Students Build Admissions Desk from Trees Downed by Hurricane Sandy

The oak trees stood like sentinels on South Mountain long before Lehigh was Lehigh. They witnessed the birth of the university and thrived on Packer Campus for nearly 150 years—until the ferocious winds of Hurricane Sandy toppled them in October 2012.

Fortunately, those mighty oaks retain their majesty today, having been given new life as an enormous reception desk in the Alumni Memorial Building. The desk stands at nearly 11 feet wide, 10 feet long and 45 inches high at its tallest point. Designed and built by Lehigh students, it serves as a physical representation of the university’s industrious and collaborative spirit.   

“It has this rich Lehigh history literally ingrained in the wood,” says Brian Slocum ’97, managing director of the Wilbur Powerhouse and Design Labs and director of Lehigh’s Additive Manufacturing Lab. Slocum recognized the value of the oak, salvaged it and had it milled and dried. He later recruited wood shop manager Mike Moore ’12 and several students to build conference tables for Williams Hall and President John Simon’s office. Then, in September 2015, they took on an even larger project for Lehigh Admissions: the new reception desk for the atrium of Alumni Memorial that provides a more centralized welcome experience for visitors.

Slocum and Moore assembled a team of students—Elana Abrams ’19, Zach Caruso ’16, John Flory ’19, Kathryn (Katie) Hooven ’16, Deanna Kocher ’17, John Obiedzinski ’17, Evan Simon ’19 and Burlan (B.A.) Sizemore ’18—and got started. Moore says it was the largest project he’s ever worked on. Using the Lehigh oak to construct a desk that would be seen by countless visitors to the university, says Slocum, elevated the project for all involved.

“We talked about the experience of potential students coming to campus. We talked about being able to look across at those glass doors [in the Alumni Memorial Building] and being amazed at the campus that’s on the other side,” says Slocum.

Abrams, an IDEAS (integrated degree in engineering, arts and sciences) program student studying mechanical engineering and product design, says the team took the details and aesthetic of Alumni Memorial Hall into account in the desk’s design. 

“I think we came up with a desk that integrated the details of the building in a graceful way,” she says.

A challenging, collaborative experience

Once a final design was selected, the team fabricated the sizable desk in Lehigh’s woodshop. They created individual tool paths and CNC routed each of the desk’s 16 exterior and 26 interior panels as well as its black walnut detail. The team also hand-sanded the detail work and built the desk’s internal frame, bending and welding more than 250 feet of powder-coated steel box tube in the metal shop at Wilbur Powerhouse.  

“After months of design, woodworking, welding, meetings and troubleshooting, we ended with a desk that I think everyone was very proud of,” says Sizemore, a mechanical engineering major.

“The desk was challenging to design and build because of its uniqueness, but it turned out more beautiful than we could have imagined,” agrees Hooven, who received a BA in architecture and a BS in civil engineering and is currently working towards an MS in structural engineering.

Moore describes the process as quintessential Lehigh.

“We were there as guides and mentors, but to me it seemed to be much closer to the original idea of the university—students working and faculty members working, but working together towards a common goal,” he says. 

“It was certainly hard and tedious work at times,” says Caruso, who is currently pursuing a master’s degree in mechanical engineering. “That being said, when I think about how I helped create something that's going to be one of the first impressions prospective students have of the university for years to come, I would say it was worth a bit of wrist cramp.”

Photos by Christa Neu

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