A group of architecture graduate students at Judson University studied two buildings in Elgin -- the Hemmens Cultural Center and the former Bowes Retirement Center -- to see how they can be made more functional.
Students Heather Tricoli and Josh Patterson studied the Hemmens, while P. Grant Larsen, Cody Carew and Rebecca Johnson studied the former retirement center.
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The students proposed building an addition to the Hemmens with black box theater and a new lobby by Civic Center Plaza, as well as an amphitheater with views of the Fox River.
The 1,200-seat Hemmens, built in 1969, has a small lobby that becomes a bottleneck, and bathrooms on the lower level that often have long lines, the students said. The lower level seats about 400 for community groups and theater performances.
It's nearly impossible to book simultaneous performances on both levels because the building isn't adequately sound proofed, Hemmens director Butch Wilhelmi said. A black box theater would solve that problem, he said.
"We had promoters interested in doing battle of the bands or smaller club-style acts, but because of our schedule upstairs we couldn't do it," he said.
The home at 105 Gifford St. housed the retirement center until late 2010; it might become a home for disabled veterans injured in the line of duty and their dogs, run by the nonprofit Save-A-Vet. The city of Elgin is leading negotiations with the bank that owns the building to see if it will donate it to the cause.
The students said the home has significant water damage on the first and second floors, and it will need a new HVAC system, plumbing, floors and windows.
"The building is structurally sound from what we can tell, but it will need a structural inspection," Larsen said.
The students proposed eco-friendly additions to both buildings, including solar heat panels, green roofs and systems to catch rainwater. They also proposed an organic garden on the home's property, and a hydropower system off the Fox River dam by the Hemmens.
"(Green initiatives) are getting a lot cheaper and easy to incorporate into buildings," Carew said.
Save-A-Vet CEO Danny Scheurer said the students' work was "amazing."
He liked the idea of digging in the yard below street level to create a play area for the dogs, so the necessary 10-foot fencing won't look out of place. He also liked the idea of ripping out the back stairs and putting in an elevator for disabled residents, he said.
"There were so many little things they were able to figure out that we never thought about or considered," Scheurer said.
The students' work was the ideal start for a serious discussion about the future of the Hemmens, Elgin Symphony Orchestra interim CEO David Bearden said.
"Conceptually, it was very exciting to see a fresh perspective on that space," he said. "Of course, it's all about money; it's all about what you can afford to do and when can you do it."
Elgin Mayor David Kaptain agreed. The students estimated that the Hemmens work would cost about $8 million, but Kaptain said it would be much more than that.
"Whether these ideas stick or not, I think it's going to give people an idea to look at the Hemmens and see that there is some re-use we could make of it. It's not necessarily obsolete."