Notre Dame takes historical approach in modern upgrades at Gibbons Hall

White boards, WiFi are part of the renovations to Notre Dame of Maryland University's historic Gibbons Hall.

Scaffolding covers much of Notre Dame of Maryland University's historic Gibbons Hall, the school's signature 1873 academic building.

Over the summer, a $6.5 million refurbishment began in the structure where students first found desks and cloakrooms 143 years ago this month.

"When I come in every morning, I think of all those phenomenal female leaders who walked these halls," said Marylou Yam, president of the university, as she walked through the classrooms this week — the same ones used in Baltimore's post-Civil War period.

University officials worked with the Maryland Historical Trust to ensure that this landmark building remains an architectural treasure.

The hall is recognized by its soaring lantern-style tower embellished in the Belle Epoque style, rising from a grove of mature trees along North Charles Street.

The university's reputation spans three centuries. The School Sisters of Notre Dame began educating elementary and high school-age girls on the site in 1873. The order established the College of Notre Dame of Maryland in 1895 as the first Catholic college for women in the United States to award a four-year baccalaureate degree.

Today, the school does not treat its beloved Gibbons Hall as a hands-off museum. It's used hard, every day. It houses 23 classrooms, eight academic departments and the university's school of education.

"The question is: How do you make a beautiful old building modern?" said Martin Kajic, Notre Dame's facilities director.

The answer is expertise. For instance, Kajic said that the university hired Whiting-Turner contractors, who in turn subcontracted specialists Worcester-Eisenbrandt for the sensitive job of restoring the Victorian windows.

What about upgrading Gibbons' big mansard-style roof? The original material was called Vermont black slate, but over the years it had been compromised by patch jobs. For the renovation, the slate will come from the original Vermont quarry — and slaters will restore the diamond patterns decreed by the original architects.

The upper floors of Gibbons Hall are being refurbished as well — with a nod to modifications that were made to meet Baltimore fire safety inspections after a devastating 1958 fire at Our Lady of the Angels School in Chicago.

The hall once had a finely crafted staircase, known to generations of students as "the pope's stairs." Fire officials deemed it unsafe — it was an open stair where a fire could spread — and ordered its removal. What curiously survived, and is now protected by the Historical Trust, are the hall's ornate cast-iron radiator covers and their marble tops.

Those who like a brisk climb on old-fashioned stairs will not be disappointed, though. The hall still retains broad staircases that make for quite a cardio workout.

Technology of the 21st century is being welcomed in this 19th-century structure. Whiting-Turner workers spent the summer retrofitting classrooms with interactive whiteboards to replace the old blackboards, and also upgraded Wi-Fi service throughout the building.

There's also a new elevator, and the hall will get an accessible ground-level entrance. The renovations are expected to be completed early next year.

As the initial work on this building began in 1872, The Sun noted that a group of nuns, along with architect J. Crawford Nielson and Messrs. Adams, the builders, toured parts of the country to make sure their school's showpiece couldn't be made any better.

After months on the road, they returned to Baltimore confident that they got it right the first time. The building was declared to be "one of the most imposing convenient structures of its kind in the country."

Gibbons Hall opened September 1873 as the Notre Dame of Maryland Collegiate Institute for Young Ladies. An ad in The Sun assured that the hall was "thoroughly ventilated" by those same windows now being refurbished.

The place was "well heated by hot water [and] lighted by gas," The Sun wrote. There were also speaking tubes, electric bells and clocks.

Just a few years after its opening, President and Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant appeared at Gibbons Hall in 1876 to convey diplomas and awards to students.

It was not the gas lighting, electric bells or impressive architecture that brought the commander in chief from Washington to Baltimore, but something a bit more personal.

The president's niece, Bessie Sharp, was a student.

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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