Club Hub rendering

The renovated Clayton University Center will include a club hub for student organizations. Rendering:  Shepley Bulfinch

Reimagining the Clayton University Center

Lehigh will begin extensive renovations to the iconic Clayton University Center at Packer Hall that will create a dynamic environment for student life while preserving the building’s historic grandeur.

Story by

Mary Ellen Alu

The Clayton University Center at Packer Hall stands sentinel on a central slope of the Asa Packer Campus—an imposing stone structure with a bell tower that has been the backdrop of countless photographs and a hub for student, staff and faculty dining.

Yet the iconic building, the first structure specifically built for Lehigh in 1868 by university founder Asa Packer and expanded and renovated in 1956, has become more of a pass-through than a destination for students, with outmoded facilities, siloed spaces and a dim interior.

Launched by a donation from Kevin L. Clayton ’84 ’13P and Lisa A. Clayton ’13P, the Clayton University Center (CUC) will now undergo an extensive renovation and reconfiguration that will create a dynamic new environment for undergraduate and graduate student life, while preserving the building’s historic grandeur. The project promises to transform the student experience and restore the CUC as a community crossroads.

Plans call for reimagined spaces for dining, studying, socializing and meeting: a large campus “living room” where students will relax, eat or collaborate on projects; eateries offering an array of options; a pub; lounge areas and club space for student organizations; and glass-enclosed, multi-use meeting spaces throughout the building. Mechanical and life safety systems will be improved, and a new open stair between the second and third floors will better connect the floors. 

Outside, a large fire-pit will be added, the masonry cleaned and repointed, and new walkways, lighting and landscaping installed. Entryways will be opened up, allowing more natural light to flow through new windows and brighten up spaces, and accessibility will be enhanced. The building’s postcard view and stone facade facing the north lawn will be preserved.

“A vibrant CUC will bring our community further together,” said Lehigh President Joseph J. Helble ’82. “Students will be able to grab a meal, meet with friends, stay for 10 minutes or three hours, whatever they want to do. It will be an inviting place, where graduate students, undergraduate students, and the entire Lehigh community will want to be–where they can still get something to eat even if it’s late at night, where they can relax and work independently or talk or collaborate with others. The CUC is the one place on campus that I hope everyone—students, faculty and staff—will experience to engage with the incredible richness that is our Lehigh community.”

The planned renovations also reflect Lehigh’s ongoing commitment to providing its students with a vibrant and engaging learning environment.

Lehigh is a university that responds to change and evolves,” Helble said. “Our buildings, and how they are used on campus, are as much a part of that evolution as our curricula and programs as we prepare our students to be leaders, innovators and contributors to society.”

Lehigh is a university that responds to change and evolves. Our buildings, and how they are used on campus, are as much a part of that evolution as our curricula and programs as we prepare our students to be leaders, innovators and contributors to society.

Lehigh President Joseph J. Helble '82

As an example, a series of cavernous buildings on Lehigh’s Mountaintop campus has become a center for entrepreneurship and exploration. Having once housed the former Bethlehem Steel’s research facilities, Building C has been transformed into an invention incubator, where students in Creative Inquiry programs work on innovative projects that aim to solve community and global problems, and students in the Art, Architecture and Design Department ideate and create. In the high bays and offices are the departments of mechanical engineering, computer science and engineering, and industrial and systems engineering.

Lamberton Hall on the Asa Packer campus initially served as a dining hall and commons when it opened in 1907, and it has alternately housed the Department of Military Science and Lehigh’s Music Department. After undergoing extensive renovations in 2006, the building has become a popular social and programming space for the Lehigh community. 

The historic Chandler-Ullmann Hall, built in 1884 and initially the home of the Department of Chemistry, was renovated in 2019 to include new classrooms, faculty offices, study rooms and student zones. It now houses the department of mathematics and psychology.

