Abundant sunlight, new offices and a colorful, restored rotunda welcomed about 200 University of Michigan employees who moved in late January into the Alexander G. Ruthven Building.
“I personally love it,” said Jennifer Traver, a senior legal secretary, on one of her first days in the new space. “It’s more efficient, and there’s more light. We were so excited to get over here.”
Ruthven underwent a three-year renovation that transformed the former museum space on Geddes Avenue into a flexible and modern workplace. The 138,000-square-foot building houses research areas and the university’s central administrative offices.
The decision to repurpose Ruthven demonstrated U-M’s commitment to sustainability and recognized the building’s architectural value, said Susan Monroe, a capital projects manager for LSA who provided design input on the project and helped manage the move of employees into the building.
“While the historic features of the exterior and rotunda have been carefully preserved, the renovation has delivered a thoroughly modern interior that supports the needs of a 21st-century work environment, with efficiently planned office space, abundant formal and informal collaboration space, pervasive natural light and state-of-the-art AV, communications and display technology,” Monroe said.
Ruthven was designed by noted architect Albert Kahn and constructed in 1928. It was home to U-M’s research museums and the Museum of Natural History, which moved to the new Biological Sciences Building and reopened in 2019.
The Board of Regents in 2018 approved a $150 million plan to design and renovate Ruthven, and also to build the adjacent Central Campus Classroom Building. A primary goal of the project was to combine the university’s research, teaching and learning missions, along with its core administrative functions, into one complex.
A highlight of the renovated Ruthven is University Hall, a two-story multipurpose room that once held dinosaur skeletons and will now host Board of Regents meetings and other large events. It is 3,100-square feet with tall windows, drop-down projector screens and flat-screen TVs. The feature wall’s paneling is made of wooden doors from throughout the building that were salvaged during the renovation.
Another highlight is the main entrance’s rotunda. The domed plaster ceiling, with carvings of delicate flowers, monkeys, geckos and swirling vines, is painted in shades of gold, pink, green and cream. The original 1928 lantern hangs from a medallion in the center.
Monroe said the company that renovated the rotunda, Building Arts & Conservation Inc., thoroughly cleaned and repainted the ceiling and the balcony railings that ring the space. The travertine walls also got a good scrubbing.
“It was very dingey and dark in here before, and now you can appreciate it,” Monroe said.
Wings of the building that had been closed-off research labs were rethought as modern, sustainable workspaces. Drop ceilings in corridors and offices were removed to add height and light, exposing pipes, ductwork and the building’s large windows.
Other additions include water bottle filling stations, digital signage, kitchenettes with energy-efficient appliances on every floor and airy meeting spaces that are designed to foster collaboration.
The building honors Alexander G. Ruthven, who served as U-M’s president from 1929-51. Ruthven was director of the Museum of Zoology early in his U-M career and oversaw construction of the building that would bear his name.
One of his contributions as president was to reorganize the university’s administrative structure. He shifted day-to-day decisions from the Board of Regents and president to vice presidents, deans and executive committees, who were given greater authority and responsibility for managing the institution.
The employees who moved into Ruthven formerly worked across campus in the Fleming Administration Building. Built in the 1960s, Fleming had become functionally obsolete and needed extensive upgrades and repairs. It is scheduled to be demolished later this year.
Jack Bernard, an associate general counsel for the university, said he is happy to be in Ruthven after working in Fleming for 29 years.
“I got stuck in an elevator three times there, once on a weekend,” he said.
Special activities welcomed employees to Ruthven, from snacks and welcome messages on whiteboards to a ping-pong table that was set up — temporarily — on the floor housing the offices of the General Counsel, Government Relations and Information Technology.
Employees spent several months preparing to leave Fleming. The process included digitizing paper files, discarding or recycling unneeded items, holding office supply and book donation events in the building, and packing things in plastic orange bins that were hauled to Ruthven over two weekends.
Bernard said the move went smoothly.
“The university made it easy,” he said. “The people who organized it made something that could have been very disruptive into a very straightforward process.”
On her second-to-last day in Fleming, Crystal Flynn, an executive assistant in the Office of the Provost, said she was looking forward to working on the same floor as all of her colleagues. In Fleming, they were spread over three floors.
“I’m excited. It’s a beautiful space,” Flynn said. “It’s going to allow us to work more collaboratively together.”
Also in the Provost’s Office, executive assistant Pat Kneeland said she had mixed emotions about the move. She worked at Fleming for 20 years.
“There’s a lot of memories in this building,” she said.
Before leaving Fleming, Kneeland and three co-workers posed for a photo in front of the entrance. Each one held up a sign with a single word. When read together, it said, “OUT WITH THE OLD.”
On their first day at Ruthven, they re-created the pose with an updated message: “IN WITH THE NEW.”