DURHAM — As a weak economy has led some universities to scale back construction, Duke has found a way to move ahead with three big new projects: by having someone else pay for it.
The university announced plans Monday to renovate three historic buildings used for performances, events and student gatherings. The projects will cost $80 million and will be completely funded through a gift from the Duke Endowment, the nonprofit philanthropic organization established in 1924 by James B. Duke, a member of the family for whom the university is named.
The renovation and modernizing of West Union, Page Auditorium and Baldwin Auditorium would not have been possible without the endowment's largesse, Duke President Richard Brodhead said.
"We are going to transform these places," Brodhead said. "We want students to have the richest possible experience."
The gift is the largest in Duke's history, topping the Duke Endowment's $75 million gift for financial aid in 2005. The endowment aims its philanthropy primarily on health care and education and has given out $2.7 billion since its inception, including about $1 billion to Duke University.
Neil Williams, chair of the Duke Endowment, presented the gift's first installment - $10 million - to Brodhead on Monday. The balance will be paid in coming years.
The announcement Monday came at West Union. Located in the center of campus in the shadow of Duke Chapel, West Union is a somewhat confusing amalgam of fast food restaurants, coffee joints and student meeting areas. It was Duke's primary student meeting space until the opening of the Bryan Center in 1982 and will be completely reconfigured.
"It's extremely disjointed," Brodhead said. "When you walk in the door, you can't figure out where you are. You would just build this very differently these days."
Baldwin is first
Yi Zhang, a Duke senior and president of the Duke University Union, which plans campus programming, said a more cohesive, inviting West Union will prove a popular student hangout.
"I see a place where 10-minute coffee breaks turn into two-hour conversations with friends," Zhang said.
Construction will start first on Baldwin Auditorium, the East Campus performance venue with the distinctive white dome. Renovations, expected to begin late this year, will include improvements to acoustics, new seats and other patron amenities. The venue is used primarily by student ensembles like the Duke Symphony Orchestra and the Duke Jazz Ensemble.
With 1,200 seats, Page Auditorium is Duke's largest venue and has hosted thousands of performances since it opened in 1930. It has some miles on it today, with chipping paint and well-worn floors. It will get an interior facelift with new seating, acoustics and backstage and lobby spaces.
Renovated buildings tend to be a draw; when Duke refurbished and added to its main library several years ago, it saw a 40 percent increase in users; Brodhead hopes the same holds true when all three projects are complete. Renovations are expected to take several years, during which time some existing programs, activities and dining services will be relocated.
This new infrastructure investment comes as another high-profile construction project remains in limbo. Duke's plan for a new campus at Anderson Street and Campus Drive - expected to be a mix of campus housing, academic space and retail - is still on hold. Once complete, this new development would link Duke's east and west campuses. The first phase alone is estimated to cost $300 million.
"It's a big project," Brodhead said. "We have to find the funding for it."
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