It’s a rare part of the city that’s been untouched by time, but this place is still around: the University of Minnesota’s campus before the mall was built.
It’s a remarkable collection of pre-World War I buildings in a mix of styles, elegantly situated around a great green lawn. Aside from the trees, long replaced by others, all those buildings remain — except one. The tall gray building to the right was Old Main. It was begun in 1851, seven years before Minnesota achieved statehood. It was finished in 1857, but according to the St. Paul Globe on Sept. 25, 1904, “there were no funds for furnishing or the employment of instructors, it lay unoccupied until about 1867, except as some stray horse or cow made its quarters in the basement.”
The reason the Globe mentioned the building? It was a smoking wreck, having gone up in flames the day before. “It is believed the fire was caused by some person dropping a match in a wastepaper basket or in some corner,” said the Globe, and implied it might have been student journalists who’d sneaked through the window to deliver copies of the Minnesota Daily.
You’ll note the streets look like dirt. The Globe story noted that the firemen couldn’t get to the blaze because the streets “were blocked with paving material.” Well, it’s paved now. A few new buildings of lesser interest have been added, and it’s not the main campus anymore. It may not be the heart of the U, but you can make the case that it’s the old soul.