WRITTEN BY JENNIFER GILL KISSEL
Tasso Katselas was a young architect just making his name in 1963; his signature works, including Pittsburgh International Airport and the Carnegie Science Center, were yet to come. He had only designed some housing in a downtown hotel for Robert Morris students when J.R. McCartan, the school’s owner and president, approached Katselas with a challenge: Could he design a new campus on a sprawling Moon Township estate the school had bought, one that could be functioning in less than a year?
Soon Katselas and contractor Pasquale Navarro were driving a convertible across the 230-acre property’s rolling fields, past the former mansion of Oliver Kauffmann (whose brother owned Fallingwater), down a hillside and into a hollow. “I threw stones where dorms would go, put pins where the road would go, and laid out stakes for classrooms,” Katselas recalls. “On butcher paper we drew up the dorms -- very rough sketches. Within three weeks, the contractor began digging.”
It was, as Katselas says, “an instant campus.” The builders put a temporary half-tent, half-plywood addition on the mansion so students could eat and live on campus. The next year, they started building the student union, the Jefferson Center.
An intrepid artist, Katselas was philosophically influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright’s honest expression of materials and space. It’s hard to look at Jefferson and not think of Wright’s Fallingwater. Cantilevered entryway roofs, poured concrete, and the way the building nestles into the hillside all evoke images of the famous Edgar Kaufmann home. Katselas humbly refuses to compare his work to Wright’s masterpiece. “I hope all of my work reflects an authentic expression of use, with a healthy dose of spirit. I think Frank Lloyd Wright would like that.”
For many years, campus social life revolved around Jefferson. Education professor and retired dean Jon Shank, Ed.D., recalls meeting colleagues in Jefferson for 65-cent lunches. “Athletic banquets, convocations, President Sewall's inauguration, and most other important events were held in its dining area,” Shank says.
Katselas intended the union as the focal point for visitors driving up the old main road, but the campus entrance was changed. Eventually Jefferson’s dining hall, bookstore, and post office, which once had drawn heavy student traffic found other homes. The upper level became a fitness center, while the lower level was storage space.
But after substantial renovations in the fall, Jefferson’s once-underutilized lower level now boasts a glass-walled 24/7 computer lab, the only one on campus open overnight. There is also a Veterans Education and Training Services center to accommodate the growing number of military personnel at RMU, an expanded phonathon room, and a student lounge with comfortable seating. Each space has security cameras and two clearly marked exits for safety.
Bill Joyce, RMU architect and director of planning and design, worked with interior designer Shannon Eisenreich and contractor Graziano Construction. They incorporated some “green” elements, such as paint low in volatile compounds and lights that dim when a room is empty. But they tried to respect Katselas’s design; for instance, they removed a drop ceiling that had masked the original coffered concrete. “We’re letting the architecture be part of the character of the space,” Joyce says
Like Katselas’s other campus buildings, Hale, Franklin, and the newly renovated residence halls, Jefferson displays his trademarks: exposed concrete; roof monitors to let in natural light; mullionless glass to draws the eye into the building; and poured-in-place ceilings and flooring. “We’re surrounded by Tasso’s buildings,” Joyce says, gesturing to the scattered structures that flow down the hillsides, connected by walkways.
RMU has changed substantially since those early days. A stroll around the rest of campus today reveals an eclectic collection of buildings. “After Tasso we had a variety of designers, and there’s not much consistency of materials,” Joyce says. That’s something he and others have been trying to change with new buildings like the Nicholson Center, Rogal Chapel, the residence hall renovations and planned new buildings for the business and nursing schools. “One of our challenges is not to create a distinct look, but a palate of materials that we might ask architects to use. We wouldn’t tell them how to design new buildings, but would give them materials -- such as brick, standing seam metal roofs, the selected use of stone -- to create a consistency of look.“
Although each generation of buildings presents new styles with unique aesthetic and practical values, Joyce believes it’s worth the effort to maintain original designs. “I think people respond to quality spaces and are inspired by them, especially when they understand an architect and what inspired the design originally.”