‘Old main’ to new main

For the last 15 years, students, faculty and staff at Johnson & Wales University’s Denver Campus have been waiting patiently for the day that renovations would take place inside the centerpiece of campus—Centennial Hall—a national historic landmark that has been shuttered for 30 years.


For the last 15 years, students, faculty and staff at Johnson & Wales University’s Denver Campus have been waiting patiently for the day that renovations would take place inside the centerpiece of campus—Centennial Hall—a national historic landmark that has been shuttered for 30 years.

Originally built as the main hall of Colorado Women’s College (CWC), Centennial Hall was initially named Treat Hall in honor of the CWC’s first president, Jay Porter Treat. The building’s southern half, with its stone masonry exterior, started construction in 1886, but be-cause of funding constraints, wasn’t finished until 1909. The first graduating class at CWC had six students in 1911, who lived and studied in Treat Hall, which at the time was the only building on campus.

In 1982, the University of Denver acquired Colorado Women’s College, due to declining enrollment, and used the campus for its law school and music program. Yet, it was determined that Treat Hall be shuttered, and for three decades it sat empty.

Hoping to expand its national presence to the west, Johnson & Wales University (JWU) purchased the campus in 1999, with a vision that Treat Hall would once again be part of the historic campus. Known as a higher ed leader in hospitality, culinary and business, JWU uniquely bills itself as “one university, four campuses.”

Founded in Providence, RI in 1914, the university has regional campuses in North Miami, Fl. and Charlotte, NC. In 2000, JWU opened the doors to its western anchor-campus in Denver serving approximately 1,500 students. Set against a stunning Rocky Mountain backdrop and just 10 minutes from downtown Denver, the campus includes 26 park-like acres, with a traditional campus quad and 13 buildings.

In recent years, private donations helped JWU perform more than $2 million in extensive work inside Treat Hall to remove toxic materials including asbestos. JWU also restored the exterior stone masonry, mortar joints, and window sills.

Finally, in 2013, with the expansion of JWU’s program offerings and at the cusp of the university’s centennial year, JWU knew the time was right to pull the trigger on Centennial Hall’s major renovation. By 2014, JWU officially “broke ground” on the $15 million project, renaming the building Centennial Hall in honor of JWU’s 100 years and to pay homage to Colorado as the “Centennial State”.

JWU worked with the design team, led by Hord Coplan Macht (HCM) Architects, to envision the building as the university’s main student hub, but with a twist: why not add classrooms, administrative and faculty offices, a grab and go café with late night dining as well as use the building’s historic auditorium and stage as a main campus events space?

JWU Denver’s vice president and dean of academic affairs, Richard Wiscott, Ph.D., knew it was the only way to go. “You can’t help but be in-spired by this building, not only for its beautiful features, but also for what Centennial Hall stands for,” said Wiscott. “It was critical to ensure the design capitalized on bringing our campus community together by creating a variety of multi-purpose spaces adjacent and connected throughout the entire building—which, ultimately, we hope will promote both formal and informal interactions between student, faculty, and staff.”

Patience has endured during the construction period, which also included a simultaneous $15 million restoration project to an adjacent residence hall, called Founders Hall. The area around Centennial Hall and Founders Hall has been fenced off and torn up with construction equipment, literally creating a blockade to the east side of campus.

“I think the hardest part of working in the culinary buildings during all the construction was always having to take different paths to get to the buildings in the morning,” described Baking & Pastry and Media Communications student Kendra Gibbs ’18.

However, it’s been worth the wait. The enhanced design puts Centennial Hall as the rightly-placed heart-of-campus, providing a 360 degree presence and connection to all of the campus pathways. A large outdoor plaza was also added as an inviting communal space.

While most of the building was stripped back to the studs, many original details remain intact. The design concept celebrates the building’s architecture and lets the details evoke Centennial Hall’s history. Many contemporary student centers use bright colors to appeal to students, but the building’s color palette is reserved to blues, grays and browns that subtly evoke JWU’s school colors of blue and gold.

“We wanted to stay true to the building’s history,” said JWU Denver Campus President Robin Krakowsky, Ed.D. “We selected discreet furniture and décor, which lets the architectural features of this magnificent building really stand out.”

The original grand staircase, open to three stories at the south end of the building, would not be allowed by building code today. However, HCM Architects worked with the City of Denver to allow the structure to remain, restored within current code requirements. Large rough-sawn rafter beams in the ceiling of the third floor were left exposed, hinting at the soaring roof framing above (quite a construction feat in 1886, hoisting 40 foot rafter beams up to the roof with a horse and a pulley).

The original doors, which would not meet modern ADA requirements, are repurposed as wainscot wall paneling, reception desks and loose furniture. Even the original organ pipes from the auditorium’s organ were saved and will be an art display in the main lobby.

Along with preserving the old, came inserting the new with modern efficiencies. New lighting fixtures are LED and daylight/occupancy sensors were installed, while Centennial Hall’s brick and stone exterior walls were sprayed on the inside with two inches of closed-cell insulation, boosting energy efficiency.

Because of Centennial Hall’s historic designation as a Denver Landmark, its position on the National Register of Historic Places, and an easement on the exterior elevations held by Historic Denver, the renovation came under additional scrutiny. The renovation architects provided thoughtful designs for the exterior modifications that satisfied all concerned parties.

“Using like materials but with a contemporary twist is a great way to pay homage to the original building while clearly showing that this is a new addition,” says Jamie Pedler of HCM Architects. “The new and the old play well together.”

Historic Denver, one of the nation’s premier urban historic preservation organizations, has taken note of Centennial Hall’s significant restoration project by announcing that JWU will receive a 2015 Community Preservation Award. The award recognizes exemplary high-quality restoration that includes the careful consideration of the city’s historic fabric and commitment to the community.

“It makes me feel more connected with this campus now that I’m able to see and explore this beautiful building,” said student Gibbs. “The university doesn’t want Centennial to just be a landmark; they want us to become part of it and create our own traditions and values in this place.” Old buildings as contemporary student centers go great together. Johnson & Wales University’s patience has paid off and the university can finally open the doors of this magnificent building and Colorado gem.

By combining an eclectic building program with thoughtful design choices, Centennial Hall proves the most sustainable thing you can do is to embrace a historic building and renovate it to meet today’s needs. Centennial Hall has come full circle from being an ‘old main’ building from 1886 to being a ‘new main’ student hub today and for future JWU students.


Craig Welsh
Craig Welsh, AIA, is a licensed architect, designer and project manager at Hord Coplan Macht in Denver, Colorado. For the past 17 years, Welsh has been involved with the renovation of campus facilities for colleges and universities, specializing in student life spaces. He has had the pleasure of working on many historic campus structures, transforming them from original ‘old main’ functions to vibrant student centers for the 21st century.

Jeff Ederer
Dr. Jeff Ederer has served as the dean of students at Johnson & Wales University in Denver for the past 10 years and has worked in Student Affairs at both private and public universities for over 30 years. During this time, he has worked with several capital projects including new construction and renovation of older, historically significant buildings. Through these experiences, Dr. Ederer has learned how effective collaboration with students, faculty, staff, the architects, and the project management team can lead to a dynamic, learner-centric environment throughout our campus buildings.

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