UW News

October 1, 2009

All’s well that ends well: Cunningham Hall finds its new home

The move was less than half a mile, but the route was treacherous and the item to be moved unwieldy. Still, Cunningham Hall came to rest perfectly at its new site next to Parrington on Sept. 16 and was turned to its final orientation Sept. 17.

Cunningham was moved from its original site across from Architecture Hall to make way for a new Molecular Engineering Building that is to be built there. One of the few remaining buildings from the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, Cunningham’s primary occupant is the UW Women’s Center.

Planning and executing the move was a complex operation involving many people, both on campus and off. A committee was convened to consider suitable new sites for Cunningham in the spring of 2008, and Susan Boyle, principal of BOLA Architecture, was called in to consult.

“The University had already narrowed the field down to five possible sites when we came in,” Boyle said. “We looked at the adjacency with other buildings and how it might fit with its new setting, and what impact the moving process would have on the trees and landscape in the area.”

BOLA specializes in historic preservation, and, in fact, Boyle was involved in 1991 when the Penthouse Theatre was moved from the current site of the Physics Building to the location it now occupies north of Hutchinson.

But that move was in many ways simpler, Boyle said. “The building wasn’t as tall, and we were able to cut it into three pieces for transport. And we took it down 15th Avenue in daylight.”

In fact, the Penthouse was accompanied by band music as it lumbered along, and donuts were served to spectators. The atmosphere, Boyle said, was celebratory.

Cunningham, in contrast, had to be moved in two stages to the chosen location. First, it was taken from its original site to a special landing area built over the C-8 parking lot adjacent to the 40th Street entrance to the University. That move — accomplished on a moonlit night in 90 minutes — went off without a hitch. The building stayed in the temporary location a week before being moved to its current site.

“That stop was necessary so that the movers could insert more dollies under the temporary steel structure that was carrying the building,” said Trevor Thies, a construction manager for Hoffman Construction, the general contractor. “The additional dollies helped to spread the weight of the building.”

Had the building been going down 15th, no such weight-spreading would have been necessary. But Cunningham was being taken over Central Plaza Garage, a concrete structure not designed to bear that load (The garage was also shored up in preparation for the move.) A total of 28 dollies, each of which has eight wheels, were inserted, according to Jeff McCord, a spokesperson for the moving company, Nickel Bros.

Picture a supermarket cart and you get some idea of the difficulty of managing all those wheels. Now throw in a rigid load and a hill to climb. And further complications arose when it was discovered that Cunningham weighed about 360,000 pounds, rather than the 440,000 pounds that had been estimated.

“Dollies like to have weight on them,” McCord said. “These dollies could each have carried up to 80,000 pounds, but they were only asked to carry 20,000 pounds in this case.”

The result was that the wheels went out of alignment easily, and the move from the parking lot across the street, begun in the wee hours of Sept. 16, proceeded in fits and starts. Then came further misfortune, when the drive shaft of the primary vehicle pulling the load broke. Fortunately the building had cleared the roadway by then, but work had to be halted until the drive shaft could be repaired. The campus community awoke to find Cunningham Hall sitting partway up the hill between the 40th Street entrance gate and the George Washington statue.

Once the drive shaft repair was complete, two front end loaders were connected to the primary vehicle because they have a higher axle load on their driving wheels and four-wheel drive capability, Thies said. Thus fortified, the building moved to its final resting place.

Nickel Bros., which specializes in building moves and lifts and does about 150 moves a year, rated this one pretty challenging. “I’d say it was about seven out of 10 on the difficulty scale,” McCord said.

Some of that difficulty could have been avoided if the building had been taken up 15th, but that would have required a lengthy permitting and coordination process with the city, Metro and numerous business owners. It also would have resulted in more trees being removed, removal of power and trolley lines, a substantial excavation for a ramp up onto Parrington Lawn to bring the building back on campus, and, potentially, lifting the pedestrian bridge at Schmitz Hall.

As it is, everyone is happy with the final result, although the work is far from finished. Right now Cunningham is sitting on what’s called cribbing. Thies describes it as a “Lincoln Log-like stack of 8 by 8 timbers shored to the subfloor of the building.” A new foundation will be built underneath the building. Then it will be lifted once again, the cribbing will be removed and the building will be placed on its foundation.

Boyle’s firm will be overseeing other restoration work on the building, which will include reconstruction of the front porch, the addition of an exterior stairway to the second floor and an access ramp for the disabled in back. She’ll also be monitoring an “experienced mason” to reassemble the chimney, which was taken apart before the move.

Meanwhile, Hoffman Construction will be moving ahead with the Molecular Engineering Building, and the first thing people will see is a hole in the ground. Because a large portion of the building consists of underground laboratories, workers will be excavating about 20 feet, Thies said. He said the excavation phase should be complete in December. The building itself won’t be finished until the fall of 2011.

Staff of the Women’s Center expect to celebrate the reopening of Cunningham early in the 2010 spring quarter. Through fall and winter quarters, the center is housed on the fourth floor of Bagley Hall.

“I love Cunningham’s new location,” said Center Director Sutapa Basu. “It’s so prominent; it will be easier for people to find. I think it just feels right.”