A Centerpiece Building

New School of Law home part of broader expansion of Minneapolis campus

When St. Thomas broke ground in May 1991 for its first building on an empty block in downtown Minneapolis, the university already had its eye on the block immediately to the south, across 11th Street.

No plans, or even dreams, existed at the time for the big block bounded by 11th, LaSalle Avenue, 12th Street and Harmon Place. But administrators knew it would be only a matter of time before additional land would be needed for additional buildings, and it made sense to look next door and acquire property as it became available.

The strategy paid off. Ten years later, St. Thomas owns all but one parcel on that "south block" and plans to break ground next spring on a School of Law building along Harmon between 11th and 12th. The building will open in August 2003 for the third year of the law school, which has temporary quarters in Terrence Murphy Hall for the first two years.

The law school building is just one component of a five-year expansion that also calls for construction of Schulze Hall, a new building for entrepreneurship programs, and a city-operated parking ramp on St. Thomas property west of Harmon. Enough space will remain on the law school block to accommodate other buildings further into the future.

Few, if any, people imagined 15 years ago that St. Thomas would grow to this extent in Minneapolis. It wasn’t until February 1987 that St. Thomas began to offer graduate business classes in the old Powers department store at 5th Street and Marquette Avenue. The so-called "experiment" proved to be such a success that St. Thomas decided to establish a permanent campus on the block bounded by 10th, LaSalle, 11th and Harmon.

The first building, now known as Terrence Murphy Hall, opened in 1992 and today is home for graduate business and professional psychology programs. The School of Education moved into the new Opus Hall on the north side of 10th two years ago; also on the site are the K-12 Interdistrict Downtown School operated by nine public school districts and a 640-car underground parking ramp owned and operated by the city.

Even with the opening of Opus Hall to the north, St. Thomas knew its future would be on the block south of Terrence Murphy Hall. The May 1999 decision to open a School of Law focused attention on that block, and the board of trustees last February approved plans to locate the law building on the western portion of the block.

"It’s a natural location for the law school," said John Albers, senior vice president of architecture for Opus Architects & Engineers. "The green space in the center of the block will be open to 11th Street and will echo the green space to the north on the Murphy Hall block."

A 26-year veteran of Opus, Albers also designed Murphy and Opus halls, which have the same Collegiate Gothic architecture and Mankato-Kasota stone that characterize much of the St. Paul campus. The look of the law building, then, won’t be a surprise.

"The architectural vocabulary will be consistent with the other buildings," Albers said, "but we’ll tweak it because it will be a centerpiece building. We wanted to explore something different, with more glass, especially in the atrium."

An early decision was to place the main entrance off the interior plaza and not on Harmon or 12th. The atrium, moot courtroom and chapel will face the plaza on the first level, Albers said, "creating a real sense of openness to the rest of the block and the campus."

Opus is the architect and engineer of record for the project and hired Shepley Bulfinch Richardson and Abbott of Boston as a consulting architect. The firm specializes in higher education and health care buildings; other projects include a University of Denver law building and the restoration and renovation of the Harvard law library.

Wendell Wickerham, a principal at Shepley Bulfinch, said the St. Thomas project intrigued his firm because of the opportunity to help design a new building for a new school in a downtown environment.

"The strength of the building clearly is an organizational plan that meets both functional objectives and philosophical objectives," Wickerham said. "St. Thomas wanted certain elements — faculty offices, administrative offices, classrooms and open space — to intermingle so professors and students would be together as much as possible and not isolated from each other."

"Building a community is important to the overall goal of the school," said Associate Dean Patrick Schiltz. "This building, unlike any other building at St. Thomas, is where students may spend their entire day. They won’t move from one building to another, and they will need to have a lot of contact with each other."

The 152,000-square-foot building will cost $31 million to construct and furnish, with one below-grade level and four stories above ground.

The library will occupy four levels of the south wing, along 12th, and will include 13 group-study rooms, seating for up to 300 people, shelving for up to 250,000 books and storage space for up to 250,000 volumes on microfiche. Electronic databases and Internet access will be available from every seat.

Classrooms, offices and student activity space will be interspersed off the four-story glass atrium to the west and north on each level, creating that "mix" of uses sought by Schiltz. A chapel will be in the north end of the building along 11th, and Mass will be celebrated regularly.

The first new facility related to the project will be a 615-car parking ramp on the west side of Harmon. St. Thomas will lease 300 spaces in the ramp, which will be owned by the Wedum Foundation and operated by the city. Construction could begin by fall, with the ramp opening by next summer.

After the law school building opens, attention will turn to the construction of Schulze Hall along Harmon north of 11th. Entrepreneurship programs now in Terrence Murphy Hall will move into the new building, which will be named in recognition of last year’s $50 million gift from Richard and Sandra Schulze. Construction dates have not been set.

City approvals still are necessary for the overall campus project. One issue has been the recommended creation of a historic district recognizing the auto industry’s early years in the area. Several buildings owned by St. Thomas have been deemed as contributing to the heritage of the proposed district, and the city must approve their demolition before the university can proceed with its project. Hearings on the issue will be held through the summer.