Reimagining the Black House: Where Legacy and Future Meet

In spring of 2015, the Vice President for Student Affairs Dr. Patricia Telles-Irvin made it a priority to assess and improve black undergraduate students’ experience at Northwestern University. She created the Black Student Experience Task Force, composed of faculty, students, alumni, and staff to examine the issue. They  determined 14 different themes and recommendations on which the University should focus its efforts to improve Black student satisfaction.

One of these recommendations advocated for the development of safe spaces in which black students felt comfortable and could find resources, programming, and community. The Black House, located at 1914 Sheridan Road, has always been a haven for the black community, but it needed a renovation. Therefore, reimagining its use for future generations while honoring its legacy became a concrete objective in the effort to enrich the black student experience at Northwestern.  

In September 2016, Dr. Telles-Irvin formed the Black House Feasibility Study Steering Committee composed of faculty, graduate students, undergraduate students, alumni, staff, and architects, and co-chaired by Executive Director of Campus Inclusion and Community Dr. Lesley-Ann Brown-Henderson and Associate Vice President and Chief of staff for Student Affairs Dr. Julie Payne-Kirchmeier.

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“This has been one of the best Steering Committees that I have worked with,” Dr. Payne-Kirchmeier said, “and this has been one of the most significant projects from a meaning standpoint for students and the community. It’s just been an honor to be part of this, and I’m so excited to see where the team takes it.”

The next steps in the process included reviewing previous reports, architecturally assessing the facility, creating community engagement opportunities, and organizing a charrette, a meeting in which all involved stakeholders brainstormed ideas, resolved conflicts, and mapped solutions. As a result of the charrette sessions, a nearly unanimous design concept surfaced among the stakeholders.

In order to design a program that envisioned the right mix of space functions in the facility, the architectural firm working on the project, Moody Nolan,  presented the preliminary findings and the current concept. The Northwestern community provided valuable feedback on the projected plans and the spaces that should be prioritized.

“We have an idea of themes by floor, and what we are asking people to do now is to write their preferences in terms of what’s most important,” Dr. Brown- Henderson said. ”Based on that, then we’ll start literally putting walls to the themes.”


Moody Nolan’s Chicago and Washington, DC Director of Operations Renauld D. Mitchell said, “For us, coming into this work, it was clear from day one, that the campus environment and the greater campus community is firmly committed to this and spare no opportunities, spare no resources to get this right, and make sure that every voice is heard, that every perspective is accounted for, so that at the end of this, when the house is built everyone is satisfied with the result.”

The renovation is currently in the schematic design stage, which entails  translating the current concept into a design that embraces the student suggestions and the Steering Committee discussion. Brown-Henderson hopes to reveal the schematic design on the 50th anniversary of the Bursar’s Office Takeover on May 3 at the Black House.

For more information, please visit the Black House Renovation Project.