The last time students used Old Main was over 30 years ago. But with Vision 2030 hinting at renovations, students could be in the building again within the next 10 years.
That renovation will require between $7 million and $10 million to set a plan into motion, President Stephanie Herseth Sandlin said.
“But no donors or set of donors has yet emerged that allows us the kind of momentum to move on a renovation,” Herseth Sandlin said.
For now, the windows are boarded shut and the entrances are closed off to students. But the Civitas course “Reading Augustana” took a tour of the building on Oct. 14.
“It was a lot more run down than I expected,” sophomore Ailin Montgomery said. “I thought that it would just be gutted, like empty. But there were a lot of broken glass things to step on. It really was abandoned in the truest sense.”
Montgomery lives on the north side of East Hall that touches Old Main. Students used to have a way to climb through East into Old Main, but those entrances have also been sealed.
“I hate it,” Montgomery said. “It is so disturbing, especially seeing how structurally questionable it is just right next door.”
The Civitas class began touring Old Main six years ago. Since then, the exterior has been cleaned up, but the lights were shut off throughout the building and, other than the removal of some beer cans, the inside has been left alone.
“What’s inside of the building right now, it’s not in a good state of repair, but that’s in part because they’re deliberately looking at other things,” “Reading Augustana” professor Jeffrey Miller said. “It could be cleaned up and prepped for renovation fairly quickly.”
Inside the building was a bust sitting on a toilet, writing on the walls and bird bones, Montgomery said. Her class made sure to bring a marker with them, too, and they wrote their names next to the classes that had done so before.
“That’s as intrepid as it gets for a college campus,” Montgomery said. “And I think it was also really exciting. And I mean, this was the most raw experience of this that you could get seeing people sort of sift through the history of the place because so much was just left there.”
President Herseth Sandlin put together a focus group in 2018 to discuss the future for Old Main. The group looked into the possibility for multiple outcomes, like tearing the building down, selling and moving it or renovating it for different purposes.
“It’s going to be expensive to redo,” Miller said. “I just think it’s a shame to leave a building that has that history — that could look really cool if it’s fixed up and has all the alternatives it provides — to just sort of sit there and molder away further.”
At the end of the focus group, they issued a report that was incorporated into the campus master plan. The Vision 2030 plan explicitly states that tearing down the building is “nearly impossible” because of the historic designation status, so a renovation is the most likely option.
“Their preferred use would be sort of mixed use, that it would be a center for where you’re bringing faculty and students and community together to have a hub of activity related to research, to student engagement and to innovation,” Herseth Sandlin said.
The campus plan suggests using the space for the Civitas program, for academic purposes and as an “innovation hub.”
“I agree that if it were possible, that is what should happen with it because it is such a hallmark of our history as a school,” Montgomery said.
The renovation will hopefully take place in phase two or three of Vision 2030, but no planning has begun yet.
“We’re not going to commit the resources of at least $25,000 at this stage for an engineering study to evaluate some of the structural needs related to a renovation,” Herseth Sandlin said. “We’re just not at that point and wouldn’t be until we had a lead donor.”
According to Herseth Sandlin, Old Main isn’t on the top of the university’s list as far as renovations. That priority is currently left to spaces like the freshman dorms, Morrison Commons and the Chapel.
“These are spaces that the students are already using, that are more centrally located on campus,” Herseth Sandlin said. “And so it’s not that we’re just waiting. It’s just that we don’t have anything yet in light of these other priorities.”
That doesn’t mean the president doesn’t have her eye on the building. She said it was one of the first things she noticed about campus, and that she knows of a few interested donors that the university is speaking with.
“I am hopeful that in my time as president of Augustana and as part of the journey to 2030, we find the right renovation with the right donor or financing piece to make it a reality and that I don’t leave it for my successor,” Herseth Sandlin said.
She also said that with enough interest, tours could be set up to see the inside of the building.
“I think that seeing the inside makes you very attuned to the realities of what would go into making that happen and the challenges that would happen with that,” Montgomery said. “But at the same time, it kind of just made me more passionate about saving it. And so while it did make me aware of the realities, it also just made me more motivated to see this happen.”
President Herseth Sandlin noted the safety concerns with the building, saying that if students want to see inside, they should not do so themselves without faculty who are aware of the building’s structural issues.