Commission urges school to save century-old Cass Gilbert-designed dorm

During a preapplication review on October 5, members of Saint Paul’s Heritage Preservation Commission (HPC) urged the University of Saint Thomas to find a way to spare Loras Hall from the wrecking ball. That includes possibly incorporating Loras into UST’s plans for a new science and engineering building on the site.

The university wants to construct a 120,000-square-foot building with a focus on STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics) on Summit Avenue just west of its Frey Science and Engineering Center. The cost to construct the new building has been estimated at $100 million. Construction is expected to start in the spring of 2022 and be completed by the fall of 2024.

That could mean tearing down Loras, which was designed by noted architect Cass Gilbert and is one of the oldest buildings on the university’s campus. The former dormitory was originally part of the Saint Paul Seminary and dates from 1893-1894.

“I’m greatly concerned about the proposal for demolition. Once it’s gone, it’s gone,” said HPC commissioner Stuart MacDonald. Other commissioners agreed, saying allowing Loras to be demolished could set a precedent for other buildings on the campus.

UST officials have countered that Loras is less significant than other structures designed by Gilbert, which include the Minnesota Capitol. The university must have its demolition and building permits approved by the HPC, since Loras is located in the Summit Avenue West Historic District.

“I’d encourage the University of Saint Thomas to go back to the drawing board,” said HPC chair Teresa Kimker.

Commissioner David Wagner participated in the virtual HPC meeting while outside of Loras Hall. “I’m just enjoying the beauty of the building,” he said.

The university’s 2016 master plan for its Saint Paul campus refers to moving Loras Hall about 100 feet to the west and then renovating it. However, university officials have since said that would be impractical and would cost millions.

Construction of a new Saint Thomas science and engineering building could require the demolition of Loras Hall, which was built in 1894.

Mark Vangsgard, UST’s vice president for business affairs and chief financial officer, said Loras is an important part of the university’s history, but its condition, construction and design make moving and reusing it a challenge.

UST acquired the seminary buildings in 1982. Loras is now used for university offices, music practice, a credit union and storage. Gilbert described the 4½-story, hipped-roof building as being in the Northern Italian style.

The proposed demolition of Loras has met opposition from the land use committees of both the Macalester-Groveland and Union Park district councils.

The Cass Gilbert Society, a Saint Paul-based organization with about 100 members nationwide, is monitoring the demolition discussions closely. Marjorie Pearson, who leads the society, said her group has not taken a position on the demolition yet.

“I’d encourage the University of Saint Thomas to go back to the drawing board,” said HPC chair Teresa Kimker.

“In general, we’d be concerned about the prospect of losing a Cass Gilbert building,” she said. Pearson was recently hired by the university to analyze the historical significance of Loras Hall in the context of Gilbert’s career.

Another wrinkle in the building’s fate is a debate over its namesake, Bishop Mathias Loras (1792-1858), following revelations that he owned a slave named Marie Louise from 1836-1852. Marie Louise was hired out after Loras moved to Iowa, and Loras used the proceeds to help build his ministries.

That recent revelation prompted Loras College in Dubuque to remove a statue of him from its campus in September. The college itself is not considering a name change.

UST president Julie Sullivan has been convening two committees to discuss the naming issue. In a recent letter, she wrote that while demolishing Loras Hall or changing its name may be the next step, moving too quickly would be unwise. The first committee will develop principles on renaming campus buildings, spaces and programs. The other committee will make a recommendation on the future of Loras Hall itself.

—Jane McClure


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