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Burton Hall: The University's First Library - Lecture

Entering the University of Minnesota campus from the north through the Pillsbury Gate, a visitor first catches a glimpse of Burton Hall through openings in the trees. Its temple-like front brings to mind distant monuments of ancient Greece, connecting the modern visitor to the intellectual world of Socrates, Plato and the ancient academies of learning. Is this association with the classical past a coincidence? and does this architectural reference still have meaning a century later? Part of the answer lies in the story of how this building came to be built.

The History of Burton Hall

Burton Hall looks out across Pillsbury Drive toward "The Knoll," a green space of rolling lawn and trees that marks the center of the original 52-acre campus. Prior to the construction of Burton Hall, the first seven buildings of the University of Minnesota were constructed between 1858 and 1892 around the south edge of this park-like area, primarily along Pillsbury Drive. While these first campus buildings provided for the basic needs of a typical nineteenth-century academic institution, the campus lacked a key feature of the modern university: a library building.

During the first four decades of its existence, the university's small but growing library collection was housed in various rooms of "Old Main," the first campus building. Calls for a dedicated university library building were first heard as early as 1869, but it took a series of fires in the wooden structure of Old Main to convince the Board of Regents that there was a clear need for a fireproof library facility. In December 1892, the board voted to request state funds for its first library building and directed William Watts Folwell—first university president (1869-1884) and, concurrently, university librarian—to travel to the eastern United States during the December 1892 holiday break to visit other university libraries and research ideas for the new University of Minnesota building. At the same time, the Regents began the process of selecting a library design. 

Upon his return, according to Folwell, he reportedly worked out a building design with "the local architect supposed to enjoy the confidence of the regents"—presumably a reference to LeRoy S. Buffington, the architect of several existing university buildings and a close friend of John Pillsbury, former governor, then regent and a key benefactor of the university. Folwell reported that he had a good working relationship with Buffington and they collaborated on a library design that incorporated Folwell's ideas for a library: a large second-floor reading room with skylight; rear stack space for multiple stories; central delivery counter on the long side of the Reading Room, and offices for the President, Registrar and Accountant. The Regents, however, didn't like Folwell's plan and questioned the practicality of the skylight roof. They decided instead to hold a competition for the library design.

The Regents put out a call for design proposals and on June 17, 1893 they selected four finalists from the original pool of sixteen architects. The four architects—Orff and Orff, Charles Sedgwick, LeRoy S.Buffington, and Dunnell & Elliott—were directed to submit designs for a combined Library and Assembly Hall for a campus site between Old Main and the Mechanic Arts Building (now Eddy Hall). Specific design criteria included a thoroughly fireproof stack room, seminar and lecture rooms and offices for the departments of Political Science, English and History, and general seminar rooms.

On June 29, 1893, the Regents met to review the four submitted designs and voted to adopt the plan of Orff and Orff, provided that the building could be built for $150,000., excluding shelving and seats. This decision was short-lived; three weeks later the Regents considered opposing arguments from the university faculty. The faculty strongly advocated separate library and assembly facilities. They expressed concern about the design of the interior space of the library and convinced the Regents to add special accommodations for seminar study to the building program. This new addition to the building program negated the design originally accepted by the Regents, so the four finalists were asked to submit new designs by August 8, taking into account new, more specific criteria for the library project, namely, a completely fireproof building, an assembly hall that could be used for library purposes when not in use as a chapel, and a stone facade with an exterior preferably of classical style.

The Regents met on August 9 to review the four new designs. All four plans were rejected! The Board agreed to pay each architect $50 for his efforts, then moved to appoint a joint architectural team of two finalists—Charles Sedgwick and LeRoy Buffington—to present a plan for a library and assembly hall building that combined the features of Sedgwick's interior design with the exterior design by Buffington. This revised joint design was presented on August 18 and accepted by the Regents.

Almost immediately, a labor controversy surfaced over the choice of stone for the library building. Buffington's design called for the use of cream-colored Ohio sandstone rather than native Minnesota stone, which angered the state's stonecutting industry. The Regents explained that Minnesota stone was too dark for the intended classical effect of the building (which was to be modeled after the ancient Parthenon in Athens, according to Regent S. M. Owen). This view did not appease the labor voice. John Goodnow, speaking on behalf of the Stone Cutters' Union of St.Paul, argued: "It does not seem to me that the difference of a few shades in color should outweigh these substantional (economic) advantages. Nor should the whim of an architect wanting a Grecian temple library prevent the employment of our own citizens." In response, Buffington replied: "Should more boards listen to these architects wanting Grecian temples, we would have more lasting monuments and less shoddy display." Caught in the middle, the Regents offered a compromise: the architect's choice of stone would stand, but all stone would be cut on the grounds by local workmen.

