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Looking up at the restored brickface turret of Nicholson Hall.

Demolishing a wing added in the 1920s allowed one of Nicholson's original turrets to be restored.

Nicholson Hall reopens

Restored landmark is in the heart of emerging humanities district

By Gayla Marty

Brief, January 25, 2006

About a hundred yards from the spot where the University of Minnesota's first Latin classes were taught at least 140 years ago, Cicero's poetry will be heard in the original Latin this Friday. Humanities will be in the spotlight--archaeology lab tours, mini writing consultations, film shorts, along with food and music--when the campus celebrates Nicholson Hall's reopening. It's no coincidence because the landmark is in the heart of an emerging humanities district on the east bank.

Grand reopening celebration
Friday, January 27
Noon-1:30 p.m.
Nicholson Hall
216 Pillsbury Drive S.E.

Events begin with a welcome at noon in the ground-floor commons.
Nicholson map

Parking information
The Church Street Garage, accessible from University Avenue S.E. and Church Street, is the nearest facility.

Four College of Liberal Arts (CLA) units have moved into their new home:

And January 17, thousands of students began streaming into 903 new seats in 12 state-of-the-art classrooms for spring semester courses.

Ornate restored lamp hanging above Nicholson's mail stairwell
A lamp found in the attic and restored now hangs near the top of the main stairwell.

The University's six-year capital plan in 2000 identified a humanities district encompassing Folwell, Jones, Nicholson, Nolte, Pillsbury, and Scott halls, all built between 1889 and 1935 in the historic knoll. Many of them, including Nicholson, are protected by historic status so their exteriors must be preserved. Jones Hall, with renovation completed in 2005, is the new home of the Twin Cities campus freshman admissions welcome center and the Language Center, which serves thousands of students and hundreds of faculty and staff members each year. Capital bonding secured in 2002 saved Nicholson Hall from the wrecking ball. The renovation required gutting the building, but yielded much-needed general-purpose classrooms. And it came in under the $24 million budget.

A three-story, 71,000-square-foot Richardsonian Romanesque rectangle with stone-arched windows, Nicholson opened as the University's first chemistry building in 1890. Over the years, it's been a home to such things as a Navy machinists school, student union, campus bookstore, and film society. Two wings were added on the back in the 1920s and an auditorium between them in 1946.

"In the end, capital improvements are not about buildings but about people and academic programs."

Replacing the structure of the building while retaining the existing masonry walls was a daunting challenge for both the structural engineers at Collaborative Design Group and the construction manager, McGough, according to architect Mike Jordan. Demolishing the east wing allowed one of two distinctive turrets to be reconstructed. Lake Superior sandstone, salvaged from a demolished building, was used for the turret and to replace stone damaged by additions in the 1920s. Foundation, floors, and roof were reframed in steel and concrete and windows replaced, all new electrical and other systems installed, and the elevator moved to the high-traffic wing.

Professor George Sheets outside the department office doorway
George Sheets, professor and chair, Department of Classical and Near Eastern Studies, outside the department office doorway on the second floor

The art deco vestibule was disassembled, repaired, and reinstalled, and the breathtaking decorative stairwell railings were brought up to current codes. The fireplace room has been restored--using existing salvaged white oak paneling--and the existing art deco stainless steel fireplace refurbished to the period when Nicholson served as the student union. Despite losing the 1946 auditorium, Nicholson has undergone a net gain of classroom space by reclaiming the third floor.

New department offices for CNES and CSCL are conveniently located side by side on the second floor. Both departments moved from the third floor of Folwell Hall, where water coming through the leaky roof had damaged priceless books. Folwell Hall is, in fact, one of the buildings in the humanities district up next for major work. Restoration of its exterior, which faces a whole block on University Avenue S.E., is part of the University's asset preservation item (HEAPR) in a capital bonding request for the Minnesota Legislature this year, and programmatic renovations are slated for the 2008 request. The campus can expect to see continuing dedication to improving the U's historic structures and continuing consolidation of the humanities into a single district.

Brick by brick, a humanities district

Humanities in CLA embrace core disciplines across the college--in languages, literature, and world cultures and societies--and they intersect with the arts and social sciences. In addition to units already in Nicholson Hall, departments housed in the humanities district will eventually include all language departments, English, American studies, and associated research centers, such as the Institute for Advanced Study, which opened in Nolte Center in 2005.

Map of the designated humanities district
The humanities district was identified in the U's six-year capital plan in 2000.

One of the many things learned from the experience of creating the West Bank Arts Quarter was that the whole is indeed far greater than the sum of its parts, according to CLA dean Steven Rosenstone.

"A long-range capital plan gives us a big-picture goal to build toward--brick by brick, bonding request by bonding request," he says. More importantly, it focuses energy on educational priorities, especially the benefits to students of new and renovated facilities, and on building vibrant interdisciplinary academic communities.

A view upward in Nicholson's stairwell toward the main entrance, with students passing.
Students in Nicholson's main entrance and stairwell.

"In the end, capital improvements are not about buildings but about people and academic programs," says Rosenstone. "We are creating modern educational spaces where students and faculty can thrive while preserving our public historic assets for the people of Minnesota.

"That's why we're already looking forward to Folwell and Pillsbury renovations--even while the paint is still drying on Nicholson's walls."