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Past Forward

Walter library reading room
Walter library reference reading room

In 1924, architect Clarence H. Johnston’s Walter Library opened on the Cass Gilbert-designed Mall at the University of Minnesota. Then-University president Lotus Delta Coffman lauded the Classical Revival structure as “the University’s laboratory of the mind.”

Over the decades, the library’s signature décor aged, its structure fell into disrepair, and its facilities became obsolete. But by 2002, the University had restored much of the historically significant library to its former splendor, and transformed the interior into a 21st-century “laboratory of the mind”—a state-of-the-art Digital Technology Center. Today, Walter Library is a spectacular example of historic preservation and adaptive reuse. It’s also a testament to the value of such stewardship.

Since 1997, the University has invested more than $400 million into preserving historic buildings. On the Twin Cities’ campus, buildings from Haecker Hall and a dairy barn in St. Paul, to Ford Hall and Coffman Union on the East Bank are among the treasures saved for past, present, and future generations. Northrop Auditorium, one of the most recognized buildings in the state, could undergo renovation of its interior next year if enough private funding can be secured.

Statewide Assets
The University owns some of the oldest buildings in Minnesota, so the University considers historical buildings valuable state assets, not just University assets. If such historical buildings were demolished for new structures the losses would be many. Hand-carved stone and other artisan detailing would vanish. The time, expense, and energy embodied in the structure’s construction and materials would be discarded.

Moreover, such losses damage the University’s distinctive sense of place. “Historic buildings are not just physical entities; they connect with the past,” says Katherine Solomonson, associate dean for academic affairs at the College of Design. “Their loss impoverishes the University. For anyone who has a relationship with the University, there are buildings they deeply associate with their experiences.”

Plan to Preserve
To that end, the University created a preservation plan in 1998, which will be incorporated into the revised master plan to be completed this year. The plan is equally about preserving and enhancing those things that contribute positively to the campus environment.

And the campus environment is more than just buildings; landscapes are also part of the preservation conversation. Solomonson reminds us that, “Historic preservation involves thinking not only about buildings, but also about the green or open space, trees and plantings, sidewalks, even fields that are part of an integrated cultural landscape.”

“All of these components are part of a whole that shapes the spaces we pass through and experience as part of our daily lives on campus,” Solomonson concludes. “They’re also part of the iconic image and values presented beyond the world of the campus that anchor us in our history as we look to the future.”

Tour preservation highlights on the mall with Katherine Solomonson, associate dean for academic affairs at the College of Design:

This story originally appeared in the spring 2008 issue of Legacy, a quarterly magazine for U of M donors and friends published by the University of Minnesota Foundation.

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