Metaphorical river shapes University of Utah's new Earth sciences building

Education » Leaf and fish fossils decorate facility, which officials hope will not only have an academic function but also an artistic one.
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A symbolic river runs through the University of Utah's new Earth sciences building. The pebble path, encased in epoxy, meanders past a school of 50-million-year-old fish, down an open flight of stairs and past old seismographs.

"We call it the Confluence because it joins Browning and the new building," said Marjorie Chan, who is chairwoman of the department of geology and geophysics. "It's the idea of going from the mountains to the valley. We chose a water theme because Utah is shaped by rivers."

While the building has an academic function, Chan hopes the public will visit to enjoy museum-quality fossils and artistic displays. They are spread throughout the building but concentrated in the lobby, where dozens of fish and leaf fossils, recovered from southwest Wyoming's Fossil Lake basin, are arranged in massive wall panels.

"All these displays are designed to teach geological concepts," Chan said. "We want people to come here and learn about Earth sciences. We want the building to excite people."

Last month, the U. dedicated the 91,000-square-foot structure, named for Utah geologist and 1917 U. graduate Frederick Albert Sutton, whose family covered nearly half the building's $25 million cost. Its curving masonry face fronts 100 South while a courtyard on the east is where the river begins. A connecting structure between the new building and the Browning building houses the Confluence. It is expected to become the first building on the U.'s lower campus to be certified under the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design rating system. The college hopes to achieve gold certification with features that maximize natural lighting, moderate temperature and collect rain water.

Sutton, which was built with no state money, houses the College of Mines and Earth Sciences, whose four departments were formerly scattered in five locations. It replaces the 1927 Mines building, which was demolished; the ground is destined to become a parking lot.

"When we took it down, there was no mortar left between the brick. It would have collapsed like pancakes in an earthquake," Chan said. "For the first time the U.'s seismographic stations are housed in a seismically sound building."

But decorative pieces of the Mines building, such as the coping and the pick-and-hammer medallions, remain on site and a time capsule from the old cornerstone was incorporated into a bench feature in the downstairs portion of the Confluence. Geology professor Bill Johnson hopes a local coffeehouse will establish a small outlet there.

"We want to create something where people serendipitously meet each other and strike up conversations that might not otherwise have occurred," Johnson said. "Everybody is really pleased with the new building. It really shows off who we are as Earth scientists. A lot of our issues today are rooted in Earth science."

While the building's architect of record was Cooper Roberts Simonsen and Associates, the Confluence and displays are the work of Salt Lake City design team John and Lee Diamond, who scoured the Browning and Mines buildings for objects to incorporate into the new building. Among their finds were large ammonite fossils stored for years under a sink in professor Tony Ekdale's lab. The fossils now hang on upstairs walls, along with large polished sheets of quarried fossil-bearing stone.

Chan is most enthusiastic about the 160 plant fossils the Diamonds arranged in a swirling figure-eight pattern in the Confluence, which serves as Sutton's main focal point and public space. The specimens were selected from a collection of about 1,000 fossils collected by Salt Lake City physician Lonnie Paulos from southwest Wyoming's Fossil Lake basin and donated to the university last year when he moved to Florida.

Scientists at Fossil Butte National Monument suspect it is the most extensive collection of Green River formation plant fossils after the one housed at the monument. Monument geologist Arvid Aase said 75 to 125 pieces have the potential to add to our understanding of Eocene plant life -- many represent species new to science.

Aase pulled the best 254 specimens, mostly from broad-leaf, woody flowering plants, for study at the monument, located 13 miles west of Kemmerer. He plans to incorporate the data in a research article he already had in the works about the basin's steamy climate 50 million years ago.

"I was thrilled," Paulos said. "I knew I had some good stuff. The Smithsonian wanted it, but I wanted it to stay out here in the West. When the U. came along asking for it for the new building, it was a perfect opportunity."