View of Morton Hall Renovations & new extension from across the quad.

Refurbished Morton Hall along with new extension from across the quad.

Michael Mercier | UAH

It’s a fact of life: change is inevitable. And Morton Hall has witnessed its fair share over the past six decades. The historic structure houses the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences (CAHS) at the University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH), a part of The University of Alabama System. The cornerstone facility was the first building ever constructed on a campus that has grown from 83 acres to over 500, and a few hundred students to 10,000 today. Long the most visible “face” of the university since opening its doors in 1961, Morton Hall classrooms have provided the first portal to university life for virtually every Charger undergraduate for the last 59 years.

Yet, aside from an addition nearly half a century ago, the venerated building itself has remained relatively unchanged – until now. This fall the facility is being unveiled as the newest educational building on campus after undergoing a major, multi-year renovation and expansion project.

“The vision for the new facility considered both the enrollment growth on campus the past five years and the importance of facilitating a wide variety of educational, research and creative activities,” says Dr. Sean Lane, Dean of the CAHS. “So, in addition to classrooms, we have new scientific laboratories, the Black Box Theatre and an amphitheater. It was also important to provide spaces students could utilize between classes and for public events. These kinds of activities are vital for creating a deeply engaged and energized culture here at UAH.”

Morton was in dire need of modernization to support today’s classroom technologies and accessibility needs. Although the original exterior of the existing structure remains relatively unchanged, the interior has been completely gutted, reconfigured and updated with all new building systems.

“It’s been exciting and rewarding to support this project,” says Greg Smith, Assistant Vice President, Facilities & Operations. “We began with several major goals: (1) Convert the original building into a modern, flexible space facility to enhance the learning environment and instructional technologies, while preserving the iconic building exterior; (2) Improve the safety and functionality of the facility via automated mechanical systems, life safety, energy efficiency and natural lighting improvements; and (3) Expand the facility by approximately 30% to add larger classrooms, faculty support space and student collaboration amenities.”

The ground floor of the reimagined structure includes new classrooms and lab accommodations. The original building, comprising 72,000 square feet, received a two-story expansion as well to increase the total area to roughly 118,000 square feet. The extended floorplan features shared common areas and study spaces for Charger students and supports 32 classrooms of various sizes, seminar rooms, five classrooms with tiered seating and a lecture hall with a capacity for 124 students. The new plan also provides 130 offices for faculty and staff, primarily on the second floor. The first floor encompasses the CAHS Dean’s Suite and advising offices, along with additional classroom space.

“The classroom spaces were designed to accommodate a wide variety of class sizes, from large lecture sections to smaller seminar spaces,” Dr. Lane says. “An important feature is flexibility. For many of the classrooms, the tables and chairs can be reconfigured to create different learning environments to facilitate techniques like collaborative learning. Others have multiple screens around the room that allow groups of students to work on different projects simultaneously. All classrooms have been updated with the latest audio-visual equipment. We also have a keyboard laboratory classroom for students in Music.”

The most challenging aspect of this expansion was incorporating an extension to the Morton Hall floorplan that brings 21st century flair and functionality to a building originally designed with earlier notions of what a university facility should be. The expansion offers a contemporary style that remains respectful to the existing building without mimicking the traditional architecture.

“It has been very exciting for faculty, students and alumni to see the transformation,” Dr. Lane says. “Old Morton Hall was beloved, but the new Morton Hall complex is set to provide the foundation for the next sixty years (or more) of research, learning and student life. UAH’s investment in the new facility shows how much the university values the outstanding work of the faculty of the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences. We appreciate the vision and leadership of former President Altenkirch, President Dawson, Provost Curtis and Assistant Vice-President Smith, among many others, who helped us to make the new Morton Hall a reality.”

The Black Box Theatre is a relatively recent innovation in theatre performance design that supports both traditional and experimental productions, allows for flexible staging and provides enhanced possibilities for audience interaction.

