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Groton - For more than a decade, no one stepped inside a theater at the University of Connecticut Avery Point campus that the Coast Guard built in the early 1940s for training classes.
Then the university decided to renovate the theater and bring it up to code as part of a $10 million, two-year project to demolish the aging student center and replace it with a new student center, which wraps around the theater.
The architect for the project looked above the theater's suspended ceiling two years ago to figure out how to expose the original beams and discovered that the ceiling was blocking a large frieze of the Coast Guard motto, "Semper Paratus," which is Latin for "Always Ready."
Michael Alfultis, the campus director and a retired Coast Guard captain, was thrilled - the frieze could be uncovered to serve as the main feature of the renovated theater.
"There was some debate among the staff about what does this have to do with UConn, but I like it," Alfultis said Wednesday. "It points to our history and our legacy."
The state of Connecticut leased the land that now houses the university branch to the Coast Guard as a training center during World War II, and the Coast Guard built the cinder block buildings still used by the university today. The site was converted to a UConn campus in 1967.
Most recently, the Coast Guard Research & Development Center, Marine Safety Lab and International Ice Patrol were based at the campus. The units relocated to New London in 2009.
Now, the work on the theater, which is inside Avery Point's academic building, is almost finished. The first official function, Alfultis said, will fittingly be a Coast Guard ceremony.
Cmdr. Lisa Mack will turn over command of the Ice Patrol to Cmdr. Gabrielle McGrath on Aug. 1. Mack took charge of the Ice Patrol in 2010 at a ceremony at Fort Trumbull, but because construction was planned in that area, Mack said, the theater is a better venue for this change-of-command ceremony.
Mack said she has not yet seen the frieze, but thinks it will be a nice touch.
"It's a great acknowledgement of the Coast Guard history that has taken place there," she said.
The motto is cast in concrete about 20 feet above the lecture platform in the 300-seat theater. William Sweeney, the project superintendent for the contractor, Shawmut Design and Construction in North Haven, said everyone who enters the theater asks about it.
"If they don't know Latin, they want to know what it means. They say it's a really cool feature and they ask about the history of the campus," he said. "It's always the center of conversation."
Sweeney said the frieze was in excellent condition and the construction crew only cleaned it and painted it a light gray.
The entire student center, the new gateway to the campus, will be done by the start of the fall semester and a ribbon-cutting ceremony is planned for Aug. 21. Alfultis said he will invite students to help brand the center with UConn symbols once it is in use.
The 5,500-square-foot addition includes an up-to-date kitchen, seating, a student lounge, game room and a performance venue.
Alfultis plans to install a globe that was suspended from the ceiling at the R&D Center in the entry to the student center. The student center also has a glass tower that is reminiscent of a lighthouse, three poles that look like the masts of a ship and a teal and green color scheme to tie in with the university's focus on marine science and maritime studies.
The university wants to eventually tear down the building the R&D Center used, which is too large and outdated for its needs, Alfultis said.
"We'll lose that direct connection to the Coast Guard so I think putting these elements in the student center is appropriate," he said. "It gets people asking those questions about the Coast Guard and why it was here."