In August 2017, a natural gas leak destroyed two of Minnehaha Academy’s oldest buildings. Two staff members were killed. All of the 32 other people in the buildings felt the blast.
“I was blown backwards out of my shoes,” said the school’s president, Donna Harris, who managed to escape by climbing out her office window.
The explosion left two buildings, dating from 1912 and 1922, partially collapsed. The center of the Minneapolis school’s campus was gutted.
When Judy Hoskens, project principal at Cuningham Group Architecture, first met the school’s leaders, students and teachers, they “seemed shaken, but resolute.”
They were determined to rebuild, and to do so fast enough that a temporary location would only be required for two years. That meant a 20-month timeline from design to completion by July 2019, something rarely heard of for school projects, which often take up to five years.
Within months of the blast, representatives from Cuningham and Mortenson Co. met with Minnehaha’s leaders to determine what the school would need from the design. It was a bold move given that the insurance claim hadn’t been settled and the budget for the project hadn’t been determined.
Cuningham came up with an initial concept that called for two wings to fan out into the native oak savanna on the school’s grounds, with a visual connection to West River Parkway and the river gorge beyond.
The concept found favor with school leaders, but neighbors weren’t as happy. In the concept, the buildings were clad in a concrete-based panel system. Many local residents disliked the building’s light-gray color, scale and seemingly nonresidential character. This was not the red brick school they had known.
Seeking to address their concerns, Cuningham’s lead designer, Chad Clow, substituted a Danish-made brick for the concrete panels. The warm-toned bricks, which are available in a range of hues, helped mollify concerned neighbors.
Although the wings are no smaller than in the original concept, the tactile, masonry quality made them seem more a part of the neighborhood. And some of the brick used in the interior bears visible thumbprints from the Danish workers who cast them, just like the handcrafted brick that had been used in the two buildings that were lost.
The new construction does more than create a connection to the past. It also forges a direct connection to nature.
“You walk into a classroom and you feel like you’re in the trees,” said history teacher Collin Quinn.
From his second-story classroom there are sweeping vistas across the Mississippi and into St. Paul. Few schools can boast such a beautiful and historic landscape, which is largely unchanged since Minnehaha Academy opened in 1912.
In the hallways, light birch lockers lend a sense of lightness, which complements the more industrial polished concrete floors and exposed structural elements.
Most important, “every square inch should support learning,” said Hoskens.
Instead of simple passageways, the school’s light-filled hallways are designed as places to gather and study. There are nooks where students can sit and small conference rooms where students can meet and work together.
History teacher and debate coach Nathan Johnson said that the new buildings are changing how he teaches.
“I can sit with one group of students while another group works across the classroom,” he said. “Other students can move to a nearby conference room to focus on a project.”
Shared workspaces for each department allows teachers to get to know one another better. Quinn and Johnson said that they’ve talked more in the past three months than in the past several years.
Connecting older buildings with the new ones is a steeple. At its base, a small chapel structurally and symbolically supports the soaring spire.
Harris said the 73,000-square-foot addition shows how Minnehaha Academy was determined to aim high.
“You can be smothered and overwhelmed and want to hide from the pain, or you can move forward,” she said.
Frank Edgerton Martin is a landscape historian and consulting writer for architecture and design firms.