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The St. Olaf Main, as well as the school itself, represented the vision of Rev. Bernt Julius Muus (1832-1900). Muus was the leading Norwegian-American pastor of southeast Minnesota, and he eventually developed influence throughout the Upper Midwest. He secured the support of local Lutheran congregations and of the Northfield business community for the establishment of the school, originally an academy, in 1874 and for the construction of the Main, in 1877-78. Muus and his chief Northfield supporter, businessman Harald Thorson, chose a site on a hill, later named Manitou Heights, on the west side of the city with a splendid panoramic view of both town and countryside. Here, on this site and in this building, they responded to the educational aspirations of regional Norwegian-American Lutherans with a school that combined a collegiate education with training in the Christian faith for both women and men. (The first B.A. students completed their work in 1890.) St. Olaf was distinctive, both as a liberal arts institution and as a Lutheran institution, in being co-educational from the beginning; and the initial residence of both women and men in the building is therefore notable.
Old Main remained the principal college building until the completion of Holland Hall in 1925. Its centrality in the development of St. Olaf College, which would emerge, from a plethora of competing denomination schools, to become the premier Lutheran college of the country, cannot be overestimated. Scores of early Lutheran pastors, missionaries, and professionals were educated in this building. Moreover, the divinity school that briefly shared the Main with St. Olaf was a formative body in the emergence of Luther Seminary, St. Paul, now the leading seminary of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). See further description of the early campus in the Steensland Hall questionnaire.
A fine - if somewhat homespun - example of frontier versions of Second Empire architecture, Old Main is a Northfield icon as well, and it served for a century as the city's most recognizable physical structure. It was renovated in 1982 by the Northfield architectural firm of Sovik, Mathre & Madson. The exterior of the building was preserved; the interior was rebuilt completely, although much of the original design of particular floors was maintained.