A new chapter for Walter Library
Eighty years ago, state architect Clarence Johnston
and University Librarian Frank Walter envisioned a state-of-the-art
library whose classical design and stately interior
would symbolize its scholarly mission. Their dream began
to materialize in the blueprints that Johnston and three
colleagues meticulously rendered with pen and ink on
28 sheets of fine linen.
Johnston's design incorporated the latest architectural
features of the day, and when the new University Library
opened on October 31, 1924, it earned universal praise
for its elegance and modern technology. (The general
library building was renamed Walter Library in 1959
to honor the influential head librarian who transformed
the University system into one of the country's major
Changing times, poor facilities, and surging demand
for University library services had prompted the Minnesota
legislature in 1919 to appropriate $1.25 million for
a new library. Now a $63.4 million renovation has restored
the 78-year-old Classical Revival structure to its original
glory while refashioning it into a high-tech showcase
for research and education.
The University's academic initiatives
University officials concluded in 1989 that Walter
Library needed major renovation. Although it had been
a modern-day wonder in 1924, the library could no longer
meet the needs of students and faculty in the high-tech
Information Age. The structure itself didn't comply
with current health and safety standards; its most worrisome
defect was a major fire hazard—the library's 12-story
steel-frame stack core. In addition, librarians warned
that an environment without air-conditioning and humidity
controls jeopardized long-term preservation of the library's
According to a plan conceived in 1989, a renovated
Walter Library would house the Science and Engineering
Library, the Education/Psychology Library, and IT Administration.
That same year the state legislature appropriated architectural
design funds, and the University moved quickly into
the project's initial phase.
The project continued through the normal course of
schematic and design development until 1992, when the
initial phase was 90 percent complete. In 1994, due
to a shift in the University's capital request strategy,
the Minnesota Library Access Center (later renamed the
Elmer L. Andersen Library) replaced the Walter renovation
on the University's list of priority projects. Andersen
Library received design funds in 1994 and construction
funds in 1996.
The Walter project quietly slipped into limbo until
1997, when Mark Yudof became University president and
quickly proclaimed his goal of making the University
one of the nation's top five public research institutions.
Yudof's vision encompasses major academic initiatives,
a capital plan to support those initiatives, and a commitment
to historic preservation.
Yudof and other University leaders envisioned a renovated
Walter Library that would embody these ambitious objectives.
Their proposal allocated about half of the building's
space to the new Digital Technology Center (DTC), locus
of the University's digital technology initiative. A
hub of research and education, the center would also
form alliances with business, industry, government,
and other educational institutions to help secure Minnesota's
leadership in digital and information technologies.
"Mr. Yudof understood the scope of the project
as well as the resulting benefits to both industry and
education,” explains Drew Bjorklund of Stageberg
Beyer Sachs (SBS), project architect. “By incorporating
a digital technology center, this would strengthen the
University's role in future digital technology advances."
The center would be housed in one of the most historically
and architecturally significant buildings on the Twin
Cities campus. But for generations of alumni and faculty,
the library also created indelible personal memories
of their years on campus. Walter Library was the incubator
for scholarly research, intellectual growth, eleventh-hour
term papers, and furtive socializing. Navigating its
stacks alone at night was an ill-advised venture for
the claustrophobe or anyone with an overactive imagination.
Newcomers and regular patrons alike responded to the
library's grand scale and its classical beauty. Even
the most casual students felt a bit more scholarly as
they ascended the wide Tennessee marble staircase leading
to the second-floor atrium and the stacks.
The Walter Library project was included in the University's
1998 capital request to the state legislature. The library's
proposed reincarnation—a potent synthesis of farsighted
goals, pragmatism, history, and collective memory—persuaded
legislators to allocate $53.6 million to transform the
University landmark into a 21st-century library and
digital technology center.
The major players
With funding secured, the next step was to select an
architectural firm. The State Designer Selection Board
uses a qualification-based selection process to choose
primary designers for state agency construction projects,
including University projects whose estimated construction
budget exceeds $2 million.
SBS, a Minneapolis architectural firm, received the
library project commission in 1990 along with Davis
Brody Associates, a New York City architectural practice
with expertise in historical renovation. However, SBS
became the sole project architect for the revamped program
in 1998. “We were selected partly for our work
done in the past,” says Bjorklund. “We had
designed the Southdale and Brookdale regional libraries
[in suburban Minneapolis], the University Aquatic Center,
[and] several campus parking ramps. We have a solid
working relationship with the University, and we understand
Still, he admits, the project was daunting. The renovation
was mapped by 450 sheets of computer-generated drawings,
a far cry from Johnston's hand-drawn blueprints. “We've
done small-scale historical restoration projects previously,
but this was the largest renovation project Stageberg
Beyer Sachs has attempted,” Bjorklund says. “It
was a unique project because of the complexity of the
program and adapting the existing building to a new
Construction began in 1999 after building tenants relocated
to temporary quarters elsewhere on campus. Bjorklund
spent about half his work time on-site, mediating between
practicability and the dictates of historical preservation.
