School of Law Moves into New Home

Building reflects integration of faith and reason

With the opening of any new building, the opportunities for metaphors are endless.

“We’ve had the opportunity to literally build from the ground up,” said School of Law Dean Thomas Mengler. “The new building combines the best elements of a state-of-the-art education center with the unique character of the St. Thomas School of Law.”

“The new building embodies everything the law school has accomplished over the past two years,” said Joel Schroeder, a third-year law student. “We’ve talked about laying the foundation for academics and traditions, and now we have a true foundation to build on.”

In its own publications, the School of Law describes itself as a “Foundation for Service and Leadership.”

Whatever the metaphor, the new five-level, $34.6 million structure is a significant achievement for the 2-year-old School of Law and the expansion of the 11-year-old Minneapolis campus. The building will accommodate the School of Law’s eventual enrollment of 450 students and fulfills an important accreditation requirement.

The building blends the university’s trademark Collegiate Gothic style with a four-story glass atrium and other contemporary design elements that provide a visual link to the downtown cityscape. It’s located on the western portion of the block bordered by Harmon Place, LaSalle Avenue and 11th and 12th streets. The site includes a circular courtyard, a fountain and surface parking for 110 vehicles. With the exterior use of Mankato-Kasota stone, the building blends with the other two Minneapolis campus buildings and creates a connection to the St. Paul campus.

The overall architecture and design of the 158,000-square-foot building is perhaps the most apt metaphor. With the law library and chapel on either end of the structure connected by an atrium, the building reflects the School of Law’s mission for the integration of faith and reason in the search for truth.

The four-story law library is on the south side of the building along 12th Street. With 40,000 square feet – nearly a third of the entire structure – the library includes 13 group-study rooms, seating for up to 300, shelving for up to 250,000 books and storage space for up to 250,000 volumes on microfiche. Under the direction of Edmund Edmonds, St. Thomas quickly has developed a top-notch law library that uses cutting-edge technology and is the center of intellectual life.

The two-story chapel on the building’s north side provides a bookend to the library. The chapel is the first designated worship space on the downtown campus; with seating for 110, it provides the community with a tranquil escape when the need for quiet reflection arises. The balance between these two essential spaces on each end of the building is not lost on students like Schroeder.

“It’s an inspiring place and I think that’s very important when studying law,” said Schroeder, a member of the School of Law’s inaugural class. “All the elements, from the open and fresh feel of the library and the classrooms to the calm peacefulness of the chapel, really reflect the vision of the law school.”

Separating the library and the chapel, the four-story glass atrium serves as the building entrance and a gathering space, and is clearly the structure’s most striking feature. Patrick Schiltz, faculty member and past associate dean, describes the atrium as “a giant mixing bowl” that requires students, faculty and staff to intermingle as they travel from one part of the building to another. The design encourages collaboration and helps maintain the special sense of community the law school has established.

On the east side of the atrium, four stories of glass allow morning sunlight to flood the building. Above, large skylights bring even more light into the area. On the west side of the atrium, the five levels are linked through a series of cascading stairwells. The abundant glass and soaring ceiling create an airy, bright and inviting space. In the evening, the atrium provides magnificent views of the Minneapolis skyline. With 9,000 square feet of space and an earth-tone granite floor from Brazil, the atrium is a prime gathering space for receptions and presentations.

Understanding that law students spend most of their waking hours at school, special attention was paid to creating livable surroundings while maintaining a professional environment. Natural light helps “shed light” on challenging subjects. The building includes office space for student organizations, spacious lounge areas as well as many individual study spaces.

“Law school is a full-time job,” said Schroeder. “I appreciate that the building was designed to make the life of students as comfortable as possible.”

Modern technology enhances the classrooms, library, group-study areas, moot court room and private offices throughout the building. Each of the 11 classrooms features current teaching and presentation aids and many are Internet-capable. Video and audio feeds originate in a law library control center and run to classrooms and meeting rooms throughout the building. A computer lab and training center, which includes 50 individual work stations, accommodates students’ research needs. Classrooms can seat from 20 to 110 students.

Just off the atrium is the moot court room. The generous use of cherry wood, a domed ceiling above the bench and jury box area, textured wall coverings and comfortable seating for 80 to 100 spectators adorn the moot court. Mengler hopes the Twin Cities bench and bar will put the moot court room, the atrium and other meeting rooms to good use.

“We’re at the center of one of the most vibrant legal communities in America,” Mengler said. “We intend to be a good neighbor, and our doors are open to the committees and continuing legal education programs of the bar association, judicial committees and commissions, and other law-related activities and events.”

The law building is the third for St. Thomas in downtown Minneapolis. Terrence Murphy Hall opened in 1992, followed by Opus Hall in 1999. Since opening with 120 students in August 2001, the School of Law has been housed in Terrence Murphy Hall.

“The people in Murphy Hall couldn’t have been more accommodating or welcoming, but I think they were ready for us to leave,” Mengler laughed. “I truly appreciate the sacrifices made by all of the students, faculty and staff in Minneapolis, particularly those people in the College of Business, Department of Professional Psychology and School of Education.”

Students also are ready for a place to call home.

“It’s nice to finally be able to point to a building and tell people, ‘That’s my law school,’ ” said Schroeder. “If people take a minute and really look at it, the building will help them understand what the St. Thomas law school is all about.”

With the completion of the law building, St. Thomas now turns its attention to planning the construction of Schulze Hall. Named in recognition of a $50 million gift from Richard and the late Sandra Schulze, the hall will share the same block as Terrence Murphy Hall and will be home to the College of Business’ entrepreneurship programs.

Plans call for a skyway to link the law building with Schulze Hall, allowing students and visitors to walk indoors from the law school to Schulze, Murphy and Opus halls and to the Minneapolis skyway system.

Tim Busse is director of external relations at the School of Law.