Chatham University

The Mellon Board Room

Upon purchasing the former George Laughlin House in 1917, Andrew W. Mellon performed significant renovations to the house, including the installation of a bowling alley and indoor swimming pool featuring a vaulted Guastavino ceiling. Guastavino’s tile system was popular because it enabled structures to span great distances without the weight of wood or iron. The relatively thin tiles (the Mellon Board Room tiles are approximately ¾” thick) were also fireproof and easy to transport. The structure of the pool and bowling alley were inserted inside the existing walls of the terrace, creating what is believed to be one of the earliest indoor residential pools in the United States, and possibly the first west of the Allegheny Mountains.

After Mellon Hall was given to Pennsylvania College for Women (now Chatham University) in 1941 by Andrew’s son Paul, the house was used first as a residence hall and later as the main administration building, which remains its current use. The bowling alley was converted into the Broadcast Studio in 2003, and the pool continued to be utilized by students until the opening of the Athletic and Fitness Center in 2004. A new use for the old pool became a leading priority.

The pool itself was drained since years of humidity were having a deleterious effect on Mellon Hall’s exquisite woodwork. Since access to the new Broadcast Studio and pool area were limited to a winding tunnel with several sets of steps that descend from the house’s lower level, and a steep set of steps from the lower-level terrace to the pool, an adaptive use of the old pool would solve accessibility issues while creating a multi-functional and column-free space.

In 2006 the University engaged Rothschild Doyno Architects to develop an adaptive reuse plan for the former pool and terrace. The project would renovate the pool into a multi-purpose meeting room while preserving the historic Guastavino tiles. Another requirement was to create a handicapped-accessible entrance to serve both the Mellon Board Room and Broadcast Studio. This accessible entrance required significant reconfiguration of the landscape in order to meet the requirements for accessible paths while maintaining several legacy trees planted by the Mellons as part of their landscape plan, originally laid out by the renowned landscape architects, the Olmsted Brothers.

Dedicated on October 18, 2007 the Mellon Board Room and Terrace add a stunningly modern, yet classical motif to the 111-year-old Mellon Hall. The sandstone terrace balustrade and other upper terrace materials which deteriorated over time were replaced with replicated balusters and finishings in a sturdier limestone. The new entablature surrounding the terrace is carved with Chatham University’s historic names and their founding dates – Pennsylvania Female College (1869); Pennsylvania College for Women (1890); Chatham College (1955) and Chatham University (2007).

One of the two staircases that led from the terrace to Mellon Pond was converted into a sloped landscape planter and a new handicapped-accessible path now connects the building to adjacent campus paths. Trees significant to the Chatham Arboretum were protected throughout the project, and the landscape is now further enhanced with the historic trees framing the new limestone-arched main entrance. The redesigned landscape opens new vistas to the rear of Mellon Hall and new perspectives for some of the Chatham Arboretum’s most significant trees, including a Japanese Laceleaf Maple near the main entrance.

The new lower patio wraps the building, providing outdoor spaces to compliment the adapted facility. The lowering of this surrounding land also provided two sides of the former pool space to receive much needed natural light. The existing sandstone foundation at the lower terrace walls was exposed, bush hammered and pointed, utilizing existing stone as well as stone recovered during the demolition and excavation process.

Three original arched windows on the north façade were covered with mechanical equipment, but a study of historic photographs revealed their existence. The new design adapts those openings for new windows and doors to allow direct access to the north terrace which overlooks the pond. The doors and windows were designed and hand-crafted by Tadao Arimoto of Arimoto Design and Woodworking, Inc., from FSC (Forest Stewardship Council)-certified mahogany, ensuring that the mahogany was sustainably harvested for use.

Inside, the Guastavino ceiling and walls were re-grouted, replacing the old grout which had turned nearly black from years of industrial pollution that permeated many Pittsburgh homes. Some tiles were replaced, while all were cleaned to reveal Guastavino’s architectural success in striking detail.

New lighting was installed to both illuminate the interior and accentuate the vaulted ceiling. Carpeting and fabric-covered acoustic wall panels were designed to moderate the sound – often difficult to control in similar vaulted rooms – and also to bring greater warmth to the large hall. New HVAC, sound and lighting systems were installed to make the new Mellon Board Room a flexible space, while the old pool itself still exists – covered, not filled in – under the main floor and serves as the mechanical room.

The Mellon Board Room and Terrace provide new gathering spaces for the University community but most importantly preserve a significant part of Pittsburgh’s and Chatham University’s shared histories.