General contractor M.A. Mortenson Company of Minneapolis
and officials from University Facilities Management
supervised the project and coordinated the work being
done by a team of nearly 20 firms.
Challenges and constraints
Given the library's historical and architectural significance,
renovation was the only way to address the building's
deficiencies and to meet programmatic goals, according
to SBS's preliminary design report.
The complex project would have to transform a 78-year-old
structure into a state-of-the-art, computer-serviced
instruction and research facility that complied with
current building codes. The design plan called for a
dramatic excision—removal of the 12-story stack
core—to create “new space” for an addition
that would promote safe egress and house library and
DTC facilities. Moreover, the project had to maintain
a delicate balance between renovation and historic preservation.
"Balancing building code criteria with historic
preservation guidelines is a delicate process, especially
if it means altering the structure's historic presence,”
says Bjorklund. “When you're involved with a historic
structure, you must be sensitive to the preservation
quality of the building and its historical significance.
In this situation, where we created an addition, the
design had to complement the original building. We strove
to make no changes in its historical character."
The project required a dizzying range of expertise:
in engineering specialties, electrical and mechanical
systems, telecommunications, plaster and drywall, masonry,
fireproofing, sprinkler systems, plumbing and heating,
roofing, lighting, ornamental metal, and restoration.
The team's collective skills faced multiple challenges.
Crews had to contend with several different structural
systems, coordinate new construction with the original,
and assess the relative cost-benefits of historic preservation
Obsolescence and energy inefficiency were major problems;
all plumbing, ductwork, lighting, and electrical systems
had to be replaced. The windows, originally made of
steel and cast-iron elements, have been replicated with
new aluminum castings and thermal-break aluminum sashes.
The library's stately exterior also needed attention.
But the most pressing concerns involved health, safety,
The steel-frame stack core presented the most serious
safety problem. A major fire hazard, the stack core
couldn't be fireproofed because it was open to all floors;
a fire that originated in the stacks could have spread
quickly throughout the building. This situation, aggravated
by inadequate emergency exits, substandard alarms, and
a poor emergency lighting system, would almost have
guaranteed loss of life and property.
Workers remodeled an existing elevator with a new cab,
installed three additional passenger elevators and a
new freight elevator, and added emergency egress stair
towers. An entrance on Pleasant Street SE provides access
to the facility for people with disabilities. The building
now is universally accessible except for mechanical
spaces and electrical closets, says Bjorklund.
Workers also fireproofed existing clay masonry walls,
removed asbestos, upgraded fire-safety equipment, added
air-conditioning and humidity controls, and brought
electrical, mechanical, and plumbing systems up to code.
Technology for the new century
The Science and Engineering Library—another major
tenant—will work with the DTC to create a digital
library and to become a national leader in electronic
information. To meet those objectives, the building
includes facilities for state-of-the-art electronic
storage and delivery systems, made available by stacked
systems closets (vertical runs) and access floors (horizontal
The DTC's 48,000 square feet of access floors conceal
miles of optical fibers and copper wiring that transport
data and power underneath surface flooring. DTC space
includes classrooms dedicated to the development of
computer-aided undergraduate courses, workspace for
collaborative ventures, distance-learning classrooms,
and advanced networking, computing, and telecommunications
Existing programs relocating to the DTC include the
Minnesota Supercomputing Institute, the Laboratory for
Computational Science and Engineering, Academic and
Distributed Computing Services, the Learning Resources
Center, and the Digital Media Center.
The remainder of the building provides office space
for library staff, IT Administration, and DTC core faculty,
research staff, and students. The building's tenants
began moving into their new quarters in December, but
the process will take several months to complete.
Preserving the past
Eligible as a historic property, although not included
in the National Register of Historic Places, Walter
Library is rich in architectural detail and symbolism.
Previous efforts at modernizing the library during
the 1950s and 1960s eliminated some of its historic
character. The original art deco lighting was replaced
with utilitarian fluorescent fixtures, and several coats
of paint covered some of the hand-painted, multicolor
detailing of the plaster ceilings. Fortunately, the
current renovation was planned during a period of strong
local and national support for historic preservation.
According to the National Historic Preservation Program,
“historic properties are now understood and appreciated
as part of the landscape to which they belong."
All public construction projects require a one percent
designation of funds for art, says Bjorklund. “In
keeping with the overall art theme on the campus and to
maintain the original budget for the [library's] ceiling
restoration, the ceilings were identified as the “art”
of the building project. The board of regents determines
how this money is spent. In the face of budget cuts, the
regents felt that this budget needed to be maintained and
allocated art funds for the ceiling restoration."
He adds, “Our greatest interest is in preserving
what was originally here and adapting that facility
to the 21st century.”
Ironically, it has taken modern technology, materials,
and know-how to return the library to its former splendor.
But the same spirit that inspired the library's design
and construction guided its current restoration.
"It's been a labor of love on all our parts,”
says Bjorklund. “The construction program has created
a facility that the departments, designers, trades workers,
and end-users will be very proud of and can enjoy for
decades to come."
See related articles:
Walter Library's guiding light
Arthur Upson's literary
More about Walter Library