Giving New Life to an Iconic Landmark


For 70 years, the 15 x 250-foot smokestack at Purdue University soared above all other buildings on campus. Along with the university’s bell tower, this iconic campus landmark told Purdue Boilermakers that they were home. Built in 1924, the Heating and Power Plant-North provided power and heat to the university and served as a real-world laboratory for the university’s engineering students. When the power plant and its smokestack were demolished in 2014 to make way for a new learning center, the university wanted to preserve the legacy of the smokestack by incorporating salvaged items, such as grates and bricks into the design of the new structure.

Wilmeth Active Learning Center

  • Opened August 7, 2017
  • 164,000-square-foot facility
  • Houses 27 classrooms, 300-seat Hiller Theater, café and open study spaces
  • Clear view of the Purdue University Bell Tower through center’s reading room

“We really wanted to highlight the fact that yes, this building is new and it’s an active learning center, but it’s sitting on the site of a building that had a very important role within the university—both for the power plant, but also for the instruction.”

Jim Mullins, Purdue’s Dean of Libraries

Center’s Information Desk

An attractively designed brick information desk greets all visitors to the learning center. The circular desk was designed using the same dimensions as the former smokestack.

The desk was built using bricks salvaged from the smokestack, and the partition behind the desk utilizes pieces of perforated metal that formed the grating used in the power plant walkways.

Project Design Called for Industrial Look

It was important to the university that the learning center honor the history of the land it was built on. To do so, project architects BSA LifeStructures specified that the center incorporate a blackened metal and brick design to tie in with power plant’s industrial legacy. In addition to the information desk, this included the wall panels throughout the center's four floors.

{title} {title} {title} {title} {title} {title} {title} {title}


#1: Achieving the Right Look

Everyone knows there are many shades of white. The same happens to be true for black. BSA LifeStructures wanted a black metal look, but there were many approaches to consider because they knew they didn’t want a “perfect” black—that would have taken away from the industrial feel they were after.

Indianapolis-based bo-mar Industries, the metal fabrication company that has worked with a number of Purdue University projects, provided nine blackened metal samples to the architect. Some were painted, some were powder coated and another was coated with black oxide.

The designer didn’t want the parts to look painted and chose black oxide to achieve a natural metal look,” explained bo-mar Industries shop foreman Keith Burns. “Once they went with black oxide, it was important that we find a company that could achieve the industrial look our client wanted.”

#2: Large Parts

Now bo-mar needed to find a company that could achieve the industrial look and have the capacity to handle very large panels. bo-mar found that company in Cleveland, Ohio. “Cleveland Black Oxide was the only company that could handle a project of this size and scope and to be able to process such large parts,” explained Burns.

Project Dimensions

  • All panels were 100 percent black oxide covered with a clear powder topcoat on all visible surfaces.
  • Over 300 panels of 11-gauge steel
  • Largest size: 30” x 97.5”
  • Average size: 25” x 50”
  • Odd size: 42” x 50”
#3: Responsive Turnaround

To seal and protect the black oxide coating, bo-mar coated the panels with a satin clear powder coat. While protecting the panels, the clear coat can also accentuate any scratches. To achieve the perfect look, some panels needed to be repaired by bo-mar and reprocessed by CBO. “CBO went above and beyond in reprocessing the new panels,” said Burns. “They had them reprocessed redone and back on a truck in a few days to be recoated here at bo-mar—great teamwork with our company.”

#4: Shipping

Any time we shipped panels to Cleveland Black Oxide, they would pack each panel and safely ship it back the exact same way,” said Burns. “They were very easy to work with and held true to their pricing commitment.

When working with architectural projects, Cleveland Black Oxide ships all materials the same way a piece of furniture is shipped, taking great care that every panel is carefully packed and shipped,” Burns added.

End Result

Cleveland Black Oxide took great care to ensure there was no streaking in any of the panels. “All of the panels had a uniform black color and were delivered on time for the opening of the Wilmeth Active Learning Center,” said Burns. “We were happy and so was the customer!”