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The old art building at the University of Minnesota.

The colorful old art building had many "unique" qualities, but not enough to save it from the wrecking ball.

All things must come to an end: The old art building bites the dust

The old art building bites the dust

By Jamie Proulx

Published on July 13, 2004

In the mid-1960s, the University of Minnesota purchased an old billboard factory from the Naegele Outdoor Advertising Company for one dollar. Due to its intended purpose, one should have known that it would remain the only West Bank building to eschew the standard University brick motif--after all, it was filled daily with nonconformists. Unfortunately, the next generation of student artists will not be able to fully appreciate the old art building that for many epitomized the University of Minnesota art department.

What was to be a temporary location lasted nearly 40 years, until October 2003, when the shiny and ultramodern Regis Center for the Arts opened down the street and replaced the dying structure. Demolition crews finally put the place to rest this past week. The empty lot will be sodded over to create much-needed West Bank green space. Known for its "unique" qualities, the art building was famous for more than its graduates. It had unsafe ventilation, was infested with rodents, was not handicapped accessible, and was too small for the thousands of students who used the facility each year. But you can't deny that the faculty, staff, and students, who suffered for their art year after year in the building, have walked away with some interesting stories.

"We would get calls from the [nude] models that were getting dropped on by birds," says Mark Knierim, the art department's facilities coordinator. "In the wintertime it was extremely cold for them and in the summertime, too warm."

Mark Knierim, the art department's facilities coordinator and research technician, knows all too well the trials and tribulations of those years. For 16 years he was the lead contact for building complaints and the liaison to facilities management. He has heard it all.

"We didn't have screens on the windows for years because it was an old factory, and it wasn't built that way," Knierim says. "We had birds, rodents, and squirrels living in the studios, and eggs would hatch and there would be bugs and carcasses all over the place. It was really awful."

An artist himself by trade, Knierim points out that the lighting was beautiful in the paint and printmaking studios (being an old sign-making factory), but the ventilation was terrible and that led to some interesting moments.

"It was such a challenge for me to keep it comfortable for students and faculty," Knierim says. "We would get calls from the [nude] models that were getting dropped on by birds. In the wintertime it was extremely cold for them and in the summertime, too warm." In fact, classes were often canceled in the summer months because the building was just too hot for students.

Rio Saito was a student worker in the art building during the 1980s. She used to process film in the darkroom and "fondly" remembers her time battling the unwelcome residents.

"We lived with animals. There were always birds, squirrels, and mice," she says. "When I processed films there, I always kicked the walls, water pipes, and sinks. The students thought that I was always mad at something. Well, I had to do that because I always saw mice there, and I didn't want them to come out, so I made noise hoping they would stay away."

She remembers taking matters into her own hands when it came to fixing up the place. "Duct tape was my best friend. A lot of things were old and broken, and we had no choice other than to fix them just for the moment," she says.

The building was updated a few times through limited remodeling to accommodate the ceramics and sculpture programs, which included a foundry (the original home of the annual iron pour). And in 1973, in homage to its inner activities, eight studio arts honor students and three faculty members painted the exterior.

In the new art building one can still see flashes of the department's humble past. The old street address of 2020 is visible above the new foundry entrance, and terra cotta panels from the old art building are incorporated into an exterior wall outside the administrative offices.

Knierim now maintains the art department's new facilities and is happy with his new surroundings. "This new facility is just so wonderful," he says. "It's a treat to come to work every day." But Knierim acknowledges that the change is psychologically hard for some and that "the perception of a new shiny building [makes] it hard for people to mess it up."

Saito lives in Japan now and also has mixed feelings about losing the bricks and mortar of her past. "I still like the old building better," she says. "Maybe I'm saying that because I am jealous of the new one, but I can honestly say I liked the old one."