U builds, but keeps historic structures

Courtney Lewis

What was once called the U.S.S. Minnesota still stands on Pillsbury Drive overlooking the knoll area on the East Bank of campus.

But the Minnesota never sailed.

In 1942 – the middle of World War II – Nicholson Hall was recommissioned by the University Board of Regents as the U.S.S. Minnesota so Navy sailors could use the building for training.

For 16 weeks, the hall was converted from the men’s student union to a housing facility for enlisted men, military administration and staff before they departed to sea.

Nicholson Hall and its neighbor, Jones Hall – both built near the turn of the century – are two buildings slated for renovation in the University’s capital bonding request.

Renovating historical buildings instead of demolishing and starting over has become more common at universities around the country.

Michigan State University opted to renovate Jenison Field House for $9 million. Dan Bollman, an MSU design administrator, said the school preferred remodeling the building because the school wanted to retain the look of a historic building.

“Our choice is to always preserve versus rebuild,” Bollman said.

Bruce Braun, University of Wisconsin-Madison facilities assistant vice chancellor, said most requests for preservation of historic buildings come from alumni.

Including designing efforts and construction, Braun said, a renovation project is usually a seven-year collaboration.

Although the state budget is tight, Braun said when funding is available the University plans to renovate several buildings.

“We try to bring (the buildings) up to technological standards for classroom use as a modern building,” Braun said.

Before University President Mark Yudof’s administration, Jones and Nicholson halls were on the list of buildings to tear down.

But the administration acknowledged the buildings’ value, and is requesting $24 million for Nicholson Hall and $8 million for Jones Hall from the state for renovations.

The House and Senate are evaluating all bonding requests – including Nicholson and Jones halls – in conference committee.

Tom Trow, College of Liberal Arts external relations representative, said legislators support renovation, and he anticipates full funding.

“They understand the value of historical preservation,” Trow said. “The Legislature was educated of the value of how this can be done well when they saw Walter Library.”

Sen. Richard Cohen, DFL-St. Paul, said the Senate is willing to value preservation over cost-effectiveness.

“It wouldn’t save that much money, if any at all,” Cohen said. “It’s the ability to utilize the existing buildings.”

Tom Fisher, College of Architecture and Landscape Architecture dean, said overall, renovation is economically and
ecologically better.

“The real cost is far greater to build new than to use what you have,” Fisher said. “You are saving on energy and material costs.”

Where the boys were

Nicholson Hall was built in 1880 for $81,000 to house chemical and physics labs but was used as the men’s student union from 1914-39 before the opening of coed Coffman Union.

Architects designed the building in a style fashionable in the 1890s and similar to the Minneapolis Court House.

If funding comes through, Nicholson Hall would become a learning center for undergraduates and the new home for the Language Center currently located in Folwell Hall.

The building plan is to have 24 well-equipped seminar rooms with state-of-the-art technology and a branch of CLA advising.

The design will provide students and faculty with needed
accommodations, said Steve Rosenstone, CLA dean.

101-year-old landmark

The yellow brick of Jones Hall, built in 1901 for $66,000, was home to physics before the department moved to the Tate Lab of Physics.

The renovated building would hold classrooms, offices and a library for the cultural studies and comparative literature, and classical and Near Eastern studies departments.

The project would also update the heating, electrical and fire prevention systems.

“The humanities district”

Jones and Nicholson halls have been inadequate facilities for the past decade, Trow said.

Plans for renovating Folwell and Nolte halls are in the works to further update the “humanities district,” he said.

Rosenstone said he would like the Nicholson and Jones renovations to begin immediately. After
appropriations from the Legislature, he said, construction could be underway by July 1.

“There is a huge classroom shortage, and we struggle every semester to find space,” Rosenstone said. “Getting these 24 classrooms online as soon as possible responds to a real crunch we have on the Twin Cities campus.”

Rosenstone said the historical value and present demands of these two buildings makes their renovations necessary.

“We want to have the ability to preserve the history,” Rosenstone said, “but also in a cost-effective way.”

Courtney Lewis welcomes comments at [email protected].
Elizabeth Putnam welcomes comments at [email protected]