College of LAS « Illinois

Cover Story

The Natural History Building

Renovating a landmark.


In the late 1800s, with the University of Illinois facing growing enrollments and limited space, renowned University architect Nathan Ricker designed a distinctive teaching and research building at the heart of campus that he hoped would endure through the ages. He produced a gem—the Natural History Building.

This historic structure has hosted generations of students studying geology, biology, and other disciplines. Distinguished scholars have taught, established laboratories, and conducted groundbreaking research within its walls.

But designs and infrastructure that worked for the 19th and 20th centuries do not meet today’s teaching and research demands. The Natural History Building has reached a critical juncture and it must evolve dramatically to continue to serve our campus. Thus, the University has begun a $70 million renovation that preserves the building’s historic exterior while transforming the interior into a new world of state-of-the-art classrooms, laboratories, and meeting spaces.

A Vision

The renovation of the Natural History Building will create a dynamic education and research center. It will house classrooms, laboratories, and offices for current and future generations of geologists, geographers, and atmospheric scientists, and will be the center for biological and environmental education for students from across campus.

The 148,000-square-foot landmark will be transformed into a model for modern higher education with state-of-the-art facilities, while maintaining the charm of the architectural details that led to its inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places. The work will be environmentally sound with every effort made to ensure that the building earns LEED certification by the U.S. Green Building Council.

Flexible Design

The Natural History Building is being renovated with flexible classroom and laboratory layouts to accommodate the latest methods in learning and research while incorporating advanced technology. Floor plans, walls, air handling, electrical grids, and other infrastructure will be adaptable so that in the coming decades the building can change with the times at minimal expense.

A Foundation for Modern Teaching and Research

When the renovation is complete, all programs within the School of Earth, Society, and Environment (SESE) will be brought together under one roof for the first time. SESE includes the Departments of Atmospheric Sciences, Geography and Geographic Information Science, and Geology, and also anchors an interdisciplinary undergraduate major in environmental sustainability.

The Natural History Building will also become home to teaching programs in the School of Integrative Biology (SIB) and the Integrative Biology Honors Program. SIB includes the Departments of Animal Biology, Entomology, and Plant Biology.

Additionally, this historic building will continue to host classes from disciplines across campus, meaning that the innovations in space and teaching methods in this renovation will also benefit thousands of Illinois students outside of SESE and SIB.

Spectacular Spaces

The extensive renovation will create cutting-edge spaces that inspire collaboration. Here are some highlights of the new design:

  • Innovative project-based classrooms promote interaction and discussion between professors and students
  • A visualization studio where researchers can perform tasks such as analyzing satellite weather data to look into the eye of a hurricane, or analyzing satellite space mission data with NASA
  • Specialized teaching facilities where students can learn how to build analytical instruments that can be used for microscopic analysis of earth materials, visualizing big data using geographic information systems (GIS), and other projects
  • A biology honors suite that will build on a long tradition of excellence
  • Two vibrant community hubs including the remarkable vaulted chamber on the third floor and the beautiful open space off of the Green Street entrance where students can meet, study, and exchange ideas
  • Hallway display spaces where specimens, maps, and other visuals will be used for teaching and public viewing
  • Numerous seminar rooms for peer learning and small group discussions
  • State-of-the-art laboratories for advanced courses and specialized research in areas including geophysics, geochemistry, sedimentology, earth materials, geomicrobiology, and remote sensing, to name a few
  • Computer labs where students work with the latest geographic and remote-sensing data, model the Earth System, and explore mathematical models of biological processes
  • Smart lecture halls with the latest IT links, and;
  • Modern offices designed to foster interdisciplinary collaboration

Modern, Diverse Learning and Exploration

Students and faculty using the renovated Natural History Building will be dedicated to studying both the physical and biological components of our planet. In its labs, researchers will explore how rocks, microbes, plants, soil, animals, oceans, lakes, landscapes, the atmosphere, and humanity all interact.

Geologists and atmospheric scientists will explore diverse topics—groundwater, weather, surface water, sediments, hydrocarbons, landscapes, climate, and the Earth’s interior. Students in geography and geographic information science will focus on understanding the relationships between societal changes and the natural and built environments, and will use geospatial technologies for mapping and spatial analysis.

Biology students will gain skills to examine challenges such as the outbreak of a new infectious disease or the causes and consequences of declining biodiversity. They will combine an understanding of basic natural history with new technologies that will bring breakthroughs in fields such as genomics. The holistic approach of the School of Integrative Biology will prepare students to tackle complex problems ranging from understanding evolutionary processes to developing biofuels.

Practical Skills for the Real World

Students in the renovated Natural History Building will have the opportunity to perfect practical skills that lead to productive careers. Some will learn how to explore for energy resources, remediate contaminated groundwater, or predict the weather. Others will gain the background they need to enter the world of health care, develop policies for a sustainable future, or use GIS to manage massive amounts of spatial data.

Historic Building Highlights

  • Dedication: November 16, 1892. The building was designed by Illinois alumnus Nathan Ricker, the first architectural graduate in the U.S.
  • Additions: Additions to the south and west portions of the building occurred in 1908. The building attained its present size in 1923.
  • Fires: The building has survived two blazes, one sparked by lightning in 1897, and one during construction work in 1990.
  • National Register of Historic Places: Added to the historic register in 1986.
  • Museum of Natural History: Once occupying the vaulted hall in the center of the building and much of the fourth floor, the museum closed in 2001. Its fossil and rock specimens remain in the Natural History Building.
  • Closure of the 1908 Addition: Discovery of structural weaknesses in floors led to the closure of 40% of the building in 2010.

Join Us in Building the Future

This is a pivotal moment for the future of the Natural History Building. University funding will cover some of the renovations, but to achieve all of the building’s potential we need your help.

Every gift is important. Numerous naming opportunities are available including:

  • SESE and SIB student hubs
  • Biology honors suite
  • Project-based learning centers
  • Display areas and collections
  • Seminar rooms and classrooms
  • Lecture halls
  • Research laboratories
  • Specialty laboratories
  • Faculty or graduate student offices
  • Department head suites

Be a part of this historic undertaking to elevate this icon to its full potential. Your support will create a gem on the Illinois campus that will shine for years to come.

For more information, please contact the LAS Office of Advancement at (217) 333-7108 or

> Give to the Natural History Building Renovation Fund

> Read about the time capsule that was discovered in NHB.

> Read about the people of the time capsule.

Winter 2015