Bruce Long rubbed his hand against what remained of the old tree's rough bark.

He pointed to where he remembered carving his initials, along with those of his former classmates of Whittier Junior High School, nearly 40 years ago.

"I thought we put our initials in that tree years ago," he said, his eyes fixated on the massive sycamore that has remained as a sentinel before the school. "I don't know. It might've got covered up."

On Tuesday, the 53-year-old tribal maintenance worker returned to his old school to see the results of a $20 million renovation. Along with other Whittier graduates and city and university officials, Long came to celebrate the rejuvenation of the country's first junior high school.

City and university leaders hailed the reopening of the Whittier Research Center at a public open house and dedication. The building at 19th and Vine streets is now home to three UNL research teams and the University Children's Center, which is housed in a smaller building just to the north.

The center's first occupants are the Nebraska Center for Energy Sciences Research, the Nebraska Transportation Center and the Water for Food Institute.

"All of us have waited for this moment for a long time," said UNL Chancellor Harvey Perlman. "It shows what can be done when reality collides with vision."

Built in 1923, Whittier was considered the first building in the United States constructed specifically for a junior high school. The Lincoln Board of Education voted in March 1977 to close the school.

Thirty years later, NU regents approved plans to renovate Whittier into a state-of-the-art child care and research facility.

Work began in September 2008 and included renovation of the three-story main building for research space, with heating, air conditioning, new windows and modern infrastructure.

The UNL Office of Research and Economic Development provided half the funding for the $20 million renovation; the remainder was funded by private gifts to the University of Nebraska Foundation.

The renovation aimed to preserve the building's historical features while bringing it up to 21st century standards. Exterior masonry, including terra cotta moldings, was preserved.

Window profiles mimic the originals. Key interior architectural elements -- the open stairs at the main entry, two interior stairwells and ornamental plaster decorative moldings in the corridors -- have been preserved.

The building is among the first at UNL to use geothermal heat pumps as a green-energy source. The renovation also restored bricked-up windows, allowing natural light into the building.

The renovation left unopened a time capsule placed by students in 1977. Items inside the capsule include: sheet music, a broken director's baton and a letter from then U.S. Sen. Ed Zorinsky (D-Neb.).

The building also features several small conference rooms available for university and public use.

About half the building has been renovated; the auditorium and gymnasium have not, pending acquisition of funding.

Former Whittier principal and recently retired Lincoln Public Schools administrator Dave Myers said the school was the heart of the neighborhood.

"It was more than a building. It was more than a school," he said. "It represented to the neighborhood hope for the future."

He said his parents met on the day Whittier opened, later married and remained married for more than 60 years.

"For that meeting, I am personally quite grateful," he said.

Reach Kevin Abourezk at 402-473-7225 or kabourezk@journalstar.com.

Whittier building reopens

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