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Plan to reduce buildings, some historic, rankles preservationists

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Wesbrook Hall
University of Minnesota officials want to tear down Wesbrook Hall on the school's Minneapolis campus. They say the building, built in 1898, is in poor condition. They also say Wesbrook sits too close to Northrup Auditorium, which is undergoing a renovation.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

After a decade of rapid growth, the University of Minnesota is taking a hard look at the number of buildings on its campus.

College officials want to reduce the number of older buildings because of high energy and maintenance costs. That could mean tearing down more than half a dozen structures in coming months.

The buildings are in poor shape, in a bad location, or just can't be renovated, university officials say, but three of those buildings are considered historic, and that has preservationists upset.

The aging veterinary anatomy building on the University of Minnesota's St. Paul campus stands in stark contrast to the new construction around it.

For almost 100 years this was a place for students to observe operations on animals. More than 15 years ago, veterinary students moved to another location.

The 110-year old brick building, its two stories now covered with a thick beard of dead ivy, was closed because of structural problems.

"Basically every element of the building is deficient. It's needs a new roof, it needs new tuck pointing and sealing of the exterior," said the university's senior architect, Jim Litsheim. He said the university has considered ways to repair and reuse the building.

One option was to turn it into office space, but officials decided the $6-8 million cost was too much.

"In the end it's a better option to remove it," he said.

U of M veterinary building
The 110 year old veterinary building on the University of Minnesota's St. Paul campus has been closed since 1996. University officials have been looking for a ways to reuse the building but say its renovation would be too costly.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

In the next 18 months, the university wants to reduce its square footage by a million feet. It currently has 28 million square feet of buildings systemwide.

In May, officials will ask the school's Board of Regents for permission to knock down seven buildings, three of them considered historic.

One of particular concern for preservationists is Wesbrook Hall, a 40,000-square-foot building from the late 1800s. It started life as a medical lab then became the dental school. It's now home to several student organization offices.

It sits on the Minneapolis campus and sits just a few yards from Northrup Auditorium. Campus officials say it's in poor shape and crowds Northrup, which is currently going through an $80 million renovation.

Erin Hanafin Berg works for the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota. She said she thinks knocking down an old building like Wesbrook is short sighted.

"Maybe they'll need to build a new building in five years, and they have one that could have been a rehabilitation opportunity and now they have to start from scratch," she said.

Eddy Hall
The University of Minnesota is considering mothballing Eddy Hall, one of the oldest buildings on the U of M campus. University officials say they won't tear the iconic building down, but it needs major renovations to get it up to code.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

Preservationists are still smarting over the demolition of the university's music education building just last year. The 1888 stone structure was locked up for 17 years, then torn down after university officials weren't able to find another use for it.

With their large number of aging buildings, universities face tough choices when it comes to their planning decisions.

Those issues are coming up more often these days as universities across the country eye old buildings that are sometimes energy hogs and can cost millions of dollars to get up to code.

Pamela Delphenich, director of planning at MIT and who works with schools across the country on campus design through a national organization of university planners, said reusing old buildings, instead of building new ones, can often save universities money, but universities need to decide whether a renovated space will meet their needs.

"We're all doing the same thing. We're rethinking how to do more with less," she said. "It's a trade off. You may not have the ability to put as many people in the building, you may not be able to use it in the most efficient way."

Officials at the University of Minnesota are well aware of the criticism they'll face when they take down historic properties, no matter the reason.

But senior architect Jim Litsheim points out that the university has saved a number of historic buildings over the years.

"The university has a long track record of historic preservation. We've spent over $500 million dollars to date, and it's growing," he said.

Litsheim said while they're considering tearing down some historic properties, they're spending millions of dollars on renovating other buildings they consider true historical gems.