Revitalizing our roots
UF rebuilds historic social and cultural hubs
The pair of grey two-story framed houses located on the edge of campus at University Avenue and 15th Street, known as the Institute of Black Culture and the Institute of Hispanic-Latino Cultures or "La Casita," have served as a second home for many students.
Home-like, because they were originally built in 1921 as family homes, and when they were acquired by the University of Florida in 1952, they were used for student housing.
Home-like, because they serve as beacons of progress and cultural havens for students of many backgrounds.
As the cornerstone of UF's multicultural heritage and a visual reminder of the university’s commitment to diversity, they provide programming and study spaces while fostering community and cultural awareness. They’re also hubs for student congregation and education -- before, between and after classes, -- and operate as hosts to student and community organizations’ events, programs and trainings.
But all the years of heavy use have taken a toll. Both of the existing facilities are in critical need of renovation, experiencing problems ranging from humidity and mold to termites, wood decay, structural issues and air quality concerns.
"With an increasing student population and a growing demand and use of these facilities, larger, more functional spaces are necessary in assuring continued excellence in programming and resources for students," said Mary Kay Carodine, assistant vice president for student affairs at UF.
Ceremonies to say farewell to the existing structures were held the last weekend in January, and construction will begin by summer.
La Casita students left their hand prints...
...while IBC students celebrated their history
For months, students, staff and alumni alike have been engaged in offering input, which has been essential for the success of this project, Carodine said, and input is still welcome.
UF's Multicultural and Diversity Affairs office hosts a descriptive renovation information and FAQ web page (http://www.multicultural.ufl.edu/initiatives/the-institutes/), and a Revitalizing Our Roots Facebook Group page provides a platform for conversations and feedback. The DLR Group Design Team, architects hired for the project, has also hosted several visioning workshops, welcoming input and ideas.
"The University of Florida is dedicated to reconstructing the institutes in a manner that best serves the needs of students and pays homage to each institute’s unique cultural history," Carodine said. “These Institutes enhance the diversity of campus – even into their foundations.”
Also exciting is that several Gators are working on this project, including Nicole Lopez Nichols, Higher Education Business Development Leadership and Senior Associate with DLR Group. As a graduate student, Nicole would come to La Casita with her friends. The construction management firm, Foresight Construction, in partnership with the D.E. Scorpio Corporation, is the first Latino construction company to be hired for a major construction project ($2 million and above) at UF, Carodine said.
Building details will preserve unique aspects of each facility and will mirror the existing structures. Storytelling pieces from alumni through the years and UF historians will be featured.
Approximately 6,000 gross square feet of each building will be included in the state-of-the-art renovations, and will result in assembly, office, living/recreational and other support spaces that will encourage joint programming between the two Institutes.
ADA-compliant restrooms and an elevator will also be added. The new construction will be far more energy efficient than the existing facilities and will be registered for LEED certification by the U.S. Green Building Council.
Akil Reynolds, a sophomore and active member of UF's Black Student Union, expanded on the potential impact the renovations can have for underrepresented students.
"The new facilities will offer space for cultural organizations to utilize for meetings and events," Reynolds said, “allowing them to share the benefits of the institutes with students who may not have used them previously so they can become more comfortable there, and hopefully find a sense of home at UF.”
During renovations, the Black Enrichment Center and Hispanic-Latino Engagement Center, located in the J. Wayne Reitz Union, will remain available for students, and when the rebuilt Institutes reopen in spring 2018, The Institutes will be another point of pride for The Gator Nation.
"I am so lucky to have discovered a place that empowered me, that brought me so much happiness and comfort over my four years here at the University of Florida," said student Gabriella Nuñez, a senior. “There's nothing like having bright, vibrant and charismatic minds under one roof – and watching people find their voice to know that they will one day make a difference.”
Words by Ashley Grabowski and Margot Winick
Photos by Bernard Brzezinski and Hannah Pietrick