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Stuart Johnson, Deseret News
The Gordon B. Hinckley Alumni and Visitors Center at BYU.

Upon seeing the interior of the Gordon B. Hinckley Alumni and Visitors Center for the first time, one family couldn't help but notice that the floor tile was similar to that in their own home.

That feeling is by design.

Dedicated one year ago last Monday, on the 97th birthday of LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley, the building is a fresh, hard-to-miss addition to campus for university alumni, many of whom are now seeing it for the first time. And while the Hinckley Center is designed to be a "home" for former students, the welcoming atmosphere school officials have attempted to cultivate isn't just meant for alumni.

"This building has done something to really complete BYU," said Ron Clark, director of public affairs and guest relations at the university.

Cory Gherkins, a Brigham Young University alumnus, was visiting the Hinckley Center last Friday afternoon with his daughters when they noticed the flooring. Gherkins, who followed the building's construction on the Internet, finally got see the finished product while on vacation from Arizona.

"I would say it's quite a cornerstone for this campus," he said.

Standing over Provo on West Campus Drive, the Hinckley Center was built to be "the front gate to campus," said John Lewis, BYU's associate advancement vice president. The exterior, which features a clock tower, was meant to set the new structure apart from other buildings on campus.

And while the location and design make the Hinckley Center a prominent landmark, visitors who walk inside enter a "family room," an area that while spacious and open is set up to convey a homelike environment. Leather chairs and sofas set on rugs surround a fireplace, television and bookshelf, and wide windows open up to what resembles an expansive "backyard" -- with a patio, flower beds, lawn, gazebo and unobstructed view of Utah County.

"(We) hope that it will serve as a gathering place for the alumni," Lewis said. "There was an effort to keep this place, as large as it is, more like a home. We just hoped to get a feel that was warm and inviting."

Prior to the building's construction, BYU's alumni house was located in a cramped building, and the school had no visitors center -- a fact that became painfully obvious during the 2002 Winter Olympic Games. According to Lewis, the concept of a combined alumni building and visitors center emerged around 2004.

"We needed to be able to offer more services to our growing alumni base," Lewis said.

With financial assistance provided by a donor, school officials began touring similar structures on campuses around the country, including those at Stanford, Purdue and Notre Dame. School President Cecil O. Samuelson then introduced the idea of naming the building after President Hinckley. In 2005, the project received approval, and officials began seeking out major donors.

"There was a strong desire to honor President Hinckley," Lewis said.

Ground was broken June 23, 2006, on President Hinckley's birthday, with the goal of completing the project in fall 2007. But as progress was made, Lewis said a "grass-roots feeling" emerged to have the building ready for dedication on the prophet's birthday in 2007.

Although it was somewhat chaotic -- "We were huffing and puffing the last few weeks," Lewis said — that goal was met. In a dedication ceremony held June 23, 2007, President Hinckley thanked those who contributed to the project.

"I'm deeply grateful for your generosity," he said, referencing the more than 70,000 individuals whose contributions made up the entirety of the $35 million project. Donors, from $1 to $1 million, have their names listed alphabetically in a book on display in the building's library.

Tributes to President Hinckley are plentiful, including paintings of his family and a chair used by his wife, Sister Marjorie Pay Hinckley. The staircase is adorned with medallions crafted from the wood of the walnut tree in President Hinckley's yard used to build the podium in the LDS Conference Center.

"It makes us feel like he's a part of the building," Lewis said.

The 84,000-square foot structure has allowed for all alumni services to be housed under one roof, instead of spread throughout campus like they previously were. Visiting alumni can have access to computers, fax machines, conference rooms and a career services department. There are also resources available for planning reunions.

But alumni aren't the only focus. The building has given the university a home for welcoming visitors -- from families to international ambassadors -- to campus and sharing information about the school and its students, which Clark calls the university's "pride and joy."

"Through here, people can be welcomed (and) be informed about BYU," Clark said.

The visitors center is named after John Franklin Shelley, whose son was one of the early donors to the project. According to Clark, the school has seen an increase in visitors — about 24,000 since the start of the calendar year -- despite the absence of a marketing campaign. A brochure promoting the building is currently being produced, Clark said, and another increase in visitors is expected.

The university's public affairs and guest relations department has its offices in the Hinckley Center, where ambassadors, visiting professors and educators can be welcomed in a "warm" and "nonthreatening" manner, Clark said. Because of its uniqueness and affiliation with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the university is an "attention-grabber," Clark said.

The Hinckley Center also serves as a gathering place during heavy traffic times such as general conference, women's conference and education week -- times when "you can't move in this building," Clark said.

Last Friday, the guest book included names from countries such as Guam, Finland and Canada. There were plenty of visitors from Utah, but also many from around the United States. Former BYU student Colleen Rudnick and her friend, Lisa Hopkins, were visiting from Minnesota. Rudnick, in town for a clogging camp, called the building "spectacular."

"It's a grand presence on the campus," she said.


E-mail: ashill@desnews.com