“The Department of Biology is committed to the creation of an academic environment in which the possession, communication and enlargement of knowledge in the field of biology may flourish in students and faculty and the communities in which the university serves.”
-John Saunders, Jr. Biology Department Chair, 1960
The architects' redering of the new Life Sciences Building
In the late 1950’s, the biology department’s 11 Ph.D. faculty and 25 master’s level graduate students were cramped on one floor of the Marquette Science Building (now Marquette Hall). Between 1950 and 1960, enrollment in the biology department at Marquette University had increased by more than 250%, and the department was looking to reinstate their doctoral graduate program.
After years of calls for more space for the biology department, the university began seriously discussing building options in 1956. An addition behind the existing science building would not be feasible, so a building committee was assembled to plan a new biology building, as the first of three buildings to house biology, chemistry and physics. The initial thrust came in 1957 when MU received a $250,000 federal facilities grant toward construction of a life sciences building from the Public Health Service, on the condition that contracts would be made by June 30, 1960. By 1958, the university was still a long way from securing the funds they’d need, but they had contracted the architectural firm Brust and Brust to oversee the project.
According to Brust and Brust’s drawings, the building would fit either of two sites being considered. The first was on the west side of North 14th Street, which would fit well with the student traffic pattern at the time, and tie in with the campus master plan. The second site was on the east side of North 15th Street, where the building would be almost entirely surrounded by buildings belonging to other owners. At that time, the only benefit of the 15th Street site was that construction could be started sooner. The building committee wished to avoid any more possible delays, and agreed to use the 15th Street site in August 1958.
Plan showing campus in the late 1950's and the proposed site of the new biology building
The shape, size, and orientation of the new building was determined after analyzing the requirements set up by the Department of Biology and aimed to meet the university’s needs for the biological sciences for at least the next 10 years. The university owned property directly south of the proposed building, which gave the possibility of building an addition twenty years down the road.
The cost of construction advanced during the delays (moving site, obtaining property, further site evaluation) between 1957 and 1959. The building committee tried to reduce the size of the building they were planning, but further reductions could not be made without seriously affecting the teaching and research program of the department.
Plans for the new building were accepted by the Biology Department in February 1959, and submitted to the university president and his advisors that April. The trustees generally approved the plan and the budget of 1.3 million (which included the federal grant) was approved for the project. Before final approval was made, the estimated cost increased to 1.58 million. The administration was wary, but President Rev. E.J. O’Donnell, S.J. decided there had been enough delays and misunderstandings with the project, and to proceed with plans according to the new cost estimates.
The new 76,000 square foot, five-story building erected on the east side of N. 15th St. between W. Wisconsin Ave and W. Clybourn St. would be of functional, contemporary design, built of reinforced concrete with a brick exterior, granite stone facing, and a modernistic entrance featuring an undulating canopy. The overall design of the new building was not particularly unique, but it was practical and inexpensive in construction, and designed to be administratively flexible for future use.
Roy Kallenberger, Director of Physical Plant
Planning of the building project was led by the university’s Director of Physical Plant, Roy Kallenberger, whose job was to translate the University’s academic program into its physical facilities, buildings and land. During the time between the decision to construct the new building until the building was ready for occupancy and use, Kallenberger planned the process through innumerable meetings with the building committee, interviews with the biology faculty and staff about their needs, and trips to other university campuses to inspect similar facilities. During the construction of the building, he frequently visited the construction site, checking in with the architect and contractors to assure that progress was satisfactory and to familiarize the facilities department with the internal organization of the building.
Theoretically, a building does not matter too much, what counts is what goes on inside. But the theory breaks down when you consider that in the old science building, scientists had installed a 250,000 volt X-ray machine in the men’s washroom. The new building would provide a basement for equipment, storage and laboratories, two floors containing 12 teaching labs, a 200 seat auditorium, offices, seminar rooms and small library. Three upper floors would provide space for special greenhouses, temperature controlled labs, animal quarters and 12 large research suites with laboratories and office space for each faculty researcher, their graduate students and assistants. Perhaps the most celebrated feature of the new building would be the teaching labs housed on the first two floors. These offered the opportunity to specialize lab space for specific lab courses –allowing students to continue experiments outside of class time.
The last step before construction could begin was to choose the contractors. The final approval to start collecting bids was delayed in the summer of 1960 due to an illness of President O’Donnell’s, as well as an absolute need of acquiring additional funds. An extension on the Public Health Grant was obtained, and bids were finally awarded in December 1960, (Gebhard-Berghammer, Inc: general contractor, J.M. Brennan Inc.: heating, ventilation and air conditioning, Joseph Lehman Company: plumbing, Northwestern Elevator Company: elevator, Staff Electric Company: electrical) and construction was begun before the end of 1960.
Construction in progress, May 1961
Construction progressed well through the spring and summer due to favorable weather conditions, and was on schedule for a planned November 1961 completion. An asbestos workers strike in September caused some delays, and the completion date was pushed back to December 1st. The department was finally able to begin moving equipment into the new building around mid-December, and was opened to students for the start of the new semester on February 5th, 1962.
The official dedication of the Life Sciences Building was held on February 19, 1962. The Archbishop of Milwaukee, The Most Reverend William E. Cousins, D.D. officiated at the ceremony, and placed the building’s cornerstone in the lobby. Helping to dedicate the new building was the first major job of the new Marquette president, Rev. William F. Kelly S.J., who called the building a “remarkable facility, and another great stride on the part of the university”. Rev. Kelley wanted the ceremony to “emphasize the dignity and holiness of life rather than just to dedicate a building,” saying that, “such emphasis is the thing that makes Jesuit education different from other teaching.”
Graduate students help to move equipment into the new building in December 1961
By tripling the space available for the department, the new building allowed the previously authorized, but never instituted Ph.D. program, greater opportunities for undergraduate research, and research elbow room for faculty members. Even so, Dr. John Saunders, the department’s chair, expected that it would not take long until the department was again short on space. “If we’re not,” he said, “we’re not producing enough… This building is generous, but our department is growing. Fact of the matter is that in any other university with a department as active as I’ve got, they’d be starting on plans for the wing now, even though we haven’t filled this one yet”.
In 1964, following the completion of the life sciences building, Rev. E.J. O’Donnell, S.J., former president of Marquette, convinced C. Frederic (Todd) Wehr of the need for a modern science complex to replace the university’s science quarters. Wehr, who had made several contributions to Marquette, studied the project and made his major gift in 1965. It was used to construct Todd Wehr Chemistry, endow two Wehr science professorships, and provide a science center program endowment. In 1966, the new biology building was officially named the “Wehr Life Sciences Building”, and after 15 years of planning and construction, the three-building Wehr Sciences Center (Wehr Life Sciences, Todd Wehr Chemistry, and William Wehr Physics) was formally dedicated in 1973. Rev. John P. Raynor, S.J., the president at the time, called it “one of the most important milestones in the history of Marquette University.”
Image credits: Department of Special Collections and University Archives, Marquette University Libraries