Demolition of historic Oakdale Hall starts today

BY HAYLEY BRUCE | MARCH 11, 2011 7:20 AM

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Oakdale Hall is coming down.

After serving the community for more than 103 years as both a tuberculosis sanatorium and a research facility for the University of Iowa, previous employees of the building will gather at 8 a.m. today to watch a wrecking ball crash into the place they once called home.

“It’s funny; the new building is so wonderful that there are moments when you think you shouldn’t miss anything about the old building,” said Kathy Fait, a librarian and historian for the State Hygienic Laboratory. “But when you live somewhere — it’s like moving from one house to another — there is always something you liked about the old one.”

Oakdale Hall officially closed its doors Wednesday once the final section of the Hygienic Lab moved to Coralville. Though demolition was originally scheduled for January or February, the air-quality research section took slightly longer to relocate to a controlled environment.

The building was previously home to several UI programs, including the Obermann Center for Advanced Studies, the Center of Health Effects of Environmental Contamination, and the Division of Drug Information Service.

“This is a historic event, not just for the Hygienic Laboratory and our staff, but also for the many people who worked in other programs in Oakdale Hall over the years and for the patients who lived here,” said Pat Blake, the lab’s public-information officer. “It’s a time to reflect on the many good works that took place at Oakdale.”

And while many of the building’s previous tenants said they’re happy with their new facilities, Jay Semel — the former director of the Obermann Center — said he will miss the “serenity” of a research facility that once served as office space for as many as 30 research fellows.

“It was a perfect place to work without any distractions, whether you were working independently or in collaboration with someone,” he said. “The distance from the main campus was an enormous asset for people interested in serious scholarship.”

The state Board of Regents approved the $3.95 million demolition of Oakdale Hall in March 2010 after officials determined it would be more cost-effective than renovating the 220,000 square-foot space.

Wendy Moorehead, the communications manager for Facilities Management, said razing the building will eliminate around $40 million in one-time deferred maintenance costs, along with $800,000 annually in operating expenses.

Moorehead said the demolition is expected to take two to three weeks, followed by a cleanup of the area that could last up to one month.

A fact sheet Moorehead released said metal, copper, concrete, and part of the roofing will be recycled, and the empty lot will be seeded with grass and left as green space.

But Semel said his attachment was never to the building itself.

“I think without the people, it looks kind of foreboding, and ugly, and big, and sterile,” he said. “Without sounding too sentimental about it, it was only the people who gave a life to that always too-big-hulking building.”

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