Photos by Sue Myers Smith
A group of buildings that played a critical and foundational role in modern University of Georgia history is slated for significant renovation — not the brick and columned buildings on the historic North campus, but six midcentury modern buildings on the university’s south campus. Collectively called the Science Center when they first opened six decades ago, the buildings became the new home for the departments of physics, geography/geology, chemistry, biological sciences, food science and poultry science.
Completed in 1959-1960, the buildings heralded the beginning of UGA’s drive to evolve into a major research university. Science Hill, as that part of the campus was also called, remains one of the largest and most expensive construction projects in the school’s history. At the time, the 400,000 square feet of space cost $13 million, the equivalent of $130 million today.
The decade of the ’60s saw staggering growth at colleges nationwide as baby boomers came of age and headed to college. UGA’s enrollment tripled, from 7,399 in 1959 to 20,532 in 1969, and became more diverse with women and African Americans joining the student body in increasing numbers. In 1967, the university doubled its faculty in just one year, recalls Allan Barber, retired vice president for finance and administration.
As the student body changed and the mission evolved, the times called for a new look. Three prominent Atlanta architectural firms were hired to design the six new buildings — Abreu and Robeson, Toombs Amisano Wells and, most prominently, Richard Aeck and his firm Aeck Associates.
Influenced by innovative European architects, the new architecture was forward-looking, egalitarian — gone were imposing columns, wood, and traditional red brick. In its place, new building materials such as structural steel, pre-cast concrete, aluminum, and plate glass were used to create new forms in “honest” architecture that showed of what the buildings were made. Older building materials were re-tooled to create new modern effects. Brick, often in blond colors or with darker textured surfaces, were stacked with continuous vertical joints rather than a running bond, or lain in more decorative, textural patterns.
The modern buildings emphasized the idea of form following function, replacing decorative details with geometric shapes, often asymmetrical, and sleek, clean lines, usually straight but sometimes curving. Roofs were flat.
“It completely changed the character of the university. It was an inflection point,” says retired campus architect Danny Sniff, who describes Aeck, Amisano and the others as “born-again modernists — architects who’d thrown off their traditional training and fiercely embraced modern architecture.
Aeck’s plan was a hard sell in Atlanta; many legislators liked neither the $10 million price tag nor the newfangled architecture. Luckily, the new governor, Marvin Griffin, pushed the plan over the top in 1955, appropriating $5 million from the governor’s contingency fund — about $50 million in today’s dollars.
Several of the Science Center buildings have gotten additions over the years, but most, except for Poultry Science, still qualify as “major” historic buildings of regional importance and would contribute to a National Register-eligible historic district, according to the UGA Office of University Architects for Facilities Planning.
Like many other historic buildings, they’re showing their age. They’re not nearly as energy efficient as newer buildings; their lab spaces aren’t large enough, and often electrical, water and other building systems are underpowered.
First up for renovation will be Chemistry, according to a UGA press release a year ago. Renovation won’t change the look of the building of 105,000 square feet.
“Exterior building renovation is not anticipated, with the exception of the roof and some of the exterior doors,” according to the official request for proposals. Plans for the renovation are due in 2023, according to the document, but just when construction begins remains to be seen. For now, the construction budget is $44 million for new electrical, HVAC systems, new interior finishes, and new technology infrastructure.
The Science Center buildings dramatically changed the campus in more than looks. Seventeen science departments moved into the new buildings, freeing up space on North Campus for history, political science, and other humanities.
The $1.8 million physics building was the first to open in March 1959, having moved from an 1874 building with no research space into one “equipped for experiments in quantum mechanics, spectroscopy, and radioactivity,” reported The Red & Black student newspaper. The building had a “floating acoustics lab” and even a planetarium with a research telescope.
“You just can’t do a good job teaching a science as fast-moving as physics in a building that was built before electric lights were ever heard of,’ said the head of the physics department, E.H. Dixon, at the dedication.
The Center and its hundreds of new lab spaces also marked the start of UGA’s rise to becoming a major research university, giving the school an ultra-modern recruiting tool to attract top scientists, and laying a foundation later presidents would build on. UGA’s research budget is now half a billion dollars a year and rising.
Barber credits O.C. Aderhold, the university’s president from 1950 to 1967 for beginning the culture change. “He was a visionary, really,” he said. “He lobbied the legislature and got it done, and you’ve got to take your hat off to him for that.”
‘The buildings affected students, too, says Sniff. “When you go to college, you want to be inspired. I think that’s what these buildings did for people.”
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