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The Man Behind the Scenes

Posted: 06/01/2012

Although he’s been at Roosevelt University for 30 years, Tom Flynn is hardly known to students and Roosevelt’s faculty and staff rarely see him. And that’s just the way he likes it.

Flynn is the man responsible for ensuring that the Auditorium Building, Roosevelt’s national historic landmark structure, functions smoothly, be it the coldest day of the winter or the hottest day of the summer. And that’s not an easy task, considering that the building was originally constructed in the late 1880s as a hotel, theatre and office building.

A member of the International Union of Operating Engineers Chicago Local 399, Flynn came to Roosevelt after working for two years as a boiler operator in the building housing the former Marshall Field’s store on State Street.

To learn how the Auditorium Building operates, Roosevelt Review editor Tom Karow asked Flynn, whose office is in the basement of the historic building, to tell us what goes on behind the scenes.

Tom Karow : The Auditorium Building will soon turn 125 years old. As the building’s chief engineer, what do you do and how do you think the building is doing?

Tom Flynn : I’m responsible for maintenance and operation of the entire Auditorium Building, including the Auditorium Theatre section. It might be an old building, but its functionality is 100 percent. Aside from one unusual piece of equipment, there are no items where you would say, “Wow, I can’t believe this is here.” Let me give you an example. The building was one of the first in the country to be wired for electricity, but everything is different now. We have modern wiring, circuit breaker panels, fuse panels, etc. It’s far from the original.

TK : How about the elevators, which for decades were a source of frustration?

TF : They have certainly been a challenge and we could obviously use more. But they are in better shape now than ever. We have upgraded all of the elevators here to direct digital control with the exception of the tower elevator. All of them have top of the line doors and rollers and they are maintained on a regular basis by our elevator contractor. The building’s original elevators were water hydraulic elevators. Water towers on the roof pumped water through the towers using gravity pressure to make the elevators go up and down.

TK : I understand that the Auditorium Building has numerous roofs.

TF : Yes, because of the way the building is laid out, there are 29 separate roofs on a variety of elevations. Much of that had to do with additions to the building over the years. The roofs for Ganz Hall and the Heller Wing were add-ons as were the roofs above equipment rooms. There are also different roofs above the alleyway near Michigan Avenue.

TK : You said that there was one original piece of equipment still in use. What’s that?

TF : It’s called a Shone sewage ejector and it serves the Auditorium Theatre. A pneumatically operated water tank is located in the basement. When it’s triggered, a valve opens up and shoots compressed air into the tank and then the compressed air forces sewage located in the basement of the Theatre to curb level and into the city sewers for recycling. Unfortunately repair parts are no longer available and an electric ejector pump has been installed.

TK : Another peculiar feature of the Auditorium Building is that the Auditorium Theatre is located within the main building.

TF : It is really two separate buildings in one, the theatre and the University. The theatre itself has no perimeter walls, so its heating and cooling requirements are different from the University’s. In fact, the theatre has all electric heat. The heating load in the winter is very minimal, especially when the theatre is full of people. The theatre also has just one chiller for cooling, compared to five for the rest of the building.

TK : Old buildings were not outfitted with sprinklers for fire protection. Have you worked on that life-safety issue in the building?

TF : We have been working hard on that issue, which is complicated and expensive. So far, we have installed sprinklers in the basement and through the seventh floor, about 65 percent of the building. We will meet the city of Chicago’s timeline to have sprinklers installed on the remaining floors.

TK : What’s the fire alarm system like in the building?

TF: About seven years ago, we installed a Simplex Fire Detection System, which has smoke alarms, heat detectors, pull stations, and horns and strobe lights for notification. It is tied into the Chicago Fire Department, which responds quickly when the system is activated.

TK : Since buildings weren’t air conditioned in the 1800s, has it been difficult to air condition the Auditorium Building?

TF : Definitely. Someone said to me that he’s never been in a building that had so many micro environments. There are spaces in the Auditorium Building that do not have any air conditioning at all, the Sullivan Room (on the second floor) being one of them. We put portable air coolers in there during the summer. The room next to it, Congress Lounge, has central air. Over the years, we have installed a lot of different cooling systems, depending upon what applications fit best at the time. Plus, we have approximately 150 window air conditioning units in the Auditorium Building.

TK : When the Auditorium Building was built it had a unique foundation. Can you tell me about the foundation and are you responsible for maintaining it?

TF : Yes, we monitor it every day. The building has a floating foundation made of crisscrossed railroad ties, topped with a double layer of steel rails embedded in concrete. It is critical that water levels stay above the railroad ties. If the water level would ever drop below them, the railroad ties would dry out and split, causing severe foundation problems in the 110,000-ton building. We still have a comfortable level of water but we track it over time to make sure we will never have a problem.

CHECKING THE FOUNDATION  The floating foundation of the Auditorium Building (left) is checked daily by Chief Engineer Tom Flynn and his crew. If the water level drops below the timbers, indicated at the very bottom of the schematic (below), the timbers could crack (as shown in the picture above). This has never happened in the 125-year history of the building.

TK : Is there another feature like that, which is probably unique to the Auditorium Building?

TF : Within the theatre itself there are no columns except those used to support the floor. Its roof is supported by large wrought iron trusses located in a space above the theatre seating area. Today when engineers and architects see that area where all the trusses and supports that span the roof come together and connect to the load-bearing walls, they are amazed at the unique design.

TK : Has the University replaced the windows in the building?

TF : The majority of the windows are original to the building. We have been renovating them the past few years, starting with those which were in the worst shape. The original glass was saved and reused after the woodwork was refurbished and the windows were reinstalled. The building’s windows are operable, which is an easy way to get fresh air.

TK : Will you also be in charge of engineering for Roosevelt’s new Wabash Building?

TF : Yes, I’ve been involved with the Wabash Building from the initial design stage. It’s quite a change – from working in one of the oldest buildings in Chicago to one of the newest. All of the equipment in the new facility is state of the art.

TK : I know that the Wabash Building will be LEED-certified. From your standpoint, what are some of the features that make it energy efficient?

TF : There are many, but lighting control is an important one. There will be occupancy sensors in the offices and classrooms. And there’s going to be a master control so we’ll be able to turn all of the lights on and off at certain times to control energy. Another is the thermal glass windows on the building. They have a very high R value (a measurement of insulating effectiveness) that will help with energy consumption as well.

TK : Will the two buildings share any equipment?

TF : A diesel fuel-powered emergency generator was installed in a room near the loading dock of the Wabash Building. It will provide emergency lighting and power to the water pumps for fire protection in both buildings should the electricity go out.

TK : How large is the engineering staff for the Auditorium Building?

TF : Including me, there are seven of us. At least one of us is in the building 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

TK : What is the goal of your staff?

TF : We want the students, faculty and staff to be able to focus on their studies and work. In the wintertime, when they come in and their offices and classrooms are nice and warm, and the lights go on, we want them to just take that for granted. Obviously there’s no magic wand that makes all that happen, but we want people to think it’s automatic.