Suite Dreams

Metro State University’s New Hotel and Hospitality Learning Center
words: Sarah Goldblatt, AIA | images: David Lauer

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An innovative hybrid building on the Auraria Campus delivers Metro State University’s vision of providing students with a state-of-the art learning center along with a direct link to the real-world.

“Brilliant, balanced, lively, elegant, and executed with finesse.”  These are the words that emanate from Metro State University‘s (MSU) Sensory Analysis Lab where aspiring sommeliers are learning to distinguish the complex characteristics of wine.  These same descriptors could easily apply to the design of the new Hotel and Hospitality Learning Center (HLC) on the Auraria Campus which houses the specialized wine-tasting lab and nine other hi-tech classrooms–along with a 150-room Marriott Hotel.  The design of this hybrid building reflects the innovative thinking that typifies MSU’s Department of Hospitality, Tourism and Events (HTE) and delivers a fresh entry into Auraria’s quilt of modern structures.

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This unique combination of hotel and higher-education classroom building–one of only ten in the country-opened its doors to students and guests in the fall of 2012. The school’s goal of redefining the boundaries between academics and real world experience has propelled MSU’s hospitality-related programs into the spotlight as it embarks on a new era of experiential learning. “We didn’t really come out of the shadows until this building was built,” acknowledges Sandra Haynes, MSU dean of the School of Professional Studies. Student enrollment is soaring as the program realizes the original intent for the Auraria Higher Education Center (AHEC), established in 1976, to utilize the adjacent cityscape as a learning laboratory for their students.

In the case of the HLC, the city has arrived at the school’s front door with Marriott’s SpringHill Suites Hotel literally embracing the academic building and its programs.  The proximity of the two facilities enables students to move seamlessly from their classrooms into direct on-the-job training.  Currently 40 percent of the hotel staff is comprised of MSU students and program administrators hope that number will grow to 80 percent. The program has its eye on a global perspective as well, so all classrooms are wired for communication with hospitality experts world-wide.  “We are hoping to take our students around the world, without necessarily leaving the classroom,” says Haynes.

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Developed with a series of collaborative public and private partnerships over the course of six years, the $45 million Hotel and Hospitality Learning Center assumes a gateway position on the northeast corner of the Auraria Campus near the intersection of Speer Boulevard and Auraria Parkway. The building’s form and location signals a new direction in Auraria’s development by reinforcing articulated “neighborhoods” for each of the three institutions that share the campus and by moving towards a planning model which more closely reflects the density of the surrounding urban fabric.  “The original campus was conceived as individual buildings in a park-like setting…a very suburban approach to urban design,” explains campus planner Chris Geddes with Studio InSite.   “As the city has grown and student population has increased, there is a defined push to develop the edges of campus and embrace downtown. The HLC is a great first step towards creating a mix of uses on campus that will activate life and increase vitality between the campus and the adjacent communities.”

To launch the process, MSU, along with representatives from AHEC, selected the team of Mortenson Construction and Mortenson Development, Sage Hospitality, RNL, and JG Johnson Architects from a large contingent of developers, operators, and architects who responded to their request for a proposal for an integrated educational facility and hotel. The solution needed not only to facilitate the students’ career path, but also define the character of future development in that quadrant of campus and connect to the city.  Marriott was a late entry to the team, but a willing participant in MSU’s quest to find a hotel chain willing to break from their typical brand.

The distinguished architectural team approached the design as if the building was sited in a constrained urban setting and not surrounded on all sides by parking lots and ball fields.  In fact, issues of access, site utilities and program adjacencies made for significant design challenges.  “The biggest problem,” explains RNL architect Ron Izzo, “was how to arrange all the programmatic elements that needed to have their own individual operation as well as interconnectivity.”  To balance the competing requirements, RNL located the six story hotel along the gentle curve of Auraria Parkway for maximum visibility and also to create a strong visual edge to the campus. The remaining programmatic pieces: conference center, academic building, and parking structure were arrayed around a serene courtyard where hotel guests arrive after passing under the glass-enclosed conference center and guest lounge. During the day, the glass envelope, which physically bridges the school and the hotel, acts as a revolving canvas for abstract reflections of clouds and neighboring historic structures. At night, the glass box glows–creating a welcoming beacon for the hotel and a spectacular vantage point to view the evening skyline.

