University of Minnesota
University of Minnesota

A new chapter for Walter Library

By Mary Coons

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 research libraries.)

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 vast collection.

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 libraries.”

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 use."

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 and reproduction.

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, and accessibility.

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 runs).

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 laboratories.

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."

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