Historic Misstep

IT'S BEEN ABOUT a month since instructors cleaned out their offices in the old Music Education building on the U of M's Minneapolis campus. They were evicted as part of a university plan to mothball the building--one of the U's oldest--along with 12 others on Twin Cities campuses. Technically, the buildings will be "decommissioned"--the heat, water, and electricity will get shut off, boards will go up in the windows, and they'll sit empty. University officials are on record as saying that at least some of the buildings will fall victim to the wrecking ball. Preservationists, however, say that's short-sighted. In fact, they and the university have long been at work on a plan outlining fixes for the school's aging but historic facilities, a plan they fear administrators are ignoring.

The Preservation Alliance of Minnesota has placed four of the threatened buildings--Music Education, Nicholson, Wesbrook, and Jones halls--on their annual "Top Ten Endangered Historic Properties" because they sit in the Old Campus Historic District--literally, the original U of M campus that dates back to the 1880s. "As a group of buildings, they show the character of the campus as it was originally drawn up," says Thora Cartlidge, a campus planner and coordinator of the U's plan for historic preservation. "Their value is in their original architecture; but it's as much that they represent a piece of the university's design heritage."

The decommissioning and possible razing of these buildings is the evil stepchild of a long history of bad planning. The U has never budgeted for predictable but large repairs to its buildings like replacing roofs, or updating heating and fire systems. "A roof, a heating system, windows, everything has a useful life. Those things need to be replaced and modified," explains Eric Kruse, U of M vice president for Facilities Management. "This is a problem system-wide. Those types of investments haven't been made over time. The funding wasn't directed toward those activities in the past. Now, our buildings are basically at a midlife crisis."

This midlife crisis is known around the U as "deferred renewal." The price tag on the backlog of unfinished repairs is more than $1 billion, and despite the size of the problem, there's still no plan in place to provide repairs for the buildings under construction today. "As far as deferred renewal goes," says Kruse, "the magnitude of what we face is beyond what anyone could imagine."

Tearing down old buildings eliminates maintenance problems once and for all, and is the penny-wise solution for administration. But the historic value of a building is lost in the process. The university's all-but-completed preservation plan would require a committee to evaluate each building's historical significance before Facilities Management, responsible for caring for buildings, can decommission or demolish it. But before the plan could be implemented, Facilities Management rushed through approval of the Old Campus decommissioning. "They're bucking the process," says Cartlidge, who is working on the preservation plan. The Minneapolis Heritage Preservation Commission's Bob Roscoe concurs: "It served their purposes to drag it along until they got their decommissioning in place."

Facilities Management's Kruse, however, dismisses claims that his department is dragging its feet. He says the delay is a simple matter of ironing out details. "We want to all be on common ground," before the plan is released, he says, adding that decommissioning doesn't automatically mean destruction. "The buildings that we're talking about now we know have a historic context, and we know we have to do a historic process to determine the best future for them." Until the university adopts the preservation plan, it's unclear what shape that process will take. But turning off the utilities is surely a step in the wrong direction.

"The idea of moth-balling a building is very worrisome to me," says Cartlidge. "The buildings left alone will deteriorate until they get to the point of where they have to be demolished." If it comes to that with the Old Campus, the loss will be incalculable. "When you think of Eastern colleges," says Roscoe, "they very staunchly defend their older buildings because they realize that image and tradition are so important."

 
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