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The iconic Palmer Alumni Auditorium may look like a farm machine shed just now, but it's the focus of a $11.8 million renovation project to beautify and improve the Palmer College of Chiropractic campus.

The project at Brady Street and Palmer Drive in Davenport includes complete renovation of the former alumni auditorium to be a state-of-the art fitness and exercise facility, a new campus visitors' entrance at Main Street and Palmer Drive and retaining wall improvements along Main Street, as well as renovation of the historic and venerated clinic garden. 

The renovated auditorium will be named the R. Richard Bittner Athletic & Recreation Center, and that $8 million cost represents two-thirds the price of the overall project.

Bittner, a Davenport attorney who serves as counsel to Palmer's board of trustees, sees the project as a continuation of the commitment he has had to the college since 1962.

That's when Bittner became acquainted with David Palmer, former college president. Bittner also contributed to build the Palmer Alumni Auditorium in the early 1970s.

The most recent promise of support was an easy decision to make, Bittner said, noting such facilities are found on many campuses in the United States.  "It's a neat legacy, I think, and I'm humbled by this."

This former auditorium "is not your typical workout facility," Dennis Marchiori, college chancellor said. The space has been especially designed for Palmer students.

An estimated 85 percent of students at the private college have a bachelor's degree, and all have at least three years of academic background before they enter Palmer. This means many are familiar with undergraduate college facilities in other locations, such as at the University of Iowa, Iowa City.

The students have an expectation of such amenities, Marchiori said.

Palmer officials hired architects, including Jack Patton, with RDG Planning & Design, Des Moines. Greg Gowey of Studio 483, Davenport, is the architect of record.

Patton has extensive experience in designing fitness and recreation centers and his firm has designed them at all three of Iowa's state universities.

"A lot of what we did was to analyze trends in the current market and apply it to the students at Palmer," Patton said, adding that aspects of the plan came from what is on other campuses. It is to be completed in January 2017.

Palmer's student community tends to be older, at an average age of 26 years. In addition, the students are very interested in the bio-mechanic nature of the human body, including physical fitness.

The auditorium renovation is within the original footprint, with a 16-foot addition on the north side. That, Gowey said, will be of glass and two levels tall. On the south side, there is also a glass-sided two story lobby as well as a second-floor walkway to the classroom building.

Inside, there is an elevated track upstairs, while exercise equipment and rooms for group fitness will be on the lower level. The equipment is for Palmer students as well as college employees. 

The RDG group has a landscaping division that is also involved in the Palmer project. For example, a former concrete block retaining wall, that leaned slightly into Main Street, is being redone as tiered walls with room for landscaped gardens.

"Those plantings will help create an opportunity to absorb water to the soil more naturally," Gowey said. There was no requirement for stormwater detention on the site, but the refurbished wall will be an attractive, yet practical amenity.

Meanwhile, the auditorium is being stripped down to its iron skeleton this summer. The new exterior will include a number of large windows, as well as insulated architecturally finished panels in brown. The bottom brick facade remains.

The clinic garden is also being renovated. "That's a historic landmark for the Quad-Cities," Marchiori said. Plans begin with the original design cues from the 1940s and 1950s, when the garden was located next to the clinic and was a restful place to visit after a clinic appointment.

The iron fence has been removed on Brady Street, and deep reflecting ponds are being replaced with shallower ponds and fountains. 

 Marchiori  appreciates the support of project boosters such as Bittner. "He (Bittner) has been working with Palmer for 55 years, and it's inspiring to see his name on that building," he said.