Visitors arriving at the University of Saint Mary of the Lake for the first time often don’t know where to start or where to go. But after construction of a new Visitors’ Center is complete — an addition to the existing campus dining hall — guests will have a central spot where the university can roll out the red carpet of welcome.
After breaking ground in May 2016, workers are hard at work on the $5 million project, which is only the second major construction project on campus since its completion in the early 1930s. Expected to be complete in late January 2017, the facility will add larger restrooms to the dining hall, relocate the campus bookstore, provide a staffed information desk for visitors, showcase Mundelein’s history and art in a new gallery and give students and faculty a multiuse space to meet informally and relax. Above all else, the 6,500-square-foot project’s primary aim will be to welcome members of the public, said Father John Kartje, Mundelein’s rector/president.
“It’s a way to help deepen the interface between ourselves and visitors, who come here from all over the archdiocese, of course, but also from all over the world,” he said. “The campus was not designed to be open to visitors; it just wasn’t part of the original vision. And now, that’s hardly the case; we have people coming to campus all the time. They come for liturgies, they come for concerts and they come just to see the place.”
However, those guests don’t always have a good idea of where to go on campus, said Ryan Butts, Mundelein’s vice president for institutional advancement. “If you are a visitor on campus and don’t know anyone, you are likely to wander around until you stumble upon a building and happen to encounter someone,” he said. “This will basically become the new ‘ Grand Central’ of the seminary, so that people can have an entry point that makes sense. We’ve stretched the current footprint of the campus about as far as we can to make it visitor-friendly. But in order to make it truly welcoming, this will be the lynchpin.”
The addition to the centrally located dining hall was designed by Bureau AD and architect Thomas Norman Rajkovich. It will be built to match the campus’ existing American Colonial architecture by Valenti Builders. Brothers Jim and Joe Valenti also oversaw construction of the McEssy Theological Resource Center. The brothers were honored last fall at Mundelein Seminary’s Rector’s Classic Golf Outing for their numerous contributions to the renovation of many Catholic properties throughout Chicagoland. The addition will expand the dining hall to the building’s east, toward the Pati Dowdle Lehman Memorial Garden and the Chapel of the Immaculate Conception. At its south and north corners will be the new bookstore and multiuse space, respectively.
Butts said the time had come for the bookstore to leave its longtime home in the basement of the theology residence building, “We’ll be taking it out of the basement and bringing it into the light, so to speak, to allow it to be more than just a seminary textbook store,” he said. “We want it to be more public, so visitors can buy gifts, clothing and memorabilia — whatever connects them to Mundelein.”
The other main room will be a comfortable space with a capacity for food and beverage service and can be configured for multiple uses, Fr. Kartje said.
Butts said the room was being designed to be versatile, “It’ll be a smaller area for more informal meetings, where you can have a cup of coffee, or configure it as a private dining space, or even create a small lecture space or student lounge,” he said. “It’s designed to be adaptable.” But perhaps the most striking area will be a new lobby, featuring a staffed welcome desk. “As soon as you arrive, someone will greet you with a smile and explain what you can see here – here’s a tour book so that you can do a walking tour, for example,” Butts said. “Or, if you’re meeting somebody, we can call them and they can meet you in this central spot.”
“The centerpiece of the addition will be a long hall with French doors opening out to the Dowdle Garden,” Fr. Kartje said. “The hall could provide a gallery for displaying Cardinal Mundelein’s extensive art collection. It would also offer an opportunity to highlight the rich history of our campus. The addition would create a lasting homage to Cardinal Mundelein serving as a wonderful point of entry to the seminary.” The project also includes the resurfacing of the adjacent parking lot, as well as new signage guiding visitors to the center of campus.
But the project is only the first phase of a multi-year plan to address other areas of the dining hall, Butts explained. “This will be Phase I of the project. Phase II will provide much needed improvements, including the addition of modern ventilation, air conditioning and a greater seating capacity,” he said. The final stage will involve refurbishing the faculty dining room, as well as the addition of a private dining room to accommodate special guests. “Once this project is complete, we’ll take a look at how it interfaces with our other facilities and projects, and prioritize what makes sense for a longer vision down the road,” he said.
Father Kartje sees the project as symbolic of his vision for an ever-deepening relationship between the seminary and the numerous diocesan communities that we serve. “If we are a welcoming community, then we need to constantly ask ourselves what that actually means,” he said. “This addition represents a bricks-and-mortar commitment to that objective.”