Historic buildings must be preserved

The Board of Regents took a vote a few weeks ago that should be of great concern to all individuals regarding the systematic loss of architectural history in our state through the loss of buildings and architectural social fabric by the loss of contiguous districts. The regents voted to “decommission” four of the buildings that form the original campus of the University around the knoll on University Ave. Those four make up one-third of the old campus enclave. They form an arc around the wooded knoll and create a public face for the University. The knoll has major entrances at the Pillsbury gate and at the corner of University and Pleasant Street that form a circle drive and create gateways to both the greater campus and a river drive for the Minneapolis campus.
The regents state publicly that they will decide later on whether to retro-fit or demolish these four buildings. It is, however, also public record that the regents have planned to tear down these and other buildings around the knoll for more than 30 years. These buildings are significant state resources that the public would be well-served to protect and pass on to the future citizens of our state. The taste of the Victorian minds can be observed by walking or driving around the knoll; their sense of the pastoral, the idyllic and the idiosyncratic, and their materials, craftsmanship, and the broad array of styles that they explored.
Other than the mistake of building Peik Hall into a corner of the knoll back in the early ’60s (as a part of the now-defunct Marshall-University High School), the knoll is a remarkable time capsule of the very beginnings of the University. It is akin to the Harvard and Yale “yards” in importance, and more complete and more interesting than “the yards.” The importance of the knoll lies in its 19th-century idea of what an academic village should be, and in the masterworks of architectural diversity and integrity that were built for the state — most amazingly, in its total contingency of buildings surviving from 1880 to 1920 by notable architects and craftsman.
We are all aware of the huge maintenance bill facing the University, but the University has been using a system of deferred maintenance, also known as demolition by neglect, for decades to bring these buildings to the condition of repair in which they now stand. The buildings targeted in this latest resolution by the regents include: Jones Hall, Nicholson Hall, Wesbrook Hall, and the Music Education Building (the old YMCA). These buildings are located across from the transportation arteries of University Avenue and Fourth Avenue S.E. and the commercial enclave of Dinkytown.
A much better solution to the deferred maintenance problem is to update and retro-fit these buildings for the growing student housing needs of the University. The regents thereby save these valuable cultural resources and fulfill a recognized need at the same time. Last fall, the regents voted to adopt a long-range plan that included building additional dormitories behind Coffman Union and down the river. Why should the citizens of this state accept the demolition of the valuable resources these handsome old buildings around the knoll represent to the state, while at the same time, we will be expected to subsidize the cost of new housing. These historic buildings have served well and lasted long enough that we should not now allow them to fall to “deferred maintenance.” There are other options.
To decrease the square footage needing to be maintained, as required by the Legislature, the University should consider demolishing buildings that have far less (or little) going for them: Fraser Hall, Peik Hall, Norris Gymnasium, the Field House and the never-finished Science Classroom Building, come immediately to mind. Three of these sites would provide the University with “signature” locations for new buildings above the Mississippi River bluff. And removing Peik Hall would also restore the knoll to the gracious front yard of the University it was intended to be. The knoll and its buildings are every bit as important to the University as Northrop Mall. The Mall and the knoll are two very special places at the University. Few colleges have not just one but two such handsome academic spaces.
The regents need to review this issue and become proactive now, rather than wait and find themselves portrayed as the villains when buying a copy of “Lost University,” at the turn of the century.
Robert F. Copeland is a civil service employee, an alumnus and chair of the Minneapolis Heritage Preservation Commission.