The great hall is intended as the centerpiece of the new alumni house.
Alumni house project proves strategic plans do work
the dream becomes the reality
hat began as a portion of a five-year plan for the Office of Alumni Relations has evolved into an exciting major undertaking that will provide the University at Buffalo Alumni Association (UBAA), its office staff and the university's 156,000-plus graduates with a signature building each can call home.
On October 20, members of Buffalo's Rich family announced their pledge of a significant gift to the university for the construction of an alumni house as part of The Campaign for UB: Generation to Generation (see accompanying story). The $6.5 million facility will be located behind the Center for the Arts at the edge of Lake LaSalle on the university's North Campus. Designed by Foit-Albert Associates, UB's alumni house will honor Robert E. Rich Sr., B.S. '35, founder of Rich Products Corporation, the privately held, multibillion-dollar food-products conglomerate that bears the family name; and his late wife, Janet. Plans for the 24,000-square-foot Janet and Robert Rich Alumni House include a great hall, a conference room, terrace, presidential suite, library, art gallery and caf‚.
"The project began with a strategic planning committee that Les Foschio headed," recalls former UBAA president Donald C. Roberts, B.A. '93, who chairs the Alumni House funding effort. "Bill Evitts (former executive director of alumni relations) came up with the idea and we just put it in the five-year plan," Roberts notes. "It was a common and positive focus item for the committee and was something that certainly would be meaningful. At that point, I don't think anybody took it too seriously. It was nice, but was it ever going to happen? Then, it developed a life of its own because it was in that plan. We kept reviewing the notion and asked, 'How are we going to do this?' And now, here we are, the university has included it within the $250 million Campaign for UB announcement."
Plans for the building gathered steam under Jean Powers's UBAA 1998-99 presidency, which immediately preceded Roberts's tenure. "Jean was on that (strategic planning) committee and so was I," Roberts recalls. "We'd get together on Saturday mornings and just brainstorm. The minute I heard the idea from Bill, I thought it was terrific. A lot of times, when you're on a committee, somebody might bring something up at a meeting and when that person has finished speaking, you don't even acknowledge what was said. You just continue. This group was just the opposite. We discussed everything."
Why a new facility?
"We presently occupy offices within Allen Hall on the South Campus," says Robert O. Davies, UB's assistant vice president for alumni relations. "It's not an easy building to find, and parking is a problem. Even though the offices have been recently reorganized and are more efficient, given our current location we're not in a position to serve our alumni as completely as we would like.
"Now, in a few years, alumni relations offices will be on campus at a location that is nicely centralized," Davies points out. "The presence of the Janet and Robert Rich Alumni House will increase our visibility and stature. It literally puts the UB Alumni Association on the map. It will be a place on campus where-if an alum has 90 minutes to spend at UB-he or she will know exactly where to go. When they walk in, they'll immediately feel the presence of the other 156,000 alumni.
"This project demonstrates the commitment of UB to its alumni," Davies continues. "How many times have we heard that phrase, 'I haven't heard from UB in a long time?' The alumni house will demonstrate in a very tangible way how the university feels about its own. It's an enormous step for us. It's like that old real estate saying: 'What are the three most important things in real estate? Location, location, location.' This alumni house gives us 'location.'"
An attractive setting
"We wanted to take advantage of the lakeside setting," says Bonnie Foit-Albert, M.A. '75, president of Foit-Albert Associates. "The location most definitely played a role in the design of the building. It needed to be an exciting site on campus and be well-situated for the students and to social and athletic facilities. It was also essential that the building be environmentally compatible."
She adds: "The concept was that it not only overlook the lake, but that there would also be an outdoor space for alumni events, which there'll be on the north side of the building. It was also important that views be offered out of the major interior spaces and that entry from campus roads be easy. A porte cochere offers a sheltered entry place to the alumni house and provides 'an announcement' of the building.
"You also look for a reference to Buffalo architecture and immediately think of Frank Lloyd Wright and all of the wonderful buildings he did, as well as the kind of architectural context we have here in Buffalo as a whole," Foit-Albert adds. The open environment of the interior is also intended to reflect some of the aesthetic characteristics of an Adirondack lodge.
