Friday, September 24, 1999

New era begins for UC

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        If you're driving along Martin Luther King Drive late at night and see lights burning through the massive, oddly shaped windows of the new Vontz Center for Molecular Studies, think about this:

        That white-coated scientist spending the wee hours staring into a microscope or pecking at a computer terminal could be the one who finds a breakthrough therapy for breast cancer or Alzheimer's disease.

        High hopes for the status of a university, for the economy of a Midwestern city, and ultimately for the legions of people stricken by cancer and other diseases were evident at dedication ceremonies Thursday for the Vontz Center.

        The curves and bulges of the $46 million building, designed by world-renowned architect Frank Gehry, have drawn international praise in architectural circles and a new respect for UC from local critics who have long viewed the campus as a stodgy jumble of concrete boxes.

        “This campus was a huge parking lot for most of its existence,” said UC President Joseph Steger. “Not much thought had been given to architecture ... beauty ... or a sense of place. Now, we're starting to realize that.”

        But the deeper impact of the Vontz Center will come from what goes on inside.

        None said it better than Al Vontz Jr. himself, a Cincinnati businessman whose $5 million donation led to the building's name.

        “I'm happy I'm able to give back to my university and the city of Cincinnati in a manner that will give them international attention,” Mr. Vontz said. “I hope the work that will be done in this building will have as great an impact as the building has been on the architectural community.”

        UC officials call the project a new gateway to the medical campus and a symbol of a new entrepreneurial spirit in local research. Many see the basic research to be conducted at the Vontz Center as the first step in a wider community effort to make Greater Cincinnati a major player in the fast-growing world of biotechnology.

        The economic potential made it worth spending more than $30 million in state funds for the Vontz Center, said state Sen. Lou Blessing, R-Colerain Township.

        “It has been said that the government on occasion wastes money. This isn't one of them,” Mr. Blessing said.

        The 150,000-square-foot building has three floors of laboratories and offices for researchers from five divisions of the UC Medical Center:

        • The French Cancer Institute will house expanded cancer research under the direction of Dr. Kenneth Foon, a cancer vaccine expert who was recruited to UC last year from the University of Kentucky.

        • The Hemotology-Oncology Division of Internal Medicine, another arm of cancer research, under the direction of Dr. John Winkelmann.

        • The Department of Cell Biology, Neurobiology and Anatomy, which performs a wide range of basic medical research, under the direction of Dr. Peter Stambrook.

        • The Department of Neurology, under the direction of Dr. Frank Sharp, a professor recently recruited from the University of California-San Francisco, who is noted for his work in stroke, Alzheimer's and other neurological diseases.

        • The Endocrinology and Metabolism Division of Internal Medicine, under the direction of Dr. James Fagin.

        The new building thrills Dr. Larry Sherman, a researcher in the cell biology division who is working on genetic therapy ideas for breast cancer.

        He looks forward to having more space to work, more money for the best equipment, plus an open laboratory layout that encourages collaboration among scientists who previously had little personal contact.

        In fact, its users raved almost as much about the modular lab layout — designed by Earl Walls — as they did about Mr. Gehry's overall architectural statement.

        The most unusual aspect of the Vontz Center is the extra-thick “floors” between the research levels, which Mr. Walls calls interstitial spaces.

        Rather than cramming miles of pipes, wires, and air ducts into narrow crawl-spaces between floors, the Vontz Center was designed with walk-through utility levels between the research floors.

        It cost more to build “walk-on” ceilings, but long-term, the design will save money by allowing rapid refitting and upgrading without the work interfering with research projects. This will allow the building to remain modern longer, Mr. Walls said.

        Less than 5 percent of medical lab buildings nationwide use interstitial spaces, Mr. Walls said.

        If the lofty spaces and cutting-edge equipment aren't enough inspiration for researchers, those who enter the Vontz Center's main lobby will pass through a permanent display of medals and memorabilia from Cincinnati's greatest scientist — Albert Sabin.

        Dr. Sabin's oral polio vaccine, developed in Cincinnati, is credited with the near-global eradication of the once-feared disease.

        The display was never intended to resolve the debate over whether Dr. Sabin's name will stay on Cincinnati's soon-to-be-expanded convention center. But Dr. Sabin's widow, Heloisa Sabin, said it was still a great honor to see the display in such a “spectacular building.”

        “Some of the things were difficult to give (especially Dr. Sabin's most-prized Medal of Science),” Mrs. Sabin said. “But this is for generations to come. Dr. Sabin would have loved this building.”


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