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You Visit Tour. Webb Lion Fountain. June 1 2017. Photo David B. Hollingsworth

Renovated Whitehurst Hall Will Greet Returning Students

By Harry Minium

When it opened in 1983, the six-story midrise residential hall was among the tallest buildings on Old Dominion University's campus. It offered students the most up-to-date conveniences, and many suites had breathtaking views of the Elizabeth River.

It was renamed Whitehurst Hall in 1997 to honor G. William Whitehurst, the former U.S. congressman and longtime ODU history and political science professor. Through the years, Whitehurst Hall housed tens of thousands of students, but it began to show its age.

While the building has great bones - thick concrete walls and floors that virtually eliminate noise from traveling between suites - ODU officials decided it needed a makeover.

Over the last year and a half, mechanical contractor D.E. Kirby of Portsmouth, under the direction of ODU Project Manager Lars Frost, completed a multimillion-dollar upgrade.

The 616 students who move into the facility on Tuesday will reap the benefits of a renovation skillfully carried out during the pandemic, when supply-chain issues limited availability of materials.

"The quality of the student experience has been tremendously advanced," said Bridget Weikel, associate vice president for learning, student engagement and enrollment services.

"They will not see some of the investments. Many investments are behind the walls. But they will experience the benefit from the environment that has been created."

For instance, the HVAC system was replaced with one that includes a geothermal system that will be among the first of its kind in a state building. With help from 194 deep wells drilled nearby, the system uses the natural heating and cooling available underground to save energy.

The geothermal system is expected to save $2 million over the effective life of the building.

The old heating and cooling systems did not allow students to control the temperatures in their suites, but the new system allows them to cool their rooms to 68 degrees or warm them to 78 degrees. There is also a fire-suppression system throughout that previously existed only in a few common areas.

"That gives us wonderful peace of mind for fire safety," Weikel said.

Students will also see a lot of changes on their sides of the walls, too. The flooring and ceilings have been replaced throughout the lobby and hallways. Ceramic tile has replaced carpet in some areas.

There is a Community Learning Center fully equipped with computers and equipment to help students design presentation centers.

The first-floor lobby has been redesigned as a place to mingle. It has a big-screen TV, a fireplace and plenty of room for students to sit.

Each floor has a study room with a large, flat-screen TV as well as laundry rooms and a common area for students to gather. Some floors offer kitchenettes.

The rooms have new flooring, updated wiring and new, energy-efficient windows. The walls were freshly painted.

The furniture, much of it made of Ukrainian cypress wood, is new. A typical suite has two beds, two desks and two dressers.

The University installed the latest internet infrastructure that allows students to use Wi-Fi or plug-in ports. The ports, Frost noted, "are really good for gaming."

New elevators have also been installed, and they quickly zip people from floor to floor.

Although Whitehurst no longer has a dining hall, the kitchen has been renovated and will provide snacks and ready-made meals at a first-floor POD.

Students may also notice new branding efforts. Teal is everywhere and intended to tie the facility to the waterfront experience.

Located at the west end of 48th Street, Whitehurst Hall is only steps from Whitehurst Beach, a popular spot with students, and the ODU Sailing Center.

More amenities are coming next fall that will strengthen ties to the water and perhaps make Whitehurst a gathering place for students from all over campus interested in outdoor activities.

The old cafeteria will be renovated into an outdoor adventure center. Kayaks, bikes and other equipment now available for rent in the Student Recreation Center will be moved to the cafeteria location.

"That's going to be so much more convenient for students to get outside and take advantage of the waterfront location," Weikel said.

In addition, an outdoor adventure area will be constructed outside the residential hall. It will include a rope-climbing apparatus.

The project was a labor of love for Frost, an ODU alum and first-generation graduate. He found a portrait of Whitehurst in the building and put it in his office for safekeeping.

"Because of the pandemic and supply-side issues, this was a difficult project to manage," he said. "But I saw Mr. Whitehurst every day and that was in part my motivation."

He took pride in the project because it will be three or more decades before a similar renovation is needed.

"Sometimes it's really smart to renovate a facility rather than tear down and build something new," he said. "The concrete in this building is immaculate even after four decades. This is a great place for students to live."

Whitehurst Hall is the first major residential project since ODU opened Owens House in 2021. That building is named for Hugo A. Owens, a civil rights pioneer and the first African American rector of ODU's Board of Visitors. Owens House can house 470 students, second in size only to Whitehurst.

"Opening Owens House was very exciting," Weikel said. "To have that tied to an historic, influential leader, that was really exciting.

"It's also exciting to have renovated a building named for an historic, influential leader.

"Whitehurst Hall has a long history at ODU. Many of our alumni maintain an attachment to Whitehurst Hall. We're so glad that tradition will continue, and that so many new students will reap the rewards from the renovations."

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