Architect talks U’s best bldgs.

Senior architect James Litsheim explores his five favorite architectural landmarks on campus.
Senior Architect James Litshiem explains the plans for restoration on Tuesday in Northrop Auditorium.
October 20, 2010

It’s hard to miss the towering cranes at work outside the Weisman Art Museum or the construction vans surrounding Folwell Hall, but it would take more than a careful eye to catch the roughly 400 other projects going on around the University of Minnesota campus.

Each project — from simply changing a light fixture or painting a patch of wall to ones as major as the overhaul of Northrop Auditorium — carries serious implications for a location’s historical value.

James Litsheim, the University’s senior architect, is at the forefront of the push to help the campus change with students’ needs while preserving some of the most important architectural structures in the state.

Litsheim has worked at the University since 1987, and a lot has changed since then.

More than two decades spent overseeing nearly every tweak and touch-up on campus has made him an expert.

If you see the gray-bearded architect strolling through campus, feel free to stop and quiz him — he’s sure to give you an on-the-spot rundown of just about any place on campus.

Litsheim gave The Minnesota Daily a tour of his five favorite architectural spots on campus, judging each building on how structurally sound, useful and aesthetically pleasing it is.

Walter Library

Architect: Clarence Johnston, Sr.

Year Built: 1922

Litsheim’s take: Litsheim starts his list at Walter Library. Initially designed as the “heart of campus,” the library is the most ornate building on the mall. Examples of its intricacy can be found throughout the building.

Many doorways within the building are one-of-a-kind hand carving, as stone masons were free to integrate their own designs there.

And while many students are familiar with the Wise Owl Café in the basement, they’re probably not aware that the name comes from the ornamental owls cut into the walls and shaped into metal grates. There are 225 owls originally incorporated into the building, and after subsequent remodels the total number is likely in the thousands. For students in need of a break from an assignment, follow the owls around the second floor reference room and try to find the owl with pupils carved into it.

One of the challenges Litsheim faces is integrating new designs and expansion while staying true to the original plans for the campus. One way to address the challenge is by incorporating original material, like the panels lining the walls of the main hallway, which were original flooring under the bookshelves, or “stacks.”

While almost the entire library has changed since the groundbreaking, the Arthur Upson Room, next to the computer room, has been preserved. Students who want to spend some time studying can set down their textbooks and comb through the shelves of books donated at the same time the room was endowed.


Northrop Auditorium

Architect: Clarence Johnston Sr.

Year Built: 1928-1930

Litsheim’s take: If Walter is the heart, Northrop is the brains of the campus. Currently the building hosts events about 50 times a year, and Litsheim hopes that with the newest renovations the building will be opened up and used as more of a public space.

Up the steps and past the towering pillars is the foyer designed to house spectators for lectures or, more recently, concerts and shows. Its high ceilings make it a favorite of jugglers who frequent the space for practice.

Molded plaster squares circling the stage are a tribute to each of the original colleges at the University. Currently, Litsheim estimates that about ten of the molds are covered by an acoustic “eyelid.”

Remolding will expand the functionality of the space but will surely come with losses. For instance, the auditorium’s massive chandelier will be removed because it will likely become an eye sore when the seating area shrinks. A new home for it has not yet been found.

Rapson Atrium

Architect: Thorson and Cerny Architects

Year Built: 1958

Litsheim’s take: Coincidentally, the home of the University’s School of Architecture makes the list because of its open, inviting atrium. The “town square” is brightly lit by the windows circling the building’s ceiling and — thanks to a moat surrounding the center of the atrium — even the basement classrooms get a touch of natural lighting.

Nearly every modern touch to the building’s interior can be credited to the 52-year-old design. Posterboard and glass make up the classroom walls, allowing classes to share their work. It is this functionality and versatility that put the atrium on the list.

The white plaster ceiling is an eye-catching feature that stretches across the length of the atrium’s ceiling, further brightening the building’s main space. And even with an expansive plaster ceiling, the atrium has weathered perhaps better than any other building on campus. It hasn’t had a single structural issue or water damage problem.

The more noticeable copper-colored addition to Rapson Hall is not included in Litsheim’s tour. The addition, in fact, was designed to barely touch the original atrium.

Mayo Meditation Chapel

Architect: Cavin and Page Architects

Year Built: 1965

Litsheim’s take: The secluded chapel is appropriately tucked into one of the Mayo building’s courtyards. Designed for patients but open to anyone, the Meditation Chapel is a ten-sided room that allows people to peacefully find their center.

Vertical concrete slabs wrap around the small room and anchor it to the ground. Between the concrete are full-length stained-glass windows that cast many colors around the room when hit by the sun differently throughout the day.

Housed beneath the chapel is the equipment that, among other things, helps to light and heat the room, but which cannot be heard inside. A garden and walking path sit around the stump of the chapel.

Atop the structure is more brightly-colored glass and ornamentation designed to mimic a burning bush. Inside the chapel, however, the sunlight that comes through spills out onto the refurbished original flooring and chairs used for the meetings held here.

While the chapel seems to embody religious themes, it was donated and designed to be a nondenominational getaway.

Dairy Barn

Architect: Clarence Johnston Sr.

Year Built: 1907

Litsheim’s take: What was once a cattle barn is currently referred to as the Ben Pomeroy Student-Alumni Learning Center and completes Litsheim’s list. Tucked behind the Veterinary Medical Center, the barn appears to be just that.

The outside of the barn is almost completely intact, from the walls to a refurbished dome atop the building. The one major change is to the barn doors, which once allowed cows and farm equipment to come and go and are now replacements anchored to the walls.

A few steps inside the new barn doors is a fairly typical student center. Students eat in the small cafeteria, a space that used to hold two herds of cattle. The current door of the dining room was even designed to pay homage to the building’s history — it’s a sliding shed door.

But, to understand the true beauty of the Pomeroy Center, however, requires a journey upstairs where a former hay stack has been converted into classrooms crossed overhead by dark wood beams.

Interestingly, the silo next to barn was recreated because the original was falling apart, but it is modeled after the original all the way up to the black and white checkering.

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