Molding Minnesota’s Up-and-Coming Preservationists

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Lucas Glissendorf
University of Minnesota

Preservation goes far beyond holding the wrecking ball at bay.  Buildings, neighborhoods, and natural amenities can serve as important reminders of a place’s heritage while sustaining a vital identity.  Historic sites also provide a unique educational opportunity for those who encounter them.  Such was the case when a group of students at the University of Minnesota School of Architecture took on the challenge of preserving some of Minnesota’s most endangered sites.

Sixteen students enrolled in the University of Minnesota’s Bachelor of Design in Architecture program participated in the eight week design workshop.  The course was taught by local architect and preservationist Michael Bjornberg, AIA of HGA Architects and Engineers.  With a career consisting of a number of historic preservation and adaptive reuse projects, Bjornberg brought a wealth of valuable knowledge and experience to share with the class.  His insight throughout the course gave students a true taste for the professional practice of preservation.  A presentation by PAM Field Representative Erin Hanafin Berg added another layer of understanding of the values and benefits of preservation.  Students also had the privilege of getting an inside look at preservation in action.  While touring the Northrop Memorial Auditorium at the University of Minnesota, currently under renovation, students were exposed to the extensive amount of collaboration and expertise that take place in order for a preservation project to achieve success.  These stories and sites provided excellent precedence for the students’ own departures in preservation.

Each student had the opportunity to choose from ten historic sites scattered across the state of Minnesota.  Sites varied greatly in terms of size, scale, and program, ranging from an iconic Dairy Queen in Roseville, to a dilapidated school building in Jordan.  Students were prompted to thoroughly investigate the stories behind their selected sites.  Identifying and representing each site’s critical character defining elements was an important exercise that informed their design proposals that came later.  Students were encouraged to visit their respective sites, find archival photographs, architectural drawings, meet owners, developers, and community members who might be able to shed some valuable insight.  Identifying each site’s specific needs was another critical investigation that the students undertook.  Weekly pinups allowed for students to discuss one-another’s progress and give each other valuable feedback.  The class culminated with presentations from each student, proposing viable adaptive reuse solutions for each site.

The diversity of available sites was only superseded by the creativity of the respective student reuse proposals.  Each student presented a very unique, site-sensitive approach to saving these precious Minnesota landmarks.  Classmates and guest critics looked on, intrigued, as each student presented with a contagious level of enthusiasm and excitement.  The presentations solicited lively discussions between classmates and guests, engaging all in constructive conversations about the intersections between architecture and preservation, and the importance of such intersections.  My particular proposal was for the vacant Island Station Power Plant along the banks of the Mississippi River in Saint Paul.

Located just minutes from the West 7th neighborhood and downtown Saint Paul, the Island Station Power Plant, currently facing the threat of demolition, sits on a desirable site for redevelopment.  The building, a muscular structure of steel reinforced concrete and beautiful red masonry, stands as an icon of industrial heritage along the Mississippi River.  Its 220 foot tall smokestack, massive windows and industrial infrastructure are among its memorable features that contribute to its rustic aesthetic.  Massive interior spaces offered opportunity for a wealth of programmatic possibilities when developing an adaptive reuse proposal.  Ultimately, the recommendation was to restore the Island Station Power Plant as a major, multi-modal, recreational destination while maintaining homage to its industrial past.  The adapted facility included an industrial scale museum, large event spaces, a rooftop entertainment space, office space, a boardwalk, a marina, and an abundance of outdoor adventure opportunities, including an equipment rental shop, bike and snowshoe trails, a fishing and ice skating pond, a performance lawn, and many more activities to keep visitors returning every season.  The program was developed in accordance with the Great River Master Plan proposal done by the City of Saint Paul, giving the site yet another layer of important context.

In addition to providing the students with tangible experience in the art of preservation, the workshop also allowed the students to acquire unique pieces of Minnesota history.  Most students developed an attachment to their respective sites.  Michael Bjornberg would often say that “every building has a champion.”  Well, a number of sites across Minnesota just gained sixteen more champions.

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