Bethlehem, Pennsylvania hopes upcoming $70 million redevelopment of 150-year-old Lehigh University building will help revitalize city

On July 24, 2023, global construction firm Skanska signed a $70 million contract with Lehigh University to comprehensively redevelop the historic Clayton University Center on its campus in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

The 9200 square-meter renovation of the existing University Center will deliver multiple utility upgrades, including new electrical service, mechanical systems, and equipment, as well as the installation of a full fire protection system.

In addition, this project will renovate the gathering spaces, offices, meeting rooms, lounge areas, and replace all doors and windows as well as the slate and copper roofing systems.

The project will maintain the historic features of the building including the millwork and wood paneling, custom window design, stained glass windows, and interior stone walls.

As the first structure built for Lehigh, the Clayton UC—initially known as Packer Hall—housed the president’s office, classrooms, a chemical laboratory, a library and chapel, all of which were later relocated on an expanding campus. A gym was added to the building in 1874. Then, as part of the extensive 1956 renovation, the interior was gutted and a three-story stone addition went up on the building’s south side, facing South Mountain.

The new renovation project aims to restore the Clayton UC as the heart of campus, as it was when the university was first established more than 150 years ago.

We’ve gotten a lot of student feedback,” said Lehigh project manager Jim LaRose. “We’ve conducted focus groups and surveys, and we know the places students like on campus, like the EWFM [E.W. Fairchild-Martindale Library], the Grind. He said the university is trying to do something similar at the Clayton UC “and really get students to love the building again, to use it to its fullest extent, to serve them and the campus. Students don’t know how to navigate the building and don’t necessarily feel like they have ownership.

Shepley Bulfinch, a national architecture, planning and interior design firm, is leading the redesign and renovation. Renovations will begin in November with site work.

Though student services offices have already been temporarily relocated to Christmas-Saucon Hall, most sections of the Clayton UC will remain open throughout the Fall 2022 semester for dining and meeting space. Interior renovations will get under way in 2023, with an anticipated opening by fall of 2025.

When you walk into the Clayton University Center now, it’s really unclear why you would want to stay and linger there,” said Janette Blackburn, an architect and principal in charge of the project for Shepley Bulfinch, in addressing the need for the renovation.

What we’re trying to do is create a whole network of destinations that have eating and meeting spaces for socializing and collaborating, and spaces for formal or informal events, so that the building is always alive, no matter the time of day or year. That means it needs to have spaces that are multifunctional,” she explained.

Lead designer architect Bob Mohr said the building, as a campus crossroads, needs to be welcoming to as many people as possible.

People come in from all corners of campus to the building, and through the building,” he said. “And so the idea is that we are creating spaces that work well for everyone. While some spaces lean toward food, and others lean toward work or recreation. Everybody can find a home in the Clayton UC.” he added.

Plans went through several iterations, as Lehigh noted a shift in students’ dining patterns throughout the pandemic. In the focus groups, students were asked to describe their cherished Lehigh spaces and to share their design ideas, as well as their menu preferences.

While students recognized the Clayton UC’s grand architecture, they expressed a desire for more “comfortable” spaces where they could relax, find a better array of food options and enjoy a more vibrant atmosphere conducive to socializing. The students also expressed a need for spaces that allowed collaborative learning opportunities.

As part of Lehigh’s ongoing efforts to advance its diversity, inclusion and equity (DI&E) goals, the university is partnering with construction manager Skanska USA to better engage minority, women, and disadvantaged business enterprises (MWDBE) in the project construction. Skanska provides training to those emerging businesses in construction business management fundamentals and ensures bid packages are structured to achieve higher rates of MWDBE participation.

What’s unique about this is the intentionality of the approach, of how we’re ensuring that we are considering and incorporating DI&E and our goals and principles into this project, every step of the way,” said Donald Outing, vice president for equity and community at Lehigh.

The renovation work is underway, and the project is expected to be completed in December of 2024.

All images courtesy of Lehigh University.

See Lehigh University website.

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