FARIBAULT, MINN. – A historic building that’s been threatened with demolition on and off for at least 30 years faces the wrecking ball again, this time from owner Allina Health.
Johnston Hall, a former divinity school and a local landmark, was built in 1888 for $50,000. It’s a widely recognized building here, its iconic bell tower rising high on a hill overlooking the Straight River.
Built from Faribault blue limestone, the building was once part of a larger campus but today is all that remains of the Seabury Divinity School incorporated by Henry Whipple, the state’s first Episcopal bishop.
It was used as offices until 2012, and now sits boarded up and vacant on the grounds of District One Hospital and the Allina Health Faribault Clinic.
Faribault Economic and Community Development Director Deanna Kuennen said it’s not the first time that Johnston Hall faced possible demolition. Past efforts have stirred deep admiration for the building among local residents, and an alternative to demolition has always been found.
Kuennen said she expects that on Sept. 12 the City Council will order an Environmental Assessment Worksheet on the hall, a process that would provide a public forum for the building’s future and take several months to complete.
“This process really is a benefit to all parties because it’s transparent, it’s public, it’s open, it’s prescribed,” Kuennen said.
Several parties have considered converting the building into apartments, but no specific plan has come forward, said Karl Vohs, a member of the city’s Historic Preservation Commission.
“Tearing it down is a travesty,” said Vohs.
Some have even suggested moving the building, but its height, not to mention size and enormous weight, make it a costly and complicated engineering problem.
An Allina spokesperson was not immediately available last week to discuss Johnston Hall.
Built with a donation from Augusta M. Huntington, a wealthy woman from Chicago, Johnston Hall was known as the Seabury Divinity School until 1933. The school was incorporated by Whipple, who made Faribault his home and was known for advocating for American Indians.
Whipple’s calls for clemency for Dakota who fought against the U.S. in the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 helped persuade President Abraham Lincoln to spare all but 38 of the 303 sentenced to hang. The mass execution was the largest in the nation’s history.
The school Whipple led was where many of the state’s early missionaries trained. It eventually merged with another school in Illinois.
Johnston Hall has also housed a nursing program and then a vocational-technical school. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1975. A 1986 attempt to raze the building was eventually stalled, then dropped.
The hall was purchased and rehabilitated by Ankeny Kell Architects of St. Paul in 1987. The group repointed the exterior walls, installed internal bracing in the bell tower, installed an elevator and brought up to date the building’s mechanical and electrical systems.
The building was purchased by District One Hospital in 2008.
A 2010 assessment of its condition found it to be in “average condition,” and though it had minor defects, it could be safely used.
“It is apparent that the original design and construction of the building was purposeful, well executed and very stout,” read a report from Craig Milkert of the Collaborative Design Group of Minneapolis.
Milkert estimated the needed repairs at $1.1 million, about half of which would go toward roof repairs. The roof’s deteriorated shingles contain asbestos, raising the cost of replacement and restoration.