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University of Minnesota
University of Minnesota

Improving the climate

February 1, 2010

Students in Folwell Hall.

Folwell Hall was constructed in 1906-07 as a replacement for Old Main, the first building on the University of Minnesota campus (which was destroyed by fire in 1904). It's named after William Watts Folwell, who became the U's first president in 1869 (when there were fewer than 250 students) and served until 1884.

U seeks renovation to Folwell Hall to enhance learning experience for students

By Rick Moore

When it comes to historic treasures on the Twin Cities campus, the majestic Folwell Hall is in a rare class.
Built in 1907 and named after William Watts Folwell—the first president of the University of Minnesota—the iconic building at Pleasant Street and University Avenue is a visual smorgasbord from the outside, adorned with an array of gargoyles, sculpted faces and animals, and no fewer than 26 (mostly) fake chimneys. It’s a fixture on the National Register of Historic Places, and its recent exterior renovation received a Minneapolis Heritage Preservation Award.

But Folwell Hall’s true value—past and future—is tied to the student learning that happens each semester within those walls and under the fake chimneys. And that’s why the U is seeking funding in its 2010 Capital Request for a much needed renovation to Folwell’s interior.

A home for 12,000 students

Folwell is a workhorse when it comes to classroom space on the Twin Cities campus. Last year, more than 12,000 students enrolled in courses that met in Folwell’s 30 classrooms, and the building teaches nearly 800 undergraduate majors.

But the workhorse is not built for comfort, by any stretch, and that makes learning difficult.

“With some of these classrooms, you have a choice between very noisy or very uncomfortable. Turn the air conditioner on and you can’t hear. Turn the air conditioner off and everyone roasts,” says Gary Oehlert, associate dean for planning in the College of Liberal Arts (CLA). “Improving the classrooms and creating a better educational experience so that students can learn languages and cultures, become better global citizens, and help Minnesota participate in the global economy is the goal. The real motivation here is about the students.”

“The environment in which students learn languages is going to be dramatically improved [with the proposed renovation], both in terms of the HVAC/sound issues and comfort, and also in the connectivity of the classrooms to the world,” adds Scott Elton, assistant to the associate dean for planning in CLA.

A hub of language instruction

Of the 40 world languages taught at the University, 27 are taught in Folwell Hall. That makes Folwell the largest foreign-language teaching center in Minnesota.
Some of those languages carry greater importance today than in decades past. Spanish, Chinese, and Japanese are some of the major languages related to U.S. trade interests. “We’re also teaching Hindi and Urdu, as the Indian subcontinent is becoming more important economically,” says Oehlert.

In addition, the U receives close to $1 million each year in Title VI funds from the Department of Education to support the teaching of other critical-need and underserved languages taught in Folwell, including Arabic, Russian, Persian, Turkish, Korean, and Farsi.

“Those may be some of the more important languages from a national security perspective,” Oehlert notes.

Preserving a landmark

The renovation would ensure that the interior of the building keeps pace with the demands of today’s learning. The project would provide:

• technology-enhanced classrooms for the teaching and learning of foreign languages and culture;
• easy reconfiguration of classroom and office space; and
• improved mechanical and electrical systems, accessibility, and fire safety features.

And it will help make the learning experience memorable for students—in a positive way.
Junior Paul Strain, president of the Minnesota Student Association, is a biochemistry major with a minor in German studies. He’s had a class in Folwell during each of his six semesters at the U and can testify to the current atmosphere in the building.

“It’s hot during the summer, it’s hot during the fall, it’s hot during the spring, and it’s almost way too hot in the winter,” he says. “The HVAC system is just a mess, and the electronic capabilities aren’t really conducive to the new ways of teaching.

“It’s an old building, and it needs repair. And it sets a precedent if we don’t take care of the buildings we have.”

Tags: College of Liberal Arts

For more information on the University's 2010 Capital Request to the Minnesota State Legislature, inlcuding fact sheets on the various projects and the U's financial plan, visit the State Relations Web page.

Discover ways to advocate for the University of Minnesota and the 2010 Capital Request at the Legislative Network.

Visit the Folwell Hall Renovation site for more information on the building, including fun facts and historical photos.