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The less-assuming two-story classroom structure wrapsaround the southern edge of the courtyard and relates back to the lower scale of older campus buildings.  By stepping the building masses down from north to south, interior and exterior spaceswithin the hotel and classrooms remain light-infused throughout the day–one of the architect’s primary strategies for optimizing daylighting and achieving LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Gold status.

Specialized classrooms like Mixology and Dining, Cellar Management (with a 3000+ bottle wine cellar), and the Sensory Analysis Lab were precisely designed with faculty and student input and represent state-of-the art learning environments. A suite of faculty offices and student gathering spaces are strategically positioned to encourage collaboration while ensuring access to daylight and views. “This atmosphere is a complete and utter change for our students and faculty,” effuses Chad Gruhl, chair and associate professor in the HTE Department who oversaw the project. “You can’t help but be productive when you enjoy the physical environment in which you are in.”

The building is cloaked in an iridescent gray brick skin on each of the outward facing facades and a blond-colored brick on the interior courtyard side.  The resulting aesthetic is a marked departure from Auraria’s standard palette of reddish-brown brick and dark tinted windows.  Because AHEC charged the architects with establishing the context for future development in this quadrant of campus, they were allowed to break from the subdued vocabulary.  Instead of solid, impenetrable wall planes typical of the campus’s modern vernacular, the HLC features large expanses of glass curtain wall, with random grids, which interrupt the solid masonry walls. “We used brick to represent the permanence of higher-ed,” says Izzo, “and mixed in the curtain wall to celebrate the uniqueness of the classroom spaces and allow a degree of permeability not found elsewhere on campus.”

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While the refined exterior palette of glass, brick, and concrete unify the building’s varied scale and uses,  seasoned business travelers and tourists will be pleasantly surprised when they are introduced to the cosmopolitan counterpart to this classic suburban hotel chain.  Inside, JG Johnson Architects, the project’s associate design firm and hotel interiors architect, artfully narrowed the gulf between the chain’s brand and a more boutique approach by introducing a fanciful mélange of colors and textures throughout the public spaces.

Guests are welcomed with a dramatic display of botanic forms rolled into an undulating panel that wraps behind the reception desk onto the ceiling plane.  A cascading glass staircase further amplifies the excitement as it gracefully links the lower level lobby to an elevated “living room” for guests. The lushly appointed space connects the inside to the outside, and the building to the city.  The cool and kinetic design evokes a youthful energy–mirroring the spirit of the city–and perhaps the aspirations of the students opting for direct immersion in the hospitality industry.

The design of MSU’s Hotel and Hospitality Learning Center not only takes a quantum leap towards realizing the idea of utilizing the city as a learning laboratory, but also creates an elegant gateway to the bourgeoning campus.

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Project Credit List
Design Architect & Architect of Record | RNL
Associate Architect & Hotel Interiors Architect | JG Johnson Architects
General Contractor | Mortenson Construction
Mechanical Engineer | MKK Engineering
Civil Engineer | Vision Land
Electrical Engineer | MKK Engineering
Structural Engineer | Jirsa Hedrick & Associates
Interior Design | RNL (hospitality school), JG Johnson Architects (hotel)
Lighting Design | MKK Consulting Engineers Inc., Architectural Engineering Design Group Inc., LEI Companies, Inc.
Landscape Design | Studio Insite
Acrylic panels and “flying object” sculpture | Lynn Heitler/ Lynnel
Art Consultant | Nine Dots Art

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