The University of Alabama Breaks Ground at Historic Bryce Main

Melissa Anderson

Marketing Coordinator

April 11, 2022

A TURNERBATSON project was recently featured in the latest issue of The Tuscaloosa News celebrating the groundbreaking of The University of Alabama’s Bryce Main Welcome Center. TURNERBATSON is leading the design team in the restoration and repurposing of this historic Alabama landmark. Principal Eric Berg participated in the ceremony for this extraordinary project.

University of Alabama leaders, Randall family break ground on new campus welcome center

Article Written by Mark Hughes Cobb at The Tuscaloosa News
Image Credit: Gary Cosby Jr. with The Tuscaloosa News

On a gloriously sunny spring day, golden shovels shone and dug into a ceremonial mound of earth outside historic Bryce Main, as the University of Alabama broke ground Friday on its forthcoming “front door,” the Catherine and Pettus Randall Welcome Center.

“I was speaking with a group from up north yesterday, recruiting students, as we do here often,” said UA President Stuart R. Bell, “and I said ‘You know, it’s like this every day in Tuscaloosa.’ “

Members of the notably philanthropic Randall family joined UA leaders, construction and architectural teams, numerous donors and alumni outside on the back porch of the Bryce House for talks and introductions, then walked or rode down Bryce Lawn Drive for photos of the groundbreaking.

“As the saying goes, good things come to those who wait,” said Bob Pierce, vice president for advancement, who helped lead fundraising for what will be an $83,750,000 restoration project for Bryce Main.

The Randall Welcome Center will occupy the ground floor of Bryce Main, while rising above will be offices for UA’s Department of Theatre and Dance, its classrooms, studios, and rehearsal halls, along with museums dedicated to the history of UA and mental health in Alabama.

“This facility in its restored glory will undoubtedly be worth the wait,” Pierce said.

Informal tours were led through the building, which opened in 1861 as Alabama State Hospital for the Insane, later renamed for Dr. Peter Bryce, its innovative first superintendent.

Architect Samuel Sloan designed the hospital using the Kirkbride Plan, a “moral architecture” concept crafted by 1830s activists Thomas Story Kirkbride and Dorothea Dix. Construction began in 1853, taking several years to complete, and becoming the first building in Tuscaloosa with gas lighting and central heat.

Sloan also designed downtown Tuscaloosa’s Jemison-Van de Graaff Mansion, for Robert Jemison Jr., a planter, politician and businessman who’d been crucial in bringing the state mental hospital to the Druid City. Sloan stayed abreast of latest technologies, making that house one of the city’s first with running water, flush toilets, a hot water boiler and its own coal gas plant.

The home is co-named for his great-grandson, born in the mansion, Robert Jemison van de Graaff, a renowned physicist who designed and constructed the high-voltage Van de Graaff generators, spending most of his career at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Princeton University.

The Italianate domed construction on the Bryce Hospital campus rose as striking center of a seven-building connected facility, built to house 250 patients. By 1861, the project cost about $280,000, which would amount to more than $9 million today, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics consumer price index.

Work to shore up the more than 160-year-old building has begun, with new staircases added, and years of debris cleaned out, by J. T. Harrison Construction Co., following designs from Birmingham-based TurnerBatson Architects.

UA purchased the 168-acre Bryce property in 2010 from the Alabama Department of Mental Health. In 2014 the UA system’s board of trustees took its initial formal steps to “save, restore and preserve Bryce Main,” Pierce said.

As part of the purchase, UA agreed to restore components of Bryce Main, and preserve original fixtures and construction where possible. A section of crumbling cornice work circling inside the towering dome has been removed, to be scanned and recreated in modern materials.

The adjacent superintendent’s house, where opening remarks were given, now called The Bryce House, was restored as of August 2021, at a cost of more than $4.3 million.

Adjoining Bryce Main will be added-on buildings to become the 130,000 square-foot Smith Family Center for the Performing Arts, named for a UA alumni family that recently donated $20 million. That project is expected to cost up to $60 million, of which about $38 million has been raised.

Former UA athletic director Bill Battle, who with his wife Mary lead the $15 million Campaign for the Performing Arts, with Hollywood star Sela Ward, a 1977 UA grad serving as honorary chair, noted the paired projects blend like a couple slow-dancing.

The timeline should go roughly this way, according to Pierce:

  • Spring 2023: Groundbreaking for the Smith Center.
  • January 2024: Ribbon-cutting on the Randall Welcome Center.
  • January 2026: Grand gala and inaugural performances in the Smith Center.

The 15,000-square-foot Randall Welcome Center will include areas for prospective students and their families to gather for campus tours, along with a lounge, theater and UA admissions offices.

Once established, the interior will not remain static, said Matthew McLendon, associate vice president and executive director of enrollment management.

“We are going to be purchasing state-of-the-art, curved, ultra-thin OLED digital signage displays, for an intense immersive experience,” he said. “This will have project mapping systems which essentially allow a student to sit and experience a classroom lecture; experience a game day; experience a conversation with alumni as they are there.

“And so I think, for me the way that I really describe this is as a living stage, or a little bit nerdy, as we’re saying here: pixels with a purpose,” McLendon added.

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