Credit: Andrea Bauer
Credit: Andrea Bauer

If you’ve looked toward the South Loop recently, you’ve seen the future of Roosevelt University on the skyline, a majestic blue glass slab that rose over the last two years on Wabash near Congress and now looms behind Roosevelt’s longtime home in the landmark Auditorium Building.

Thirty-two stories tall—and just enough off-kilter to be interesting—the $123 million mixed-use structure has been dubbed a “vertical campus” by its designers at Chicago-based VOA Associates. A tweaked version of the rigid glass-and-steel office boxes of the 20th century, it presents an impassive concrete backside on the north. But the rest of it—facing expansive views on the east, west, and south—is a freckled patchwork of glass panels mostly in two shades of blue. The whole thing’s hung on a frame that seesaws through a series of subtly but weirdly asymmetrical bays and then just stops. Arbitrarily, it seems. As if it just might continue skyward another day.

It’s the second-tallest academic building in the United States, the sixth tallest in the world, and it’s seeking a donor who wants to put his or her name on it: $25 million for 20 years, $50 million for forever. So far, no takers.

Roosevelt’s scheduled to take possession in March, and will move in gradually over the next six months. The skyscraper will house a 633-bed state-of-the-art freshman residence hall (with amenities including a full-floor fitness center), a 300-seat dining hall, and seven floors of classrooms and labs. The narrow art nouveau facade of the old Fine Arts Building Annex has been preserved as the route to the building’s bookstore, while a rather standard-order revolving-glass entrance on Wabash—cheek to jowl with the el—will become Roosevelt’s new front door.

It’s probably impossible to overstate the actual and symbolic importance of this structure to the university, which, like many other private colleges, has been hit by both the bad economy and a slew of new, for-profit rivals. In a fiercely competitive higher-ed environment and an “if you build it they will come” frame of mind, Roosevelt’s banking on the new building to boost its image and bring in more students. “There is nothing which signifies the University’s potential more than construction of our new building on Wabash,” is how President Charles Middleton put it in a letter to the RU community a year ago.

But it’s a gamble, launched by shouldering enormous debt just as the economy tanked and built during two years of diminished enrollment. This year, before payment on the new debt even fully kicks in, the university has had to cut 235 classes and slash its contribution to faculty pensions in order to balance its budget. With about 6,600 students on two campuses, a 2012 operating budget of $106 million, and a 92 percent dependence on tuition income, Roosevelt is carrying bond debt of $232 million.

In December, Moody’s dropped its long-term outlook on Roosevelt from stable to negative, while maintaining its medium
investment grade rating. When all obligations are taken into account, Moody’s says, the university has $248 million in direct debt and a debt-to-revenue ratio of 2.13 times, one of the highest of rated institutions.

What would it take to change that outlook? An increase in enrollment.

This drama is rooted in a 2004 city fire-safety ordinance requiring that sprinklers had to be installed in residence halls no later than December 31, 2008. Roosevelt has been working for a while to transform itself from a commuter school with mostly part-time students to a mostly resident school with a full-time student body (ergo: recently reinstated intercollegiate athletics, a field house under construction, and a bump in full-time faculty). But it had full ownership of only a single dormitory, the 40-year-old Herman Crown Center, which had 300 beds and no sprinklers. (Most of RU’s resident students bunk at the multischool University Center on State Street; a smaller number are at the old Pittsfield Building, on Washington.)

Roosevelt University president Charles Middleton
Roosevelt University president Charles MiddletonCredit: Andrea Bauer

Middleton says he and other Roosevelt officials quickly ascertained that the Crown building “wasn’t worth spending that kind of money on” and began to consider how they’d replace the 300 beds they were going to lose.

“We couldn’t use the building for anything else,” he says. “One thing led to another.” By 2007 the board was set on replacing it with a mixed-use facility, and entertained the possibility of an even taller structure, one that would include pricey condos that might float the whole thing. Then the real estate market fizzled and they thought better of it.

That left the funding to donations and debt. And fund-raising has not been Roosevelt’s strongest suit.

Roosevelt was founded in 1945, with a mission of social justice and an enrollment policy that was a response to then common quotas for blacks, women, and Jews. Since 1946, the university has been headquartered in the 1889 Auditorium Building, designed by Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan. A national landmark, said to be the nation’s first mixed-use structure, the ten-story Romanesque fortress includes the 4,000-seat Auditorium Theatre, a 17-story office tower, and space originally occupied by a posh hotel, with a grand entrance on Michigan Avenue and magnificent views of Buckingham Fountain and Grant Park.

