True to Form
A reverent approach to growth keeps St. Catherine's campuses historic and beautiful — and lays a thoughtful groundwork for new construction
By Andy Steiner
On her first visit to St. Kate's, Nora Bengel SP'15 knew she had come to the right place. "It just felt like home," recalls Bengel, a Cretin-Derham Hall graduate. "I know it sounds superficial, but the St. Paul campus, especially the Quad, looked just like a college campus should look. I loved the feeling of the old architecture and the history of the buildings. I loved the grass and the big trees. It was just what I imagined my future college would look and feel like."
Her first impression — of a stately, historic, well-tended campus — stays with her today. A respiratory care major,
Bengel relishes her role as a campus ambassador and tour guide. "I love walking people around the buildings and talking about the history of this place," she explains. "It makes me proud to be a student here."
Architecture critic and Lost Twin Cities author Larry Millett calls the St. Paul campus the nicest of the private colleges in the Twin Cities. "The historic quadrangle creates a real sense of intimacy and enclosure," he says. "When you enter the space, you get a feeling of peace and quiet in the middle of the city. No other urban campus in the state achieves that."
Preserving — and enhancing — the history and beauty of the University's campuses is important to St. Catherine President Andrea Lee, IHM. Never more so than now, when her "hope and expectation" for a coming campaign is to fund one and perhaps two new structures: a science building, and a sports and fitness center focused on women's health.
Both buildings will be thoughtfully designed, as was the beautiful and functional Coeur de Catherine — the student center and learning commons that, a decade ago, gracefully melded new construction with existing structures. "Our campus is an important resource," Sister Andrea says. "For many alumnae, the campus itself defines a significant part of their college experience."
Renew and repurpose
The president has intentionally avoided the "more and bigger is always better" mindset of campus improvements that is so prevalent in higher education today by focusing first on making the most effective and financially efficient use of St. Catherine's existing buildings.
Renovation is both the environmentally friendly and the fiscally prudent choice, says Vice President for Finance and Administration Tom Rooney. "We have a $25 million building in Minneapolis that we can renovate really well for $2 million to $5 million." Plus, he adds: "The greenest building is an old building. Less heat escapes. You have thick walls and a solid construction style. And you're not adding to landfills."
History is important, too. The president has worked hard throughout her 15-year tenure to ensure that all campus construction and development respects the legacy of St. Catherine and its founders, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet. The University's smaller Minneapolis campus, focused on healthcare programs, likewise has a history tied to the CSJs that is important to preserve and enhance.
"On my staff, there's a real reverence for the older buildings and the history that goes with them," says Jim Manship, director of facilities management. "All of our work is done from that perspective. We don't want to hurt anything. We only want to enhance the beauty of our surroundings."
That reverence has kept the University's campuses intact and whole through a century of change, Sister Andrea says. A feeling of tradition and beauty in a rapidly changing world are an anchor and a touch point for alumnae; over time, the physical space itself takes on its own character, inspiring loyalty and an enduring sense of community.
“Sister Andrea has been very clear that we are not engaged in a facilities arms race. But we do need to stay competitive.”
— Teresa Sterns SP'81, Board of Trustees.
To explain her philosophy, Sister Andrea pulls a book from the shelves in her handsome office, which sits in St. Catherine's original building, Derham Hall. Published by the American Council on Education, the book is called Mission and Place: Strengthening Learning and Community through Campus Design.
In Sister Andrea's heavily marked copy, one passage sums up her perspective: "People want to be in places that feel good to them," it reads. "They prefer nicely appointed places with beautiful views rather than adequate but uninteresting places. Further, people want to feel good about the physical places they are affiliated with: their home, their workplace, sometimes their city and state. Why should it be any different on campus?"
The Master of Physician Assistant Studies and nurse practitioner classroom and lab space is a prime example of St Catherine's commitment to beauty, functionality and fiscal responsibility. Located on the fourth floor of Whitby Hall (the University's second oldest building) in space formerly used as a student residence, this newly renovated space offers stunning perspectives of the campus front lawn and Our Lady of Victory Chapel, as well as a view of the Minneapolis skyline.
Complete with contemporary technology, classrooms and clinical labs, the space features renovation work supported by St. Catherine's own carpenters. Reusing original woodwork, they crafted hand-built covers for the existing radiators and retained the original windows. The new classroom and lab space was far less expensive than building from scratch and offers students state-of-the-art facilities in a building that is 100 years old.
When the construction of St. Catherine's St. Paul campus began more than a century ago, the then-college was designed to educate and house a limited number of young women. Though they were bold, visionary and forward thinking, St. Catherine's founders likely never dreamed that one day the institution would grow to educate more than 5,000 women and men in associate, undergraduate and graduate programs.
Over the years, the University has grown to accommodate those thousands of new students. But both St. Catherine campuses are in cities and have a finite amount of land.
"We're landlocked on both campuses," says Rooney, who oversees care and maintenance of the University's buildings and land. "We don't have space to grow unless we take away from the natural beauty that sets us apart from other schools, such as the wooded acres in St. Paul. And we don't want to do that."