As the building was ultimately executed, one of the most interesting and curious aspects of the design was the apparent contrast between the stark classical exterior by Buffington and the rather ornate Victorian interior designed by Sedgwick. While it is not unusual for a classical revival building to have a contrasting interior, the Burton Hall commission appears to have involved more of a conflict than usual. The partnership of Sedgwick and Buffington came about by edict of the Regents, and it appears from contemporary accounts that the forced marriage of the two architects was far from a true collaboration. Reports over the years include allegations by wags that the two architects never met, or, equally hyperbolic, that Sedgwick deliberately designed the original interior so that a visitor would have to go outside to move from one side of the building interior to the other.

In addition to the two architects involved in the building design, the project also involved collaboration with several artists and craftsmen: W. H. Hutchinson executed the relief frieze over the main entrance in the facade portico; Jacob Fjelde executed the twenty-four spandrel figures in the upper level atrium of the interior; H. L. Steinhauser designed the ornamental details in the atrium; and Charles Sedgwick designed the stained glass for the atrium ceiling skylight, which was executed by Brown & Heywood of Minneapolis.

As it appears today, the main facade designed by Buffington is a solid example of the Greek Revival style popular with many designers of late 19th-century government and cultural buildings in America. The central focus of the main facade is a simple octostyle Doric portico capped by a ten-foot high blank pediment centered between plain rusticated walls to create a three-part facade composition. The main entrance doors within the portico are framed by two-story sandstone fluted columns (twenty-five feet high and five feet in diameter) forming a broad, shallow porch. Above the entrance doors, Hutchinson's frieze of classical figures (56 figures across a sixty-seven foot long band) depicts the academic disciplines of Science, Sculpture, Architecture, Painting and Literature, with "Architecture" coincidentally holding center stage.

At the top of the main facade's plain side walls, the names of important men of learning and creativity are carved in simple block letters in the top courses of stone. Terracotta ornamental details mimic classical architectural features on the cornice, soffit and facia, with lion's head beam caps and shell motif antefixa on the eave projections. With the exception of new doors and windows, the exterior of Burton Hall is still true to Buffington's original design. The interior, however, has changed dramatically over the years.

Inside the main entrance, a stone and iron staircase leads directly up to the second floor atrium, a central feature of the interior that is quite different today from the original space designed by Sedgwick. The original atrium design as executed featured a square well open to the ground floor below, enclosed by an ornamental iron rail and surrounded by a nine-foot wide marble inlay corridor. Twenty-eight feet overhead, a twenty-four foot square stained glass skylight designed by Sedgwick illuminated the interior. Today, the skylight remains in place but the open atrium well is closed off by a solid carpeted floor. The atrium walls still feature the original arches framed by fluted Ionic pilasters that support an ornamental entablature with blank panels intended for historic paintings and the spandrels flanking each pilaster contain the original allegorical figural reliefs by the Norwegian sculptor Fjelde.

A second key alteration in the atrium space is on the south wall, across from the main entrance stairway. This was the original location of the main entrance to the library space, now closed off by a solid wall with the original library entrance marked today by a stained glass window lit from behind by artificial light. A gift from the class of 1898, the stained glass window once occupied the semi-circular apse at the rear wall of the original library Reading Room.

Sedgewick's original plan placed the library space in the center of the building on the upper main floor, with offices for the departments of History, English and Political Economy in the corners of the building. Through the arched side walls of the atrium, access was provided to a series of seven faculty office suites with lecture and seminar rooms off the main Reading Room along with two general seminar rooms. As a visitor passed through the main library entrance in the atrium, he first entered the library stack room, then moved through to the Reading Room lined with bookcases along the side walls and desks and seats in the center. At the rear of the Reading Room, side corridors led to separate rooms for lecture, seminar and chapel use. The first floor beneath the library contained offices for the President, Registrar and Accountant, a chapel with seating for 800 students, two lecture rooms, two study rooms, a packing room, periodical room, locker rooms with bicycle storage, janitors rooms and toilet rooms.

