Penn State

Preserving an icon: Penn State’s Old Main getting a close look during spring break

Penn State’s Office of Physical Plant is conducting “pre-construction investigative work” on Old Main this week while students are away on spring break. The work is part of a multi-phase maintenance project that came as a result of an extensive exterior survey in 2017.
Penn State’s Office of Physical Plant is conducting “pre-construction investigative work” on Old Main this week while students are away on spring break. The work is part of a multi-phase maintenance project that came as a result of an extensive exterior survey in 2017. Centre Daily Times, file

While Penn State students are off enjoying their week-long spring break, the university is getting a better idea of what repairs might be necessary for to Old Main’s iconic bell tower.

An aerial lift will force partial sidewalk closures near the administrative headquarters through Thursday as crews conduct “pre-construction investigative work,” the university said in a statement. The noisy effort is expected to spur periodic traffic delays at the Old Main parking lot and limit use of the northwest stair entrance through Wednesday.

It’s all part of a multi-phase maintenance project stemming from an extensive exterior survey in 2017, said Susan Bedsworth, a spokeswoman for the university Office of Physical Plant. The survey used an unmanned aerial vehicle, or drone, along with telephoto equipment to evaluate the outside of Old Main.

Improvements since then include work on the east staircase and shingle repairs, Bedsworth said.

Details on the next phase haven’t been released, but it’s likely to include work on the historic bell tower and parts of the roof, she said. A project announcement, including specifics and a timeline for the maintenance, is expected within the next few weeks.

“The big thing to remember is the historic accuracy of the building,” Bedsworth said. “Our goal is to maintain that as much as possible, because it’s such an iconic building at Penn State and has a lot of history to it.”

The lead architectural and engineering firm on the project, Illinois-based Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates, has some experience with historic structures. Its resume includes exterior restoration work on the Washington Monument, New York Public Library and Penn State’s Schwab Auditorium.

The original Old Main building, built from limestone at the current site, took shape from 1857 to 1863 with help from about 200 men, four mules and two horses. Stone came from a quarry that is now the southeast corner of the Old Main lawn.

By the 1920s, structural issues caused the upper floors to close, and the building was torn down in the late 1920s. Limestone blocks from the original building were used in the construction of the current building, which opened in 1930.

Lauren Muthler covers what’s happening right now in Centre County, from breaking news, road closures and weather, to cool and interesting stories she finds along the way. Oh, and Penn State wrestling.

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