Footsteps and a murmur of conversation echoed through the classrooms and hallways of the repurposed Romney Hall on the afternoon of Friday, Nov. 12, as speakers and community members made their way to the new Cruzado Auditorium on the third floor of the building for its Grand Opening.
Romney had been closed since the summer of 2019 for renovations funded by House Bill 652, which was passed by the 66th Montana Legislature and signed into law by former Gov. Steve Bullock in May of 2019. The university had been requesting funding from the state legislature since 2010 to remodel the building, which only had 141 classroom seats available at the time and had partially fallen into disuse.
“Due to our growth in student enrollment the building was still in use although not to its full potential,” President Cruzado said.
In order to obtain the funding from the Montana Legislature, a super majority vote had to be secured, which didn’t happen until the 2019 session. The renovations to Romney Hall cost $32 million, with $25 million coming from the house bill and $7 million coming from private donors. There are now over 1,000 classroom seats available and, according to MSU, it will become one of the most used buildings on campus —home to classes from all academic departments.
Several offices from across campus will also have homes in the new building. MSU’s Writing Center and Math Center will move into the building from Wilson Hall, while the Veterans Center and Office of Disability Services will move from the SUB.
The Veterans Center will be named after Staff Sgt. Travis Atkins, from Great Falls, MT, who was killed when he threw himself on top of a suicide bomber during a deployment in Iraq in 2007, saving three fellow soldiers.
The office provides free counseling, mentoring and tutoring services for veterans. Joe Schumacher, director of Veteran Services, called the new center a “game changer” for veterans.
In the Writing and Math Centers, students are provided free tutoring and resources for writing essays and completing projects or homework, for example.
Michelle Miley, director of the Writing Center, and Elizabeth Burroughs, chair of the department of mathematical sciences, expressed appreciation that the new centers will provide better space for students to learn together and take advantage of the resources offered by these offices.
The Office of Disability Services helps students with disabilities find resources to succeed in class and provides assistance for navigating class and campus.
Norris Blossom, ASMSU president, amusedly recalled entering the writing center with his own work and exiting with an improved product, and said the services provided by the offices help hold students’ lives together.
David Sussberg, who graduated MSU with a master’s degree in science education, spoke on behalf of the Office of Disability Services and said the office helped him access his classes by clearing pathways of snow for him to navigate campus with his wheelchair during the winter. Prior to being renovated, Romney was “almost inaccessible” to students with disabilities, having no elevators, ramps or accessible restrooms, according to MSU. Post-rebuild, the building is now fully compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). It has elevator access to each floor, ramps into classrooms, and accessible bathrooms.
Each of the speakers addressed the crowd of attendees from the center of the round auditorium, where a circle of flooring from the Romney gym remains. The original building opened in 1923 as MSU’s fitness facility and served as the “center of campus athletics” until 1958, according to the university. At the opening, MSU’s enrollment was approximately 600 students, compared to the 16,841 enrolled this fall. The restored gym flooring extends across the third floor into other classrooms as well.
The structural fortitude of the historic building is a staple of Romney Hall. In an interview with the Exponent before the start of the school year, President Cruzado said the “foundation is so strong, that building has such good bones” that it was difficult for construction machinery to open up parts of the building for remodeling.
Romney Hall will also be sustainable going into the future. Connected to a field of 84 geothermal wells underneath the campus oval, the building will be cooled and heated with “almost no assistance” from MSU’s main heating plant, according to MSU. The wells are projected to decrease the university’s carbon emissions by one million pounds per year.
The student support offices will move into Romney in the coming months, and classes will be hosted in the building starting in the spring 2022 semester.