The building served as the university library for thirty years until the growing collection was moved to the new Walter Library facility on Northrop Mall in 1924. Renamed Burton Hall in 1931 (in honor of President Miriam Burton, 1917-1920), the building served a variety of administrative purposes before it was adapted to the needs of the College of Education in 1952. The atrium was remodeled and the entire interior space configuration revamped for new space needs. Of the original building design, only the exterior and the modified atrium remain as reminders of the original appearance of the first campus library.

A century after its construction, Burton Hall still holds a significant place on the University of Minnesota campus. It represents the work of two notable Twin- Cities architects, with Buffington in particular holding an acclaimed reputation for local building designs such as the second Minnesota State Capitol and other prominent university buildings such as Nicholson, Pillsbury and Eddy halls. It also stands apart as the only pure example of late 19th-century Greek Revival architecture on campus.

Contemporary records indicate the importance of the classical style of the building in the design process. The faculty expressed a desire for a classical exterior in their arguments to the Regents; this aesthetic preference became a design requirement for the architects equal to more basic and practical criteria like fireproofing and specific space needs. In addition, the Regents considered the stylistic aspects of the building important enough to weather the controversy with the state's stonecutting industry to support Buffington's aesthetic vision for the building. There is strong evidence of a desire to create a stylistic connection between the library building and classical monuments of the past, particularly the Parthenon in Greece.

This interest can be best understood within the larger context of American architecture. As a whole, nineteenth century American architecture was marked by eclecticism and revivalist movements. By the last quarter of the century, two general styles dominated the architectural world—Classical and Gothic, each with corresponding building types typically associated with the style. In the case of educational buildings and libraries, Gothic Revival had often been the traditional style of choice but the nineteenth century witnessed a steady rise in classical style academic buildings with a marked influence by the 1880's of Ecole des Beaux-Arts classicism in both architectural design and architectural education in America. A number of events can be linked to this shift, including the project for the U.S.Capitol building in Washington, D.C. and the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893.

In addition, a renewed interest in our nation's heritage and its link to the ideals of Greece and Rome merged with an increased awareness on the part of the public for the stylistic characteristics of individual historical periods. This development helped bring about a shift in architecture toward more austere Greek building forms like that of Burton Hall that attempted to directly link the building and the observor to the traditions of the ancient Greek civilization. This shift in attitude was quite evident in the Twin-Cities, for classicism became a strong element in the architecture scene from the late 1880s into the early twentieth century.

Although its function has changed today, Burton Hall is also important as the historical site of the original University Library. The Regents' decision in 1892 to build a library facility represented a significant step in the development of the university, although as Folwell pointed out, they were rather timid in their choice of a building that was essentially a more practical fireproof version of Old Main rather than a pure library building. A new dedicated library building would have likely raised the reputation of the relatively young and remote university to a higher level in the national picture. Instead, amid protests from the faculty and the university librarian, practicality reigned and the university leaders chose to build a hybrid structure to serve both administrative and library functions. Cost was most certainly a factor in this decision, for the library project was one of the most expensive state-funded university buildings at the time; however, the project budget was actually quite modest in comparison to other academic library projects of the 1890s.

Nevertheless, the library commission did present some strong assertions by the Regents. They emphasized the importance of aesthetics in an academic building, demonstrating a concern for educational facilities that surpassed mere utilitarian purpose. In addition, the building design reflected a changing attitude toward educational space, especially in regard to libraries. Despite the fact that the building was not a pure library facility, the library function was a primary focus of the design. The hybrid interior was the result of the Regents' concern for economy and utility combined with the influence of the faculty and the growing trend in the late 19th century to provide more than simple book storage in academic libraries.

It is true that the Regents denied the faculty argument for a separate library facility, yet their decision to include faculty offices and seminar rooms adjacent to the library space was in response to faculty concerns. Rather than the mere result of political maneuvering by influential faculty and academic departments for new office space, the building's interior also reveals a new academic and administrative attitude toward the library as a resource for teaching and research. The decision to locate the library facility in the center of faculty and seminar spaces placed the library at the physical and symbolic center of the education process of the university, creating a physical and conceptual link that was becoming an accepted element in university library designs at the time of the construction of Burton Hall.


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Last modified on December 10, 2010.