A multimillion-dollar renovation project will secure the future of an important piece of Ohio Wesleyan University's past.
The university held a groundbreaking ceremony Friday, May 16, for the $8 million rehabilitation of Merrick Hall, which has been vacant for decades.
The three-story, Elizabethan-style structure is located directly east of University Hall off South Sandusky Street in Delaware.
The 19,684-square-foot building is scheduled to reopen after construction work is completed in fall 2015.
The project will be funded through an anonymous donation of $8 million.
OWU President Rock Jones said the history of Merrick Hall goes back almost as far as the history of the university itself.
He said the original use of the building exemplified the forward-thinking nature of the school's early leaders.
"It was planned in the 1850s, just a decade after Ohio Wesleyan was founded and was, from the beginning, designed to be a science building at a time when very few small colleges in the country had buildings devoted exclusively to science," Jones said.
The construction of Merrick Hall, previously known as Science Hall and Alumni Hall, was delayed by the Civil War, then completed in 1873.
The structure is one of five on campus dating back to the 1800s.
Merrick Hall is the only building on campus that was constructed using blue limestone quarried from what is now the city of Delaware's Blue Limestone Park.
Dan Hitchell, OWU's vice president for finance and administration, said one of the first steps in the renovation was to remove the plaster from the interior walls of the building to show the structure's "bones."
"The structural engineer wanted us to take it back to brick and stone so we could see what's behind the walls," Hitchell said.
Jones said, unfortunately, the limestone walls and brick fireplaces will not be visible from the inside after the renovations.
He said concerns about insulation and repair costs led to the decision to cover them again.
For about a century, the building served as the university's science center, with classrooms, laboratories and a museum of natural history, which was located on the third floor.
After science classrooms were relocated, the hall served students in various fields of study.
"About 30 years ago, all of those departments moved out of the building, and the building's been more or less vacant for three decades," Jones said.
While the building was closed, Jones said OWU alumni, faculty and students never stopped asking about plans for the site.
"Over the last five years, we've been thinking about and envisioning what this building could become for the future," he said.
"We're very committed to preserving the historic campus."
Science, the building's original use, was out because the university already has larger, modern facilities for that subject.
About a year and a half ago, a committee of students and staff was created to suggest ideas for the building's future.
The group eventually recommended Merrick Hall be used as the new home for the University's OWU Connection, a curricular program that gives students opportunities to gain real-world experience relevant to their fields of study in and outside the United States.
The OWU Connection's new physical home, a small dining hall and conference rooms will take up the first floor of the building.
"We envision this space as a sort of OWU Connection concierge service," Jones said.
"It's a place where students come with an idea, and then they receive counsel on how they can implement that idea."
The university plans to house state-of-the-art classrooms on the building's second floor.
University officials envision interactive spaces where instructors will stand in the center of the room or walk around the perimeter instead of teaching from a stage.
Any faculty member will be able to request the rooms for a semester or a shorter period of time.
The third floor, which features 22-feet-high ceilings and gothic arches, will be available for university and community events.
Jones said the first two floors will be contemporary in style, while the third floor will remind visitors of the nearly 150-year history of Merrick Hall.
"This room will feel much more like a 19th-century space," he said. "I'm very excited about the prospects for this room."
Among other changes, the main entrance will be moved from the north side of the building to the south, and an elevated patio will be built adjacent to the entrance.
The patio will serve as a backdrop for future commencement ceremonies.
Jones said the restoration project would not have been possible without a donation of $8 million from a couple who wish to remain anonymous.
"I think that the campus had other priorities and, to be candid, we needed resources" he said of the building's nearly 30-year vacancy.
Jones said the couple specifically asked for their gift to be used toward the restoration of the hall.
"I think they were captivated by the preservation of this historic building," he said.
"It's a rather simple building. It's not a huge building, but there's a grandeur to it."