An Iconic Building

As the first structure built for Lehigh, the CUC—initially known as Packer Hall—housed the president’s office, classrooms, a chemical laboratory, a library and chapel, all of which were later relocated on an expanding campus. A gym was added to the building in 1874. Then, as part of the extensive 1956 renovation, the interior was gutted and a three-story stone addition went up on the building’s south side, facing South Mountain. 

The new renovation project aims to restore the CUC as the heart of campus, as it was when the university was first established more than 150 years ago. 

“We’ve gotten a lot of student feedback,” said Lehigh project manager Jim LaRose ’11 G. “We’ve conducted focus groups and surveys, and we know the places students like on campus, like the EWFM [E.W. Fairchild-Martindale Library], the Grind. We’re trying to do something similar at the CUC and really get students to love the building again, to use it to its fullest extent, to serve them and the campus. Students don’t know how to navigate the building and don’t necessarily feel like they have ownership.”

Shepley Bulfinch, a national architecture, planning and interior design firm, is leading the redesign and renovation. Renovations will begin in November with site work. Though student services offices have already been temporarily relocated to Christmas-Saucon Hall, most sections of the CUC will remain open throughout the Fall 2022 semester for dining and meeting space. Interior renovations will get under way in 2023, with an anticipated opening by fall of 2025. 

“When you walk into the Clayton University Center now, it's really unclear why you would want to stay and linger there,” said Janette Blackburn, an architect and principal in charge of the project for Shepley Bulfinch, in addressing the need for the renovation. “What we're trying to do is create a whole network of destinations that have eating and meeting spaces for socializing and collaborating, and spaces for formal or informal events, so that the building is always alive, no matter the time of day or year. That means it needs to have spaces that are multifunctional.”

Lead designer architect Bob Mohr said the building, as a campus crossroads, needs to be welcoming to as many people as possible. “People come in from all corners of campus to the building, and through the building,” he said. “And so the idea is that we are creating spaces that work well for everyone. While some spaces lean toward food, and others lean toward work or recreation, everybody can find a home in the CUC.”

Plans went through several iterations, as Lehigh noted a shift in students’ dining patterns throughout the pandemic. In the focus groups, students were asked to describe their cherished Lehigh spaces and to share their design ideas, as well as their menu preferences. 

While students recognized the CUC’s grand architecture, they expressed a desire for more “comfortable” spaces where they could relax, find a better array of food options and enjoy a more vibrant atmosphere conducive to socializing. The students also expressed a need for spaces that allowed collaborative learning opportunities. 

As part of Lehigh’s ongoing efforts to advance its diversity, inclusion and equity (DI&E) goals, the university is partnering with construction manager Skanska USA to better engage minority, women, and disadvantaged business enterprises (MWDBE) in the project construction. Skanska provides training to those emerging businesses in construction business management fundamentals and ensures bid packages are structured to achieve higher rates of MWDBE participation. 

“What’s unique about this is the intentionality of the approach, of how we’re ensuring that we are considering and incorporating DI&E and our goals and principles into this project, every step of the way,” said Donald Outing, vice president for equity and community at Lehigh. 

Lower Eatery rendering

The renovated Clayton University Center will include a lower eatery on the first floor, where students, regardless if they have a meal plan, can gather to share a meal, study or pick up essentials from an adjacent convenience store. Rendering: Shepley Bulfinch

A New Student Experience

Floor by floor, the renovations promise to transform the student experience. 

The first level will feature:

  • The “living room,” anchored by one of the building’s original fireplaces, where students can gather and socialize.
  • A smart mart/retail space, where students can pick up meals on the go.
  • An open eatery where students, regardless if they have a meal plan, can gather to share a meal, study or pick up essentials from the adjacent convenience store. Unlike a traditional dining hall, the eatery will be open throughout the day.
  • A renovated Gallery and meeting rooms.

The second level will feature:

  • A club hub for student clubs and organizations.
  • A lounge for quiet reflection.
  • A multi-use space off the North Balcony where students can eat, study or relax.
  • An upper eatery that will offer à la carte dining options.
  • Meeting/work spaces.
  • A renovated south terrace and porch. 

