UND's oldest academic building is getting a new lease on life.

The State Board of Higher Education approved a fundraising effort for the renovations of Babcock Hall, Gustafson Hall and Carnegie Hall during their last meeting in September.

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Babcock Hall, the university's oldest standing academic building, will become the home of the electrical engineering and computer science department, said current dean Hesham El-Rewini. The building also will be a hub for big data research on campus.

"I'm sure the first dean of engineering will be smiling at us now," El-Rewini said. "The building that he was in with his name is leading the technology for the university and the state."

Built in 1908, the 110-year-old building was designed by architect Joseph Bell DeRemer, who also designed other buildings on UND's campus, as well as the state's capitol building. The building is named after Earle Babcock, the university's first engineering dean.

El-Rewini said it is important for them to keep that history on the "shell" of the building, but use the inside to advance technology for the university and the state.

"You have a historic shell and you look at it and remember your history. But you go inside and then you think of the future. Isn't that an amazing symbol of, we learn from our past and now we are contributing to the future?" he said.

In the past decade, the engineering school has seen significant growth, El-Rewini said, with a large increase in the number of students and faculty in the college. The college also has had a significant increase in fundraising.

"We've been growing, so we need the space," he said. "Although we built a new building, primarily from private sources, but the new building we are in is already crowded."

El-Rewini said he inquired about using Babcock Hall for engineering about a year ago, and President Mark Kennedy agreed.

El-Rewini envisions the building would include collaborative office space, as well as space for labs and space for industry and graduate students doing research.

"I just want to see a place that's 24/7 full of people, energy and ideas," he said. The building also will serve as a home for big data research, which is one of President Mark Kennedy's grand challenges. El-Rewini noted the university and industries around Grand Forks collect huge amounts of data every day. The question then becomes "What do we do with this data?" El-Rewini said.

Bringing the community in

In the past two years, dozens of buildings have come down on campus, leaving some in the community upset. But, El-Rewini said it is important for them to recognize the community.

"We are going to restore (Babcock Hall), we are going to renovate it, we are going to make it again a beacon for enlightenment for the future in an area that's very important," he said. "We feel that we are the college of the people, and I really mean that."

Deb Austreng, director of alumni, corporate and public relations at the engineering school, said they want to make the community a part of the entire process in various ways.

"We want to keep them informed, keep them excited about where we're at with this," she said.

El-Rewini traveled to Washington, D.C. recently, connected with an alumni member and told him about the plans for Babcock Hall. The man immediately started telling him stories about his time in Babcock and the professors he learned from there.

"This person was so happy to hear that we're going to restore the building because it means something to him," he said. "And he's not the only one."

Austreng said they want to continue hearing from alumni and community members about their experiences with Babcock Hall, whether through pictures or just collecting stories.

El-Rewini said they hope to collect the stories of people and potentially use them some place in the building so people can connect with the history.

Other renovations

Gustafson Hall and Carnegie Hall still are being used but will be vacated within the next few years, said Mike Pieper, associate vice president for facilities at UND. Babcock Hall has been empty for about a year.

Gustafson Hall, which was built in 1909, was the original home of UND's first fraternity. It also has served as different types of housing for the university.

The building likely will return to some form of short-term housing, Pieper said. Gustafson could include some small apartments or even a few "hotel-type" rooms for visiting lecturers and other guests. The main floor would stay as a meeting and social space.

Carnegie Hall, which was constructed in 1907, served as the library for the university until 1928. It also has served as a dining center and has housed other offices throughout its life.

The building may house executive offices and meeting spaces, which would open up new academic spaces in Twamley Hall, Pieper said.

The updates to the three buildings will coincide with the demolition of UND's steam plant, which also is located in the quad. The steam plant is scheduled to come down in the next couple of years.

"All three buildings are pretty small, so to be able to do them at the same time helps us attract a quality contractor and it helps keep our prices down a little bit," Pieper said.

Pieper said they hope to start work by the Spring 2021.