U football stadium: Building a connection brick by brick

  • Article by: HERÓN MÁRQUEZ ESTRADA , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 7, 2008 - 10:50 PM

In a bow to U football history, a man who helped build the old Memorial Stadium laid the first brick for TCF Bank Stadium.

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University of Minnesota Athletic Director Joel Maturi, right, chatted with Hilding Mortenson, 100, before he laid the first brick for the university’s new football stadium. As a 15-year-old in 1924, Mortenson worked on the U’s Memorial Stadium.

Photo: Kyndell Harkness, Star Tribune

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As a 15-year-old high school sophomore, Hilding Mortenson spent the summer of 1924 laying bricks while helping his father and other relatives build Memorial Stadium on the University of Minnesota campus.

On Monday, Mortenson -- now 100 years old -- returned to the campus to lay the first brick for the new $288 million, 50,000-seat TCF Bank Stadium.

Over the intervening decades, Mortenson worked on scores of building projects around the country, including helping to build the University of Michigan's football stadium in the 1920s with his father, who was the supervisor on the project.

"There's so much history here," said David Mortenson, vice president of Mortenson Construction, which is building the open-air stadium. "It's a great connection with the University of Minnesota."

Family tradition

Hilding Mortenson was joined by scores of friends, relatives and well-wishers, who came to see him place the first brick for the stadium that will bring college football back to the campus.

"That's the best thing that could happen," said Mortenson, who laid his last brick professionally in 1973. He turned 100 last week.

Mortenson, from Richfield, also was among those who attended a somber ceremony in 1992 to mark the demolition of Memorial Stadium. "I didn't have a real good opinion when they tore the old Memorial Stadium down," he said.

The stadium is set to open on Sept. 12, 2009, when the Gophers play Air Force. Mortenson hopes to be there cheering on the team.

He remembers being at the dedication of Memorial Stadium in 1924 when the Gophers beat Illinois and Red Grange.

He said he also remembers traveling to Ann Arbor in 1941, when the Gophers had one of their best teams, and watching them lose to the Wolverines at the stadium he and his father helped build.

Hilding Mortenson is the uncle of Mort Mortenson Jr., chairman of Mortenson Construction. The company has a 50-year history with the university, having built 140 projects for the school valued at nearly $960 million.

"Mortenson Construction has celebrated many construction milestones with the university over the years," Mort Mortenson said. "But this milestone is especially meaningful to me and the Mortenson family. My grandfather, my father and my uncles ... all worked on the Memorial Stadium. So it is truly an honor for Hilding to be chosen to place the first brick on the new stadium."

Surprised by fuss

Hilding Mortenson was approached last month about participating in the ceremony and said he felt honored to be asked.

On Monday, as he was driven up a muddy construction road to the north face of the stadium, he was greeted by members of the school band, high-ranking school officials and the Gophers mascot.

"If I had known they were going to make such a fuss, I wouldn't have stuck my neck out to do this," he said with a laugh.

University Athletic Director Joel Maturi embraced the significance of having Hilding Mortenson place stadium's first brick

"We have worked very hard to connect the past with the future," Maturi said at the construction site. "The symbolism of today certainly does that."

Maturi said the horseshoe-shaped stadium near the intersection of Oak Street and University Avenue SE. is on schedule.

Also, as of Monday, the school had raised more than $76 million of its $86 million goal to pay its share of the stadium costs, he said.

Heron Marquez Estrada • 612-673-4280

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