Foit-Albert's perspective is, naturally, an architectural one. "One of the things that we wanted to ensure was that the building complements the architecture of the university, which has tended to be monolithic, or of a larger scale," she says. "If the counterpoint is the scale, how do you make that scale compatible with the setting, with the events it will host, and, as a counterpoint to the architecture at large?"
The answer appeared to be right around the corner of the site. "A building of this type needs to fit, I think, with the social character of the residential buildings on campus," says Foit-Albert. "One needn't look any farther than South Lake Village, the apartment-style housing complex that is adjacent to the new alumni house site. That aspect of the alumni house became one of its architectural tags, as well," she says.
A growing national trend
According to Foit-Albert and Davies, the alumni house will fit well within the campus community. "It's predicted that 10 years from now, 95 percent of the universities in the U.S. will have some sort of an alumni house," Davies states. "It's also interesting to note that alumni houses are very representative of their institutions. The smaller schools have smaller alumni houses, often historical buildings adjacent to campus, that are just fine for regional programming, while the larger, international universities like UB have larger facilities that can accommodate more people and hence attract more people to campus. They're terrific marketing tools."
Increasingly, they are gaining in popularity. "National trends indicate that alumni houses are one of the major topics at universities across the United States," Davies continues. "Either schools have one and they're prominent in the outreach efforts of those universities, playing notable roles in bringing people back on campus; or, if schools don't have an alumni house, they're now in the process of developing plans and programs to build one. Additionally, several schools who do have alumni houses are now investigating expansions."
In addition to providing much-needed space for the Office of Alumni Relations, the Janet and Robert Rich Alumni House also will offer groups a venue where they may congregate. These groups include the alumni organizations of individual schools, as well as campus clubs, especially the University Student Alumni Board (see sidebar article below). The public, too, may use the facility. Indeed, an alumni house will only serve to increase awareness of the UB Alumni Association as an organization.
"When we started out, it was very important to develop a program; and a program is essentially a list of activities, of relationships, goals and performances that represent the functional requirements of the alumni house," Foit-Albert says.
"Another critical element was to get the related parties, administration, Alumni Association and people who'll be using the alumni house to agree upon the basic project needs."
That input came, in part, from the alumni house committee, now chaired by Jean Powers. "We met on a regular basis," recalls Roberts. "Once we started the preliminary feasibility study, which was really concept, design and programming, we then had an idea that could be shared with the administration, and others.
"When we selected the site," Roberts continues, "our idea was to ask for confirmation from the administration and then look at the kind of architecture that would fit well within that site, maximizing its location on the lake."
Prepared with information gathered from research of alumni houses around the country and with preliminary renderings of the alumni house from Foit-Albert's firm, the committee met with UB President William R. Greiner; Ronald H. Stein, vice president for university advancement and development; and Robert J. Wagner, senior vice president. "The meeting was phenomenal," says Roberts. "But 80 percent of the work still has to be done," he emphasizes. "My timetable is to have all of the money raised within two years of when we started and we're about a year into it now."
What is the role of the Janet and Robert Rich Alumni House?
"It will be a home-away-from-home," Foit-Albert responds. "The architecture will reflect that. It will be a familial place to meet and greet, a place to relax and a terrific opportunity for the constituency alumni groups to have a locale where, for instance, they might hold an 'offshore meeting,' but within the context of the campus. An alumnus coming back can look at it and say, 'This is home.' That's the kind of feeling you want to engender among graduates returning to UB. Additionally, it can accommodate large events of over 200 and even several smaller events that might happen simultaneously."
"The image of the UB Alumni Association will be significantly elevated as a result of this project," says Roberts. "It's an essential, exciting project that has no real downside. It can be used prior to events at the Center for the Arts, for basketball or football, and for Homecoming. I think it's the most exciting thing to happen to the association since I've been involved with it."
The building, says Davies, will be an active one. "We don't want it to be a mausoleum. Rather, we see it as the premier venue to host functions and activities that will connect people to the University at Buffalo-and to welcome alumni to campus.
"This will elevate the UBAA in stature from being very good right now," Davies adds, "to, 'Wow, my gosh, what an incredible alumni association we have here at UB!'"
Michael L. Jankowski is assistant director of alumni relations.