Council of Independent Colleges Historic Campus Architecture Project


Old Main

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Institution Name: St. Olaf College
Original/Historic Place Name: The Main; Main Building
Location on Campus: 1520 St. Olaf Ave.
Date(s) of Construction and Designer(s):
1877-1878original construction Long & Haglin
1884addition of tower Unknown
1982renovation Sovik, Mathre & Madson
Type of Place: Individual building
Style(s): (Glossary)
Foundation: limestone
Walls: brick (first and second floors); wood (framing, third floor and tower)
Roof: slate (original)
1878-1879residence hall (women)
1878-1900other ("waiting room" for women students)
1878-1900residence hall (men, plus apartments for the president and a faculty member)
1878-1900dining hall
1878-1900old main
1886-1890other (Lutheran divinity school)
ca. 2004-present (2007)academic department building (ancient studies; Asian studies; classics; languages; Russian and Central European studies)

Significance: architecture, education, religion
Landmark designation:
National RegisterOld Main, St. Olaf College (1976)
Narrative: see below
References: see below

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.

I. Bibliographic sources:

Olson, Joan R. Old Main--St. Olaf College. National Register of Historic Places designation report. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of the Interior/ National Park Service, 1976.

Shaw, Joseph M. Dear Old Hill: The Story of Manitou Heights, The Campus of St. Olaf College. Northfield, MN: St. Olaf College, 1992.

"The Main: Standing Strong at 150." Online (2006). St. Olaf College, St. Paul, MN.

II. Location of other data:
University: Special Collections, Facilities Management Office
Government Offices

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