But there have been expansions. In 1995, under former president Theodore Gross, Roosevelt purchased a building on 30 acres in Schaumburg and established a campus there, mostly serving part-time students who worked in the area. And in 2008 RU bought the first eight floors of the Sullivan-designed Gage Building, at 18 South Michigan, where it had been leasing classrooms. The price was $21.8 million; Roosevelt issued $45 million in bonds to cover it and to consolidate previous debt. Early that year, a VOA team headed by architect Chris Groesbeck (who’d been on the advisory board for Roosevelt’s school of real estate) landed the design job for the new facility on the footprint of the old Crown building.

A breakdown of the new building 
<span style="color: blue">Blue</span> = residence hall; <span style="color: yellow">Yellow</span> = business school classrooms and suites, including president’s suite; <span style="color: orange">Orange</span> = classrooms and labs; <span style="color: red">Red</span> = student union/activities: dining hall, meeting rooms, fitness center; <span style="color: green">Green</span> = student services/admin: admissions, financial aid, academic advising
A breakdown of the new building
Blue = residence hall; Yellow = business school classrooms and suites, including president’s suite; Orange = classrooms and labs; Red = student union/activities: dining hall, meeting rooms, fitness center; Green = student services/admin: admissions, financial aid, academic advising

In a phone interview last month from Beijing, Groesbeck ticked off the challenges of putting a 420,000-square-foot building on a 17,000-square-foot site, right next to a 120-year-old landmark that can’t be destabilized, and trying to create distinct spatial identities for functions that typically would have their own buildings. But the overriding concern, he said, was what you could put next to “one of the most iconic buildings not only in Chicago but in the world,” without looking stupid. “We didn’t want to put up a building that in any way tried to mimic its form or color,” Groesbeck said, “because you would dilute the strength of that original masterpiece.”

What came to mind, Groesbeck said, was Constantin Brancusi’s Endless Column. A tower of stacked rhomboids, it terminates in what looks like an unfinished top, a half piece that suggests continuation into infinity. “This idea of expressing something much bigger than the object itself” and representing “transformation and growth,” Groesbeck says, “is why the [Roosevelt] building looks like it does.”

Well, that and the influence of SOM’s mid-20th-century Inland Steel Building, where Groesbeck once worked. Its separate elevator tower and column-free office space inspired Roosevelt’s offset core (and open activity spaces), and allowed supports to be placed at a distance from the Auditorium Building foundation. Also in the mix: a futuristic 1930s constructivist design for a never-built Red Square tower and the delirious wall paintings of Sol Lewitt, which Groesbeck had encountered at an MCA exhibit.

The finished product is a zoned tower with three distinct “neighborhoods.” From ground level up, there are six floors of student services and activities, seven floors of classrooms and labs (topped by a floor of offices for the president, CFO, and provost), and 18 student-residence floors, a beehive of singles, suites, and communal areas with knockout views. The south side is cantilevered as it rises above the Auditorium Building, and—you might not get this on your own—Groesbeck says the complex pattern of the building’s “skin,” the seemingly random placement of two hues of blue, represents Roosevelt’s diversity.

Everyone I’ve talked with is smitten by what they’ve seen of the building. The financial situation behind it? Not so much.

Projections of continued enrollment growth were used to justify the debt load and escalating multimillion dollar annual payments. According to one of its own brochures, the university was projecting “a 50 percent increase in the number of full-time equivalent students at the Chicago campus between 2007 and 2017.”

But that’s not how it’s worked out so far. In 2008, the total number of students (part- and full-time, on both campuses) was 7,692, an all-time high. Then both enrollment and, to a lesser extent, credit hours took a dive. From 2008 to 2011, the total number of students fell 14 percent.

Roosevelt faculty members didn’t want to be quoted for fear of reprisal, but say there should have been a capital campaign that raised a chunk of the money for the project before it got under way. There is a campaign, of course, seeking donations for everything from those $50 million forever naming rights to $8 wastebaskets offered at an online “gift registry.”

Credit: Andrea Bauer

So far—four years since work on the project began—Roosevelt says it’s raised $8 million.

Meanwhile, student costs have soared. Tuition and fees (not including room and board) for a liberal arts undergrad are now $25,000, up from $16,930 in the 2007-2008 school year.

That rate of increase is almost matched by recent hikes in Middleton’s pay. Between 2008 and 2010 the president’s total compensation went from $434,811 to $636,445. Since he was hired a decade ago, his compensation is up about 200 percent.

“The timing is unfortunate,” Middleton says now about the building. “But the model is correct. It’s the right thing to do because the university is a significant academic institution contributing to the long-term well-being and vitality of this city.

“And we will get through this.”