“The theatre is an exciting new addition to the performing venues on the UAH campus and a huge endorsement of the Theatre BA now available,” says David Harwell, the UAH Theatre Program Director. “This space has been painstakingly designed to allow maximum flexibility with the performance configuration. Future presentations may be in-the-round, arena or proscenium style, as the show requires. Its two-story design features a catwalk that surrounds the space to allow for technical enhancement of the sensory experience. The theatre also boasts backstage areas for actors and technicians to seamlessly interact with live events.”

The term ‘black box’ refers to the absence of color in the performance space, designed to give the audience a sense of “anyplace,” allowing flexibility from play to play or scene to scene. This versatility enables the audience to focus on the ‘human’ aspects of the performance, while still supporting technical innovations and state-of-the-art lighting designs.

“The UAH Theatre Program has a history of innovative performances using spaces on campus that were not specifically designed for theatre productions,” Dr. Lane says. “For the first time, the program will have a facility on the UAH campus that allows our faculty and students to truly showcase their creativity and talent. The flexibility and adaptability of the space will allow the Theatre Program to grow in new ways. For instance, we have already invested in streaming capabilities for the Black Box, which will allow them to offer performances even when audiences are not able to visit us in person. Having this dedicated space will also enhance our ability to recruit new students into the Theatre major.”

Professor Harwell agrees. “The new facility represents a clear testament to UAH’s belief in the intrinsic value that the UAH Theatre Program represents to our students, faculty and community at large.”

The new structural footprint of Morton Hall enhances exterior versatility as well, beautifying the campus and improving pedestrian traffic flow.

“The expansion runs perpendicular to the original structure and creates an ‘L’-shaped building that extends outward toward Frank Franz Hall,” Smith says. “What was once a vehicular drive has been transformed into a large pedestrian quad that will offer a beautiful greenspace, an amphitheatre, shaded sitting areas and sidewalks. The quadrangle also provides a grand north terminus for the Altenkirch Lawn ‘Greenway’ with new pedestrian walkways, exterior lighting and all new landscaping.”

This inventive approach to planning and layout dramatically transforms the area, providing the UAH community with a bold new outdoor space for gatherings and performances, as well as seating for relaxing or meeting with classmates and colleagues. The interior design plan provides enhanced safety and accessibility as well.

“Our project team intentionally designed and built the theatre and adjacent lecture hall to also serve as large capacity tornado shelters to protect our students, faculty and staff,” Smith says. “We also made building improvements to better serve those with disabilities and/or mobility impairments.”

Overall, CAHS students, faculty and staff will benefit in many different ways from the features incorporated into the fresh design.

“The measure of a new facility is how well it supports the innovation, collaboration and activities of its occupants,” Dr. Lane notes. “Teaching and learning will be facilitated by the variety of new state-of-the-art classrooms. Research and creative activity will be enhanced by new laboratories and the Black Box Theatre. More importantly, the common spaces inside and surrounding Morton Hall will provide places where people can come together to talk, study, play or just relax.”

The total cost of the Morton Hall renovations and expansion is approximately $30 million. The architect of record is Nola Van Peursem Architects, and the general contractor is Pearce Construction Co., each from Huntsville.

To say the least, the fact that the project was completed during a global pandemic is a testament to the drive and perseverance of every team member, a real embodiment of the university exhortation to “Charge on!”

“The new Morton Hall has sparked creativity and provided hope,” Dr. Lane says. “Faculty and students have said moving into the new facility has made them excited about the future. The overriding feeling is that the reality of Morton Hall has exceeded expectations. The facility provides new opportunities for faculty and students, and the process of making those opportunities a reality comes next. The true nature of Morton Hall comes from the people in it. I can’t wait to see their creativity as they make it their own.”

With all these changes, one might wonder about a particularly hallowed UAH tradition: Will incoming students still attend classes in the new Morton Hall as their entre to college life?

“Absolutely!” Dr. Lane assures those who have fond memories of their own in this iconic building. “A number of general education courses are already being offered by CAHS faculty in Morton Hall with students from other colleges. In addition, we anticipate that courses taught by faculty from across the university will be offered in coming semesters. We look forward to having a prominent place in future alumni’s memories.”



Dr. Sean Lane

Greg Smith

Russ Nelson