News that MU is razing a 127-year-old campus landmark prompted an emotional outpouring from the university community Thursday that ranged from distress to surprise to gallows humor.
The reaction came after a morning announcement from campus officials that they have been unable to find a way to eliminate radioactive contamination from Pickard Hall without completely demolishing MU’s third-oldest building.
“This is not a decision that we have come to lightly and has only been made after years of studying the situation and determining that there was no other alternative,” said Gary Ward, vice chancellor for operations, in the university’s statement.
Work to tear down the building will begin as soon as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission approves MU’s plan, which was submitted last week, university officials told the Missourian in an interview prior to their announcement. They estimate the demolition will cost $12 million and take two years to complete.
The stately red-brick hall on Francis Quadrangle has been shuttered since 2013.
The building’s age makes it remarkable to a number of groups on and around campus, including Columbia’s Historic Preservation Commission.
But commission member Pat Fowler, who last week criticized MU’s plan to demolish a number of other historic structures, accepted the decision on Pickard’s fate with regret but resignation.
“It has a beautiful facade that fits in with Francis Quadrangle,” Fowler said Thursday following the Missourian’s report. But she added that the building’s problems are “notorious” and that there “appears to be no way to make it safe for human occupancy.”
Since it opened in 1892, Pickard has housed classrooms, offices, a museum and, in its earliest days, the chemistry department.
The chemists who occupied the building in the early 20th century were pioneers in working with radioactive material. At the time they began their work, its dangers were unknown. Contamination from the material spread through the basement and up to the attic.
Check out Vox’s Pickard Hall timeline
In the vacant space that remains on the quadrangle, MU plans to construct a building that “honors the historical accuracy” of Pickard, the university statement said. The cost of that replacement and the timeline for its construction have not yet been determined.
Questions of safety
The presence of radioactive contaminants in Pickard Hall brings a new level of complexity to the demolition process as well as a discussion of how to proceed safely.
The levels of radiation in the building are, relatively speaking, low. A radiation meter held above a contaminated area doesn’t register any problematic readings unless it’s lowered all the way to the ground, said Todd Houts, director of environmental health and safety at MU. For the NRC and MU, however, any level of radiation above “background” — naturally occurring radiation in everyday life — is unacceptable.
Radiation is most prominent on Pickard’s bottom and top floors. The basement was the starting point for radium experiments conducted in the early 1900s by Herman Schlundt, the chair of the chemistry department, and his assistants; the building’s primitive ventilation system carried their materials up through vertical vents into the attic.
Still to be determined: what’s below and around the foundation. Houts said he is almost certain that radioactive materials were trapped in the drain lines below the floor of the basement, which are not connected to any currently functioning system.
What’s not clear, he said, is whether radiation has seeped into the soil around the building. University officials said they couldn’t test for that without NRC approval, the NRC wouldn’t give the approval for testing without knowing exactly what material the university was looking for and where it was.
That Catch-22 is one of the driving reasons behind the decision to take down the building in its entirety, according to MU spokesperson Christian Basi.
For the university, complete demolition represents a last resort. Both Houts and Ward said they explored as many options as possible in order to keep parts of the original building before making the decision to raze it.
The university is now awaiting the NRC’s review and approval of its plan. That process, known as “technical review,” takes around 90 days, according to NRC spokesperson Viktoria Mitlyng, although it can stretch longer depending on changes and additions requested by the NRC. If MU’s plan is approved, the university will have 24 months to demolish Pickard, with extensions granted only by the NRC. The NRC will also be conducting on-site inspections throughout the demolition, according to Mitlyng.
The specifics of how to safeguard the construction workers and the public have yet to be determined. That will happen during the bid process, when the university selects a contractor for the demolition. Basi said that the protection and safety of both workers and the public are the “top priority” for the project, and a comprehensive plan will be determined “before the first hammer strikes.”
Decades in the making
MU has been aware of Pickard Hall’s radiation problem since at least the late 1970s. For many of the ensuing years, the Missouri Department of Natural Resources regulated the matter. Safety measures were put in place, including restricting access to the building’s “hot spots” and installing dosimeters to monitor radiation exposure. Regardless, the building remained in use: the Museum of Art and Archeology, which opened there in 1976, continued to welcome visitors for more than 30 years.
Some social media posts and comments on the Missourian’s website raised concerns about the potential dangers to people who worked and visited the building. Others joked about it. MU School of Journalism alumna Nancy Coleman tweeted that she and her classmates were able to meet “a million deadlines” after being “bitten by the radioactive spiders.”
