Two enormous stone angels flank the main entrance to the Mundelein Center. They’re hard to miss. As generations of students have been keen to recite: one, Uriel, holds the book of wisdom; the other, Jophiel, holds the torch of knowledge and a globe anchored by a cross. They are fitting sentinels of the space they guard. Within the building’s walls, thousands of students have experimented, discovered, learned, and changed. Once the home of Mundelein College, a private, Roman Catholic women’s college, the building is now the Mundelein Center for the Fine and Performing Arts.
Construction of the Mundelein Center, then known as the Skyscraper Building, began in 1929 as the stock market was crashing and the Roaring Twenties were coming to a close. Built in just 11 months for under $2 million, the building was dedicated in 1931. According to Sr. Ann Ida Gannon, BVM, a former president of the college, the building was familiarly called “Skyscraper” not because of its height (although it was the tallest in the area for several years after its construction), but because of the steel framework and structure that characterize urban skyscrapers. The architecture showcases many attributes of the popular Art Deco style, including strong vertical lines and geometric shapes.
For many years, the building served as a self-contained university for the women of Mundelein College. It housed living spaces, a cafeteria, a gymnasium, a pool, a library, a chapel, an auditorium, and classroom and administrative space. In 1991, the building and college became incorporated into Loyola. The building has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1980, and it has been an official Chicago landmark since 2007. Loyola began renovating the building in late 2004, and, in fall of 2012, it was rededicated as the Mundelein Center for the Fine and Performing Arts.
The renovations, completed by architects from Baranski Hammer Moretta & Sheehy, were completed from top to bottom. The building’s elevator shaft didn’t originally extend to the top four floors, which served as living quarters for the BVMs. Thus, a major project was to build an elevator that went all the way from the basement to the 14th floor—no small feat.
The biggest renovation challenge came with the construction of the Newhart Family Theatre. In order to clear the space needed for the stage opening, three structural columns had to be cut out. A enormous steel transfer beam now holds up the weight of floors 4–7 that the columns previously supported—a design that won the firm Klein and Hoffman an award for excellence in structural engineering.
Other major features include a multipurpose room encased in glass and steel, and affectionately called the “Crystal Palace” by those involved in its construction. A greenhouse on the 7th floor was stripped and replaced with new glass.
As wonderful as the facility is, the most important part is that the Department of Fine and Performing Arts can now focus on programming that will be fully supported by the modernization of the space.
“Now that it’s done, it allows us to move into new possibilities for programming,” says April Browning, managing director of fine and performing arts, who has been heavily involved in the renovations since they began in 2004. “We can build new relationships with the community and arts organizations. We have the ability to give the space life as an arts center and hopefully destination spot.”
At the dedication of the Newhart Family Theatre, Sarah Gabel, chairperson for the fine and performing arts, echoed Browning’s sentiments. “Artists can make art anywhere,” Gabel said. “Artists don’t need beautiful, state of-the art facilities in which to exercise their creativity. But when we have these spaces, as we now have at Loyola, it inspires us to create works of art we might never have imagined otherwise.”