Bentley completion expected in May, pandemic cited for delays

A student walks in front of the east wing of Bentley Hall

Bentley Hall has stood for almost two centuries as the symbol of Allegheny College and — for several decades — was the only building on campus. Nicholas Woronchuk, ’21, remembers the building as laden with history.

“Going into it, you could tell it was old,” Woronchuk said. “Just the way it was constructed, the floor was uneven from the years of boards warping. They had this really cool wooden staircase in there that you had to climb to get  up to the registrar’s office. And, you know, walking in and walking around and looking at everything and smelling the building, you definitely got the sense that it was old, but they maintained it very well, everything was finished.”

In 2018, construction began to modernize the building’s infrastructure and restore both the interior and exterior, originally scheduled to be completed in August of 2020. Now, eight months later, hard hats are still required, plastic sheeting still hangs over the entrances, and a chain-link fence still surrounds the site.

Director of Major Capital Projects Cliff Willis cited the COVID-19 pandemic as the source of the construction delays.

Willis explained that supply chains are being disrupted across the country and around the world, and that has limited the supply of building materials to the site. The pandemic has also hit the construction team.

“We’ve had a couple instances of positive COVID tests and (we’ve) been able to take prompt action and keep working without spreading on the job,” Willis said.  “But work certainly has gone slower. Just the fact that people have to work (while) wearing face masks all the time — when you’re doing physical labor for eight-plus hours a day, it takes its toll on you.”

Willis also noted that changes with the availability of the subcontractors have adjusted the project’s completion date.

“Sometimes subcontractors have had to direct their workforces elsewhere so they’ll either have a reduced presence or no presence on the job for a while,” Willis said. “All of those (factors) have combined to impact the schedule, and it’s caused (the schedule) to slip a number of times.”

Some work still remains on the exterior of the building, though most has already been finished.

“The preponderance of the exterior work has been completed,” Willis said. “However, we are having to redo the flat roof at the base of the bell tower. The original work was not acceptable and would not be warranted by the manufacturer. The subcontractor who’s performing that work has returned to campus and they are redoing that work . . . We have a slight bit of concrete to do on the sidewalk that leads to the north entrance, and the north portico is being restored, the columns are being returned, and final plaques will be put back on the building to complete that work.”

Once this exterior work is completed, Willis expects the outer trappings of construction to be removed and for the building to appear finished from the outside.

“All the construction debris and equipment has to be removed,” Willis said. “We’ll do final grading of the site and the planting of the grass. That work will take place in early springtime, (and) we’re hoping to have it completed in April.”

On the interior, a wide variety of work still remains. While the wood trim on the second floor has been “essentially” completed, Willis said that such work is still in progress on the first, third and ground floors.

Last week, measurements were taken for the glass walls of Bentley’s seminar room, which Willis expects to be delivered towards the end of March.

The renovation to the seminar room reflects the “holistic improvement” to Bentley that Ron Cole, ’87, provost and dean of the college, sees in the work. He thinks that the new and improved Bentley can serve as a focal point for the entire college community.

“The goal for Bentley is to restore it close to its original form,” Cole said. “Bentley Hall was Allegheny College when the college was launched, and it’s meant now to become a vibrant center for the college, a place that should be more livened than it was.”

By having the building serve as a common space, he hopes that it will ease tensions between the student body and the administration.

“It will help to bridge gaps,” Cole said. “It will help to show students where some of the administration works, who the administration is. It will help administrators keep front of mind the student experience, which is by-and-large why we’re all here.”

However, not all students agree with Cole. In a poll on The Campus’ Instagram account, only 29 of the 95 respondents thought that a renovated Bentley Hall would improve the student experience at Allegheny — around 30.5%. And the work is still months away from being finished.

“The present schedule, which I got today, shows the 22nd of April as project completion,” Willis said. “That would be work done by Massaro, the general contractor. We still have interior work that has to be done, that’s the college’s responsibility.”

That interior work ranges from installing artwork and plaques to redoing the flooring entirely.

“In the second and third floor corridor, in the conference room, in each stairway, in the offices of the President’s two (staffers), will be custom carpet that’s coming from the United Kingdom,” Willis said. “That carpet has not arrived in-country yet. We anticipate it arriving sometime in mid-April. It comes in separate pieces and has to be sewn together for installation. We’re anticipating right now if there are no problems with the pandemic, with shipping and delivery, that that work should be done by mid-May.”

With commencement scheduled for May 22, the college isn’t currently planning to move administrative offices back into Bentley before the end of the spring semester.

“What’s likely is, with the semester coming to an end, we probably won’t do it then because there are a lot of activities for the offices that are going to be moving back into Bentley,” Willis said.

A late-May or early-June conclusion would extend the project to almost a year after construction was planned to be finished. Still, the project has yet to experience any cost overruns.

“We still have contingency money to spend,” Willis said. “There are some expenses that our contractor has had to deal with themselves that’s outside the scope of the contract. Right now, we’re under budget.”

Woronchuck, for one, believes the administration. He sees no incentive for the college to fabricate the operational budget when they’ve already invested so much into the project.

“I think they would be inclined to go over-budget because it’s such a historic building, and it’s kind of the centerpiece of campus,” Woronchuck said.  “I think regardless they would have found money or put forth the money to finish it.”

Almost three-quarters of respondents to an Instagram poll — 68 responses of 92 total responses — said they do not believe that the Bentley project is running under budget.

Over the next few weeks, students can expect to see the plastic tents on the exterior removed, and for the final grading of the site to take place.