University officials insisted precautions were always in place to keep the people who visited and worked in Pickard out of danger. “Specific portions of the basement and attic have been restricted for decades,” Basi said in an email. “We are not aware of anyone who has been exposed.”
Inspection and testing of the hall began in 2009 after responsibility was transferred from the state to the NRC. The agency ordered MU to submit a cleanup plan, but it was no easy task for MU to perform the necessary radiation testing in an active museum.
In 2011, the university asked for an indefinite extension on the cleanup plan, but the NRC said no.
That’s when the university decided to relocate the museum to Mizzou North on Business Loop, where it remains today. By the end of 2013, Pickard Hall was empty.
University officials initially hoped that moving the museum would make it easier to determine which areas of the building needed cleanup.
“Ultimately, it had to be relocated so that we could begin to actually see, ‘Can we get to this?’” Houts said. “Can we remediate the building the way it is right now?”
But even after the staff and exhibits were gone, the infrastructure and facade created for the museum complicated matters.
Years of interior renovations made it impossible to pinpoint accurately where the radiation remediation would have to take place.
“We struggled with this, after the museum was gone, for another six years,” Houts said. “That got us to where we stepped back, and we had to figure out, ‘What are our options?’”
Weighing legacy and price
For many, MU’s Francis Quadrangle is a sacred ground. Besides the historic columns from the destroyed Academic Hall, the quad is home to three of the oldest standing buildings on MU’s campus — the chancellor’s residence, Switzler Hall and Pickard.
That made the decision to bring down the building even more difficult and left Ward and other administrators with a dilemma.
“The more information we got, the more and more we could tell this was going to be an extremely expensive endeavor,” Ward said. “It didn’t pass the stewardship test.”
Stewardship was referenced by Ward and Houts a number of times. It’s their way of expressing the balancing act at the heart of MU’s master plan: Updating campus in a cost-efficient manner while honoring historical accuracy and legacy.
Up until now, the university has leaned toward historical preservation when it comes to Pickard. Between 1999-2001, the building got a $1.5 million face-lift: New windows and roofing were installed, the structure was reinforced and the building’s lead paint was removed. Basi said there have been no renovations since.
At $12 million, Pickard’s demolition will cost 358 times its 1892 construction price: $33,459, unadjusted for inflation. In 1913, which is as far back as as the federal government’s inflation calculator goes, that’s the equivalent of $879,000 in today’s dollars.
The price (generally, building demolitions cost between $1.5 and $2 million, according to Basi) reflects the expected complexity of disposing of the building’s contaminated remains; 25% of Pickard’s cost estimate is for contingency.
For past projects, debris from construction has been recycled, used to fill pits and even reused in renovations like Tate Hall in 2010, according to Basi. Given the nature of the contamination at Pickard, none of those options are available, meaning waste and debris disposal costs will skyrocket.
“More than half of that ($12 million) pre-contingency is dedicated to waste,” Houts said. “Just waste — transportation and disposal.”
For Ward and other administrators, the decision to demolish isn’t just more cost-efficient; it’s also the best option to maintain the integrity of the campus.
“I don’t even think we can save anything (if we wanted to),” Ward said. “But even trying to do that, it’s a better stewardship initiative to take it all down and rebuild something back that fits within the quad and pays respect to Pickard.”
The university has prioritized the legacy of the quad and the building in its decision-making process. Ward repeatedly emphasized how much respect he and his colleagues have for the “historical significance” of the quad. He said he believes that throughout the process, “we’ve been good stewards.”
As daunting a task as Pickard’s demolition is, it’s not MU’s first rodeo with complex construction on the quad.
Switzler Hall, the oldest academic building on campus, was gutted and renovated in what Ward called “the most complex project we’ve ever done” — mostly due to the university’s insistence that Switzler’s exterior walls remain (the Reynolds Journalism Institute underwent a similar process a couple of years prior). Swallow Hall, just a couple of buildings down from Pickard, was renovated to increase square footage and blended new construction with the original front wall of the building.
Once the building’s demolition is complete, designing and planning of its replacement building will begin. It’s a process that Ward says will involve a “far-reaching campus discussion.” Officials promise to honor both the legacy of the original Pickard Hall and its surroundings.
“We know how greatly our students, faculty, staff and alumni value the beauty of our campus and architecture of our buildings,” MU Chancellor Alexander Cartwright said in the university’s statement. “The Francis Quadrangle is iconic — not just to our university, but to the entire state. We are committed to maintaining the historic nature of the quadrangle, now and in the future.”
Photo editing by David Kunz and Bailey Valadez. Kira Lovell contributed to this report. Supervising editor is Kathy Kiely.