatus, with the existing community dispersed and no rental income coming in at all?

In every way, this controversy has been plagued by incomplete information. Take, for example, the issue of fund-raising. From the beginning, according to an I-House development officer, the University tied the hands of the I-House development office, insisting that the central administration alone had rights over wealthier (over $25K potential) donors. The University did not, to say the least, make International House a priority in its own fund-raising efforts.

Rather, it asked I-House to submit a list of potential "seed" donors for a capital campaign, which it then winnowed down drastically. We understand that the President made overtures to only three donors.

Another egregious example of widespread confusion resulting from incomplete information is the fire alarm issue, which has been used to support closing I-House ASAP. Contrary to what is reported in the April issue, the City never cited International House for a "violation." These are the facts. City codes changed in the 1990s, requiring an expensive upgrade to the alarm systems--individual room "rising heat sensors"--in all dorms and other Single Room Occupancy buildings. The University came to an agreement with the City that they would do this over a period of years. Currently, not only I-House, but Max Mason and the Shoreland, have to have, by law, such systems installed; one and probably both of these undergraduate dorms will not do these upgrades until the summer of 2001. The cost for the installation of such a system in I-House is $1.1 million--but for a fraction of that, in the interim period during renovations--I-House could have a system identical to what is currently in those dorms.

So, what is to be done? The University needs to slow down and take stock, and not make any irreparable decisions that we would all deeply regret later. One thing, however, that it should not do is continue what it has, for some time now, been doing: conducting confidential negotiations with the Business School for the sale of the building and the land to them for a paltry $2 million. The probable result of such a transaction: the demolition of this architectural landmark which has graced the Midway for 70 years, to be replaced with modern luxury apartments for GSB students. None of this can be allowed to happen, and indeed the Illinois Landmarks Commission is looking into the matter.

What must be resisted above all, however, is any idea that the "institution" can be separated from the "building." With its lovely courtyard, elegant public spaces, and distinctive U of C gothic architecture, this building was designed for its use and is irreplaceable. As any of the thousands of alumni who lived here understand, the building and the institution are inseparable; close one and you kill them both. The proposed alternative--any proposed alternative--cannot be taken seriously.

Properly renovated and wisely managed, International House can continue to serve the University for another 75 years. We hope that alumni will urge the University to give the future of International House its full support. Those who want to find out more should go to

Jonathan Hand, AM'91
International House

As Mr. Hand notes, the City of Chicago did not order the June 30 closing of I-House, as was reported in the April issue. The lack of a fire-alarm system, however, does keep International House from being in compliance with the city's fire code. Please see "Chicago Journal," page 14, for a report on the future of International House.--Ed.

  JUNE 2000

  > > Volume 92, Number 5

  > >
Hyde Park revisited
  > >
Hugo Sonnenschein
  > >
Pan-Asian persuasion

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