Among the features on the third level are: 

  • A pub offering a full menu from breakfast through dinner. 
  • A lounge and game room (The Great Room, formerly the Asa Packer Room) with a temporary stage for entertainment.
  • A reflection room located in the building’s original north bell tower. 
  • A multi-use meeting space for executive meetings, conferences and large gatherings.

“What we're trying to do, just overall in a nutshell, is to create a much, much more welcoming experience for the whole range of people who use the building and to create a whole series of more inviting spaces,” Blackburn said.

Once the renovation is complete, the CUC is expected to be certified as LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design).

What we're trying to do ... is to create a much, much more welcoming experience for the whole range of people who use the building and to create a whole series of more inviting spaces.

Architect Janette Blackburn, principal in charge, Shepley Bulfinch

The CUC also will continue to house offices that serve students: the Office of First-Year Experience, which helps first-year, transfer and international students transition to Lehigh; the Office of Student Engagement, which provides opportunities for student involvement and leadership education; the Office of Multicultural Affairs, a safe space for students to engage in cross-cultural dialogue; the Pride Center, where all are welcome and encouraged to be their authentic selves; and the Center for Gender Equity, which provides a space for education and activism around gender issues.  

Additionally, the building will house the Community Service Office, which connects students, faculty and staff who are interested in volunteering with local agencies; the Office of Fraternity and Sorority Affairs, which develops programs that support student development, leadership and service within Greek life on campus; Student Center Facilities, which manages the building’s events; the Health Advancement and Prevention Services Office, which enhances institutional health and safety through education; and Gender Violence Education & Support, where support advocates are trained to support survivors of gender violence.

“The CUC is and has always been an iconic structure, with the exterior serving as a memorable work of art and architecture,” said Vice President of Student Affairs Ric Hall. “With its renovation, the outer beauty will be matched with interior spaces that will provide a warm setting for socializing, ample and flexible spaces for club meetings and programs, and updated dining experiences that align with students' evolving tastes and busy schedules. The CUC will in many ways serve as our campus living room and the student experience will be a main priority.”

Restoring the Historical Vision

The full-gut renovation of the building that took place in the 1950s changed the building’s original aesthetic, Mohr said. The windows were replaced with storm windows and insect screens that obscured the view onto the lawn area and reduced the amount of light flowing into the building. Added wood details and doors also hid some of the building’s original archways. 

The main challenge, he said, will be to reverse the clutter that happened in the 1950s project.

“What you have in there now is a pastiche of different styles,” Mohr said. “Part of our goal is to strip away a lot of what was added so that the oldest part of the building can have a stronger presence. We look for opportunities here and there to reveal an archway that might have been hidden behind a wall, or cleaning up a stone wall and highlighting it …  or making sure that the fireplace is put back into use and has a presence in the building.” 

New windows will improve the building’s energy performance, be easier to maintain and bring in more light. Shepley Bulfinch drew inspiration for the window system from the building’s original 1860s appearance.   

“After the renovation is over, the hope is that at night, when [the building] is full of life, it'll be glowing with those existing stone archways all along the north facade,” Mohr said. “And that's going to really let the building be its true self. 

It'll be renovated in our century, but it has components from the 20th century and the 19th century,” he said. “The 19th century building has that amazing stone facade, some of the elements of which will be featured on the inside.”

The new open stairway will improve movement and wayfinding between the second and third floors. As students enter the building from the south entrance, which will be modified to also allow in more light, they will be able to go up the central stairway to the third floor, where they will find the pub, the game room/lounge area and the executive conference room. 

Blackburn said the building’s historic wooden trusses and stained glass windows will be preserved on the third floor, in the space currently known as the Asa Packer Room, which will be turned over to student use for game nights, movie nights and other recreational activities.

“Students are always in a constant cycle, so a building like this has to be ultimately flexible because students’ tastes and needs are going to change,” Mohr said. “Our mantra has been: ultimate flexibility and adaptability of the building.”

Updates on the renovation project will continue to be shared on the website

Story by

Mary Ellen Alu

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