In an Old School Building, Carleton College and Its Community Enjoy New Lessons

Gallop Minneapolis, Carleton College

The Weitz Center for Creativity, in Northfield, Minn., was born from an old public-school building. Carleton College and the local school system collaborated to transform it into an arts center.
January 21, 2012

A college can be the lifeblood of a small Midwestern town, an entity that keeps a place buoyant in tough times. But the local schools are truly the heart of a community. In a little town, many more people might be attached to the school than to the college, with its transient and sometimes troublesome students and other town-gown issues. An old school building can carry more sentimental value for locals than Old Main.

The Weitz Center for Creativity is something of a bridge between cultures here in Northfield, an hour outside of the Twin Cities. The local school system and Carleton College came together in an unusual project that saved a much-loved school building, provided a vibrant new space for the community, and allowed the college to fulfill a long-held goal of expanding its arts facilities.

The renovation and expansion of the building—a 127,000-square-foot project that cost about $40-million—modernized many of the spaces while retaining something of the feel of the old school. It comes out in details like wood-trimmed blackboards and honey-colored oak doors displaying their original room numbers.

"When you have a landmark that has been important to the city for a number of years, you want to work to preserve it," says Mary Rossing, mayor of Northfield, who sees the building as the college's "gateway" to the Northfield community. "It's something that we have been waiting for a long time."

The school building—parts of it date to 1910, 1934, and 1954—is close to the college, the main residential neighborhood of Northfield, and the town's main-street strip. It was built as the town's high school, but in recent decades it had been the middle school—that is, until the building was abandoned in 2004, after Northfield Public Schools built a new middle school on the edge of town.

Local officials had sought ways to redevelop the building. One plan, for example, envisioned lofts and studio spaces for artists. But that idea fell through when it couldn't attract financing.

In the meantime, Carleton College had been kicking around plans to expand its arts facilities. In the early 1990s, the college's strategic plan suggested that Carleton needed to invest in the arts. By the time Stephen R. Lewis Jr. finished his presidency in 2002, the college was talking seriously about building an art museum on a cramped corner on the south side of campus.

Although museums have been popular additions to college campuses in recent years, this project went nowhere. Robert A. Oden Jr., the next president, determined that it would cost too much money and have too little impact on the college's arts curriculum, and he killed it in 2004.

Subsequently, administrators and faculty members took yet another look at revitalizing the arts curriculum. In time Carleton focused on the empty middle school, which is only about two-and-a-half blocks from Carleton's central lawn, called the "Bald Spot."

"We spent time with the faculty talking about whether the building was too far off campus and was too run down," says Fred Rogers, the college's vice president and treasurer. "I think people imagined that they were going to be moved into this abandoned school building as it was, and who wanted to do that?"

There was also some haggling over the ultimate size and shape of the project. Early plans had ballooned to about $100-million, but when the financial crisis hit, a committee of trustees chopped the project in half. However, Mr. Rogers says, the project remained focused on lessons that administrators, trustees, and faculty members had taken away from tours of arts buildings at Skidmore, Middlebury, Williams, and Wesleyan Colleges: Carleton needed a facility that had mixed uses, which would bring vitality, as well as common spaces, which would prevent the departments inside from Balkanizing.

The school building needed a lot of work—asbestos had to be removed and mechanical systems had to be replaced—so Carleton was able to acquire it for a mere $500,000. First, however, the college went through all of the zoning approvals and negotiations with neighbors to ensure that the project would not be held up.

In occupying the old school, the college pushed farther into the adjacent neighborhood than it ever had before. Some neighbors were concerned about that, Mr. Rogers says, "but there were also people who were concerned that no one would buy the building, and it would become a wreck and have to be torn down."

The renovation, designed by the Twin Cities firm Meyer Scherer & Rockcastle, features a large, open space on the east side of the building, near a contemporary addition that includes an art gallery. The gym has been converted into a theater with configurable seating, while the school's auditorium is now a cinema. The auditorium's old wood seats, with names and other graffiti still carved into them, form a sculpture around the lights in the hallway leading to the cinema. The old gym bleachers were reused as cladding for the elevator shafts in the open space.

Many of the old classrooms have been modernized with technology, but some rooms have also been stripped down and outfitted with black plywood flooring, which can take the abuse that arts programs often dish out.

Steve Richardson, Carleton's director of the arts, says that one of the project's great successes has been the building's ability to connect the college and the community through the performances that are offered there. Also, faculty members from all departments have been encouraged to apply for office space in the building to maintain an interdisciplinary atmosphere and to keep the building from feeling like a distant outpost. The faculty members can keep the office space for up to three years.

And community artists may even be able to use the spaces in the building in the future—it's a possibility that Mr. Richardson is still considering. "We are being very careful as we open up that we don't overpromise," he says, "because we are still establishing everything that we want to do."