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Restoring Old Main, the Project of a Lifetime
Poster Frost Mirto Inc., the Tucson-based architecture, planning and preservation firm, is the design lead on the $13.5 million "Save Old Main" project.
For a designer or architect, being able to shape the restoration and renovation of an important historic building like Old Main is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
The team visualizing the future of the University of Arizona's Old Main – the University's first building, constructed in 1891 – comes from Poster Frost Mirto Inc., an award-winning Tucson architecture, planning and preservation firm.
The firm's principal architect and planner, Corky Poster, is leading a team that is collaborating with the UA, design-builder Sundt Construction Inc. and others to restore the building's distinctive, historic features while modernizing its core.
Poster, whose portfolio includes design, planning and preservation projects like Tucson's Historic Warehouse Arts District Master Plan, the Tucson Historic Train Depot, the Quincie Douglas Center and the Roy Place Building facade restoration, said working on Old Main gives him a sense of great privilege and pride.
So important is the historic and contemporary significance of the building that UA President Ann Weaver Hart and UA Foundation President James H. Moore Jr. this month launched a $13.5 million fundraising campaign for the building's restoration and renovation.
"Our commitment to this institution is past, present and future," Hart said during the "Save Old Main" campaign launch event on Oct. 1.
A distinctive building, an impressive project
Poster noted that Old Main and the restoration effort are distinctive for three important reasons: Old Main has tremendous historic and contemporary importance for the UA and the surrounding community; the building's construction is highly reflective of the region's history, culture and environment; and the building has an innovative footprint, as a structure built with an eye toward future generations.
In collaboration with Poster Frost Mirto Inc., Sundt Construction is working on safety upgrades to Old Main. The contractor also is adding new mechanical, lighting and electrical systems and replacing plumbing. Old Main's first floor has already been renovated. The second floor will be modernized to include updated office and meeting spaces, and the second-floor veranda will be completely restored.
"Old Main is on a short list of the best historic buildings in Tucson," said Jon Mirto, an architect with Poster Frost Mirto Inc. "It's exactly the type of work we like to do, and it is super exciting for us to have this once-in-a-lifetime job."
Like Mirto, Poster carries an almost innate affection for Old Main, a strong connection he says dates back to 1973 when he moved to Tucson to develop his practice as an architect, planner and urban designer and first saw the building in person.
He observed that Old Main was designed with the climate and the future in mind, from its bold, shaded veranda to its sunken porch, both of which would aid in the cooling of the building.
"My impressions of Old Main in 1973 are exactly the same impressions that I have today," said Poster, who joined the UA College of Architecture, Planning and Landscape Architecture faculty in 1981 and has since retired from his teaching position. "What a way to build a building. It's such a smart way to build a building."
Mirto, Poster and others on the Poster Frost Mirto team have long designed contemporary projects, but remain deeply invested in historic preservation and have taken on more projects of this one in recent years.
"We are hoping not only to communicate the history of the building, but also to meet the needs of the campus," Mirto said.
Preserving a sense of place
A core component of the work at Poster Frost Mirto Inc. is an investment in advancing projects that honor "the sense of place," Poster said.
That concept is of growing importance in the field of architecture. That kind of authentic planning and design requires constant consideration of the history, culture and environmental demands of a place – past, present, future.
"What you do must be intentionally tied to the place in which the project is located; it's not about buildings floating in space," Poster said, drawing attention to both the region's demanding climate and its historic cultural context, particularly given that is believed to be the longest continuously inhabited area in the U.S.
"We have a very long cultural and environmental history," he said. "We've got a very rich imprint into that."
Such a working philosophy, one that acknowledges and honors a sense of place, closely parallels that of James M. Creighton, the Phoenix architect who originally designed Old Main.
Creighton's design ensured that Old Main would have cross-ventilation and high ceilings, be sunk three feet below ground and hold verandas that would shelter the building, minimizing damage caused by the desert heat. An estimated 75 percent of the building materials were sourced locally, Poster said.
On a more personal note, Poster, who lives near the UA, added that he passes Old Main daily while walking his dog.
"Not just the weekdays, but every day, and I've paid close attention to it," Poster said. He describes the building as "the sun" at the center of the University's "solar system."
"I've been waiting my whole career to do this," Poster said. "It is the most important building on campus, and when you get to work on something like that, that's spectacular. How often do you get to do that? We couldn't be more thrilled working on this project."