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Meadville Lombard sells main building

Chicago seminary seeks long-term lease for new home; will leave its 1929 building by end of year.
By Michelle Bates Deakin
1.31.11

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Meadville/Lombard Theological Seminary

Meadville/Lombard Theological Seminary (Eric Allix Rogers, Flickr CC)

Meadville Lombard Theological School, the Chicago-based Unitarian Universalist seminary, has agreed to sell its main academic and administrative building to the University of Chicago.

The sale of the building, at 5701 S. Woodlawn Ave. in Chicago, is scheduled to close in December 2011, pending approval of the deal by the University of Chicago’s Board of Trustees. The purchase price is not public, according to the Rev. Dr. Lee Barker, president of Meadville Lombard, who said that Meadville Lombard signed a confidentiality agreement with regards to the purchase price.

Meadville Lombard is in the process of searching for new space. Barker said the seminary is seeking a long-term lease in a building that will help establish a new physical identity for the school. The school has selected four potential sites. All of them are faith-based, higher education institutions in Chicago, Barker said. Meadville Lombard has submitted Requests for Proposals to each of the institutions asking them to describe how Meadville Lombard would be housed on its campus and how it would accommodate needs for classrooms, faculty offices, meeting and worship space, and a new library facility. The RFPs are due in February.

“The space needs to be able to be identified with Meadville Lombard so that when people see the building, they see Meadville Lombard,” said Barker. “We’re not talking about leasing anonymous space.”

Of particular concern is adequate library space that will better house Meadville Lombard’s books and archives. The collection includes historic sermons and manuscripts. “We need to be able to preserve those and make them accessible,” Barker said.

Meadville Lombard is also seeking “smart” classrooms, or spaces that have state-of-the art technology.

Money from the sale of the main building will be added to Meadville Lombard’s endowment funds, Barker said. The principle will be preserved, he said, and interest from it will be used to fund the school’s educational mission.

Two other buildings owned by Meadville Lombard are still on the market. Both are residential properties that serve as student housing and office space. Barker said he hopes to make an announcement about their sale within the coming weeks.

The move to a new campus comes as Meadville Lombard has shifted its educational focus away from on-campus learning to distance learning and modified residency programs. Of this year’s student body, which numbers about 130 students, only “a handful” are in the residential program, Barker said.

The school’s “TouchPoint” distance learning program invites students who are learning remotely to come to campus during the month of January for intensive, on-campus classes. This past January, Barker said, Meadville Lombard rented space from local seminaries to hold the classes, all of which were held off campus. “Our building doesn’t match the kind of program we have anymore,” he said.

The move also follows the school’s announcement in June 2010 that it was joining forces with Andover Newton Theological School, a seminary in Newton, Mass., affiliated with the United Church of Christ and the American Baptist Churches USA, to form a new, interreligious, university-style theological institution.

Meadville Lombard is planning ways for alumni and others connected to the school to record their memories and say goodbye to the building. Barker first entered the building in 1974 as a divinity student. “It’s a huge part of my personal and vocational life,” he said. “There’s an incredible amount of charm and traditional elements that are certainly going to be missed.”

But there are also things he said he will not miss. The building is challenging for people in wheelchairs. And the heating and cooling systems are antiquated, making it uncomfortable for people and inhospitable to books and archives.

Barker noted that the main building is the second campus for Meadville Lombard, and this will be the school’s second relocation. The Meadville Theological School was founded in Meadville, Pa., in 1844 by a Unitarian businessman. The campus moved to Chicago in 1926. During the Great Depression, Meadville merged with Lombard College and its Universalist Divinity School. Construction of the main building of Meadville Lombard began in 1929.

“So much of the campus in Meadville, Pa., was lost to present-day memory,” said Barker. “It is our intention to not have that fate be the same for this campus.” The University of Chicago has announced its intention to keep the basic structure of the building. “It will be a building that will live on that people will be able to visit and continue to associate with the history of Meadville Lombard,” Barker said.

The school will plan ways for people to reflect on their history with the current campus and bid the building farewell before the move to a new campus, which is slated for December 2011. “Everybody who has gone through our school has a different relationship with this building. Some are extremely attached to it, and some are annoyed by it,” Barker said. “What we want to do is make sure that we honor all of the memories that are associated with it but aim ourselves toward the future at the same time.”

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