Citing Loras Hall’s historical significance, the Saint Paul Heritage Preservation Commission (HPC) voted 6-1 on December 14 to reject a request from the University of Saint Thomas to demolish the structure in order to build a new science and engineering building.

University officials now must decide whether to change their plans or appeal the HPC’s decision to the Saint Paul City Council. HPC action is required because Loras is in the Summit Avenue West Historic District.

Loras Hall, which was built in 1894 as a residence for Saint Paul Seminary students, is located on Summit Avenue just west of the university’s Frey Science and Engineering Center. Loras was designed by noted architect Cass Gilbert and is one of only three original seminary buildings that remain.

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The university wants to tear Loras down and construct a 120,000-square-foot STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics) building on the site.

The majority of commissioners who said Loras should not be demolished want to see it incorporated into the new STEAM building.

Loras Hall
The 126-year-old Loras Hall at the University of Saint Thomas.

Commissioner Paul Nelson cast the sole vote against denying the demolition permit. “I’ve come to the conclusion that Saint Thomas has made its case for demolition,” he said.

Commission David Wagner, on the other hand, said allowing the demolition of Loras “would be a dereliction of duty on our part.”

In a preapplication review, HPC commissioners had asked UST officials to find ways to preserve and repurpose the building. Mark Vangsgard, the university’s chief financial officer, said renovating Loras had an estimated cost of $10.4 million, while addressing exterior maintenance alone would cost more than $1.7 million. If UST is forced to save Loras, he indicated that the building could be mothballed.

“This is not an either/or proposition,” said Macalester-Groveland resident Marc Manderscheid, who contended there is space for the new STEAM building without tearing down Loras.

The Macalester-Groveland and Union Park district councils supported the demolition permit request. The Cass Gilbert Society, Summit Avenue Residential Preservation Association, Historic Saint Paul and other preservation groups opposed it. Campus neighbors weighed in on both sides of the issue. The HPC heard from almost two dozen supporters and opponents of the demolition.

UST officials said they have looked unsuccessfully at ways to incorporate Loras into the new STEAM building. Instead of that, they have proposed installing a display on the history of Gilbert, seminary founder Archbishop John Ireland and benefactor James J. Hill into the new $80 million building.

Commissioners asked if a new site could be found for the STEAM building. Vangsgard said that could force the university to reopen its controversial 2004 conditional use permit that regulates campus growth and development. That is a step university officials and neighbors have long sought to avoid.

“This is not an either/or proposition,” said Macalester-Groveland resident Marc Manderscheid, who contended there is space for the new STEAM building without tearing down Loras.

Macalester-Groveland resident Saura Jost was among those speaking in favor of the demolition, saying the building lacks historical significance. Jost said the advantages of the new STEAM building must also be considered.

University officials have also cited the educational benefits of the new building, including the ability to add programs such as nursing.

— Jane McClure

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