The University of Central Arkansas has received an $800,000 grant to restore and renovate McCastlain Hall, built in 1939 as the first stand-alone cafeteria on the campus.
It was surrounded by dormitories and was “the center of the universe” for students at the time, said Gayle Seymour, associate dean of the UCA College of Fine Arts and Communication.
Seymour co-authored the successful grant, which the Arkansas Natural and Cultural Resources Council awarded to the UCA Division of Advancement. The grant will be used to restore many of the original features of McCastlain Hall, as well as update technology within the structure, Seymour said.
“Our real main goal here is to make the ballroom — East Commons — something to be proud of,” she said. “It’s an attempt to really honor the historical integrity of the building.”
McCastlain is one of eight buildings on campus that make up UCA’s Historic District. The structure was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on Jan. 18, 2013.
Seymour said she unearthed some fun tidbits in her research for the grant. Students talked about “walking the rails” when going into McCastlain Hall.
“At some point, they installed railings that come from the front doors of McCastlain to the sidewalk,” she said. “Apparently, students — especially in the ’50s — remember going in and out of the building as ‘walking the rail.’ The guys sat on the rail and watched girls go in and out and made dates,” she said, laughing.
Seymour said she found a 1956 photo with “the girls all dressed up and guys watching them walk.
“One thing we’re going to do is restore the railing. Just to give it a name, we’ve called it the reunion rail.”
Renovations in East Commons include a coffered ceiling and the latest audiovisual equipment.
“In terms of aesthetics, we’re planning to remove the dropped acoustical ceiling and restore what was a lovely height,” she said. The new coffered ceiling will hide the audiovisual systems for the room.
The building has been used for sit-down dinners and other events since Christian Cafeteria was built in 1969.
“So it’s going to be flexible. It will allow us to continue to have banquets for 300 people, and it will also be possible to have seating for 300 to 400 people for a concert or lecture,” Seymour said.
“We’ve worked with an acoustical engineer to make the sound fidelity better in that room. The other thing that’s really kind of big and important is we’re going to install doors into East Commons — there have never actually been doors there before. If you’re trying to set up a wedding, no way to secure it — and for sound containment.”
A service elevator will be installed so tables and chairs can be stored in the basement. As it is now, Seymour said, they are inconveniently
stored across campus and have to be carted to McCastlain, along with dishes and food. Dishwashers will be installed, too, so the china can remain in the building.
The project also features a new Grand Hallway, which will create a pathway linking East Commons, the historic Fireplace Room and the Baum Gallery of Art.
“Getting around that building is a challenge, especially if you’re not familiar with it,” she said.
The Grand Hallway will be created by relocating the men’s restroom “to create this logical space that will go all the way from the ballroom to the Baum Gallery,” she said.
The existing hallway will be made “larger and more obvious,” she said.
The lobby of the building will remain, “but we hope to upgrade it,” Seymour said.
If the grant will stretch far enough, Seymour said, UCA administrators have plans for the Fireplace Room.
“If we have enough money, [we hope] to really restore it. It’s the only room over there that has its original character — fireplaces, ceiling, paneling,” she said.
The two fireplaces don’t work, however.
“We’re hoping to restore it to its former glory, maybe even get the fireplaces working, new paint, lighting,” she said.
“On the south wall of the fireplace room, originally that was an exterior wall with two windows that looked to the south. When McCastalin was enlarged, that became the hallway,” Seymour said. “We want to restore those windows, even though they are faux, with lighting behind them to look like the ones on the north wall.
“It was really designed as the lounge for students after and before their meals, and I assume they smoked in there,” she said.
The first renovation of McCastlain Hall was done in 1962, she said, when another dining room was added that became known as the West Commons. That was when the original windows on the south side of the fireplace room were blocked in, Seymour said.
In 1989, accessible restrooms were added, and the old kitchen was transformed into office space.
In 1998, the Baum Gallery was added.
In 1999, the offices of purchasing, the registrar and the cashier moved into the building, which previously housed food service.
“That’s the building as we know it today,” Seymour said.
McCastlain Hall was named for Orville Wright McCastlain of Holly Grove, a 1934 graduate of the school and a record-setting athlete, she said.
K.C. Poole, interior-design internship instructor, was co-writer of the grant. Randy Stocks and Melissa Rodgers of Stocks-Mann Architects were the architectural consultants.
“UCA is committed to honoring its past by preserving for future use many of the historic buildings on campus,” UCA President Tom Courtway said. “This latest grant is the largest of the five grants we’ve received from ANCRC.”
UCA was awarded a $300,000 grant for the renovation of Ida Waldran auditorium in 2011 and $152,000 to add two restrooms on the first floor of Old Main in 2012.
“Renovation and restoration is a complicated thing,” Seymour said. “You want to honor the building and its history, but you still have to use it for today and into the future. It’s a give and take. Part of what we try to do with our historic buildings is really give people an outlet for nostalgia, which is an important part of life.”
“Research has shown that nostalgia relieves stress and gives hope for the future,” she said. “I think those are the little things that create community on our campus that we are really trying to honor.”
Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or email@example.com.