The University of Saint Thomas’ Loras Hall will be coming down during the spring semester. The Saint Paul City Council voted 6-1 on January 20 to allow its demolition in order to make way for a new science and engineering building. In doing so, the council upheld a university appeal and overturned a Heritage Preservation Commission (HPC) decision to deny the demolition.

HPC action was required because Loras Hall is in the Summit Avenue West Historic District. Loras, which was built in 1894 as a residence for Saint Paul Seminary students, was designed by noted architect Cass Gilbert and is one of only three original seminary buildings that remain. It was once deemed eligible for nomination to the National Register of Historic Places, though that never happened.

 

Loras Hall
Loras Hall at the University of Saint Thomas.

The university wants to demolish Loras to make way for a $100 million STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics) building. UST officials contend the new 120,000-square-foot facility, which would be located on Summit just west of its Frey Science and Engineering Center, is needed to serve more students in those disciplines and add a nursing program.

The Macalester-Groveland and Union Park district councils supported the demolition permit request. The Summit Avenue Residential Preservation Association, Historic Saint Paul, Cass Gilbert Society and other preservation groups opposed it. Gilbert’s prominence and his work with then-Archbishop John Ireland and seminary benefactor James J. Hill were cited as reasons to save the structure. A check with those preservation groups indicated that there are no plans to appeal the decision.

HPC supervisor George Gause said this would be the first time the city has approved the demolition of a contributing structure in a Saint Paul historic district.

HPC supervisor George Gause said this would be the first time the city has approved the demolition of a contributing structure in a Saint Paul historic district. That concerned council member Jane Prince, who cast the sole vote against upholding the appeal. Prince said the city is setting a bad precedent by allowing Loras to come down. She urged UST to consider other on-campus locations for the STEAM building. However, university officials said their campus space is limited.

 

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UST contended in its appeal that Loras is not considered historic, Gause said. Another argument was that Summit Avenue West is primarily a residential district.

Council member Mitra Jalali, whose ward includes the university, said the appeal should be granted and that the university could create “a better building” in place of Loras. She said not all buildings designed by a noted architect are worthy of being saved.

UST acquired Loras and other seminary buildings in 1982. Loras currently houses offices, music practice space, a credit union and storage. The university’s facilities staff have identified spaces in other campus buildings for relocating those functions.

Had the City Council denied the appeal, UST officials indicated they would simply mothball Loras and not make further improvements. Estimates placed the cost of renovating Loras at about $10 million. School officials had also considered moving the structure, but deemed that to be cost-prohibitive. Incorporating Loras into a new building was also deemed impractical.

A building permit for the new structure will require HPC approval. UST officials hope to begin construction on the new building in the spring of 2022 and open it in the fall of 2024.

— Jane McClure

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