And so, in recent years, the original purpose of older buildings has evolved alongside the growth in academic programs:
- St. Catherine renovated an additional floor of Whitby (built in 1914) into academic offices, classrooms and labs.
- The $1.2 million human anatomy lab — a vital research tool for students in the health sciences and the second largest of its kind in Minnesota — sits on the fourth floor of Mendel Hall (constructed in 1927) with contemplative views of the Quad and the Chapel.
- Handsome new space for the occupational therapy program and faculty were constructed in the former Fontbonne Hall pool.
- The Women's Health Integrative Research (WHIR) Center transformed the racquetball courts in the former Fontbonne gym
"At St. Kate's, we aren't lavish spenders," says Rooney. "I think that comes from our heritage and our wise, measured approach to dealing with our finances. We tend to come up with fabulous solutions for utilizing existing space. Our approach is, 'What we have is beautiful. We are going to make it work.'"
Each building on campus tells a story about the institution's history. "I really appreciate the way our historic buildings all have different looks and feels," says Brian Bruess, vice president of enrollment management and student affairs. "Not all of our stone looks the same. We have buildings that represent different eras, different periods of growth."
The multi-million–dollar workout facilities, residence halls and student commons so prevalent on college campuses constitute what higher education administrators have come to call an "arms race." (Or, as a vice chancellor at the University of Illinois titled a 2011 presentation: "The Impact of Hotel-Quality Rooms, Gourmet Food and World-Class Gyms and Spas.")
Dawn Rolling, senior design consultant and architect for Credo, a Wisconsin-based higher-education consulting firm, has heard the "arms race" reference many times — and often as a clarion call for massive campus building projects.
Credo (previously known as Performa) conducts assessments of campuses to guide master-space plans. The firm tries to take a clear-eyed view of an institution's existing assets before recommending new building projects. Today's students are not solely focused on amenities over academics, Rolling says. Yet, if an institution wants to remain relevant and attractive to top scholars — as well as students with financial means — it does need to take a measure of itself and upgrade to meet modern standards.
When Credo conducted a study of
St. Catherine's campus during the academic year 2010–11, the firm was struck by its beauty and historic character. Credo noted the University's strong academic programs and found that many suggested facility improvements could be made within the footprint of existing buildings. But the firm did recommend that the University make plans to expand and improve its academic facilities in one key area: the sciences.
“At St. Kate's, we aren't lavish spenders. I think that comes from our heritage and our wise, measured approach to dealing with our finances.”
— Tom Rooney, vice president for finance and administration
The current science building, Mendel Hall, is among the oldest on the St. Paul campus, although it has undergone renovation over the years. "Sciences are as historic a part of St. Catherine's academic programs as the buildings," says alumnae liaison Ruth Haag Brombach SP'60. Biology and chemistry remain top academic majors, with 30 percent growth over the past five years, and the University's STEM initiatives continue to expand and thrive.
"Since the science programs are so strong and growing at St. Catherine, we felt that it was important to build a new building that would have the capacity to support the technology needed to draw in and support top science students," Rolling says. Credo recommended constructing a "women in science" building that would be connected to Mendel Hall.
Teresa Sterns SP'81 is president of Sterns and Associates, a St. Paul–based project development and management consulting firm. She is also a member of St. Catherine University's Board of Trustees. Like many alumnae, she is proud — and protective — St. Kate's campuses, but she also believes that the time has come to build new facilities that will serve student needs, both inside and outside of the classroom.
"Sister Andrea has been very clear that we are not engaged in a facilities arms race," Sterns says. "But we do need to stay competitive so that potential students can picture themselves living and learning here happily."
Credo also recommended that the University build an addition to Butler Center and construct a field house with indoor track and tennis facilities.
Living a physically active life has always been a priority for St. Catherine students — and it is particularly attractive to top students today. Last year, 80 percent of St. Kate's incoming first-years were high-school athletes. "That's way more than 20 years ago," Bruess says. "Today's students are also much more engaged in recreational athletic activities, and they are looking for high-quality facilities in which to engage in those activities."
This past spring, the Student Senate reviewed the building proposal and voted unanimously to support the project. "Facilities like that are important to students," says Renee Crepeau SP'13, president of Student Senate for 2012–13. "When you size up the competition, athletic facilities are valuable to St. Kate's in terms of curb appeal and being able to stand out in the arena."
Providing curricular and co-curricular spaces for a growing student body that matches the quality of St. Catherine's well-respected academic programs is a high priority of the current administration. At 5,075 students, St. Kate's is 21 percent larger than when Sister Andrea became president in 1998. "And we've added no new academic buildings," says Senior Vice President Colleen Hegranes.
"Instead, we have focused on making optimum use of the academic spaces we have," she adds, "and on renovating contemporary, state-of-the-art facilities within our beautiful historic structures. But as we look to the future — and our student population continues to grow — we have no more space to do that."
The president concurs. "I'm proud of the fact that we have tried to make the absolute best, most efficient and effective use of every resource we have," she explains. "It gives me confidence that when we must make a case for a new facility, our donors and friends will understand that our need is real."