Luther Seminary expands Olson Campus Center


“What was once a bridge will now become a new creation.” 

That’s how President Rick Bliese of Luther Seminary describes the centerpiece of the $2.8 million remodeling project that’s under way at the Olson Campus Center in the middle of the school’s leafy St. Anthony Park campus. The project will add an enclosed gathering space, as well as a redesigned bookstore, a state-of the-art classroom and a comfortably informal café.  Bliese’s remark refers to the symbolic function of what was initially an outdoor space connecting two halves of the campus. When the center was first built in 1984, the campus housed the original Luther Seminary and the recently relocated Northwestern Seminary. The two bodies had merged only a few years earlier, and the institutional distinctions were still very much on people’s minds. As Bliese put it, “We had the Norwegians on the hill, and the Germans and Swedes had just moved in down below.”

A section of the upper level of the Olson Center was left as open space so walkers could traverse the campus without going inside a building, Bliese said. The idea was that the open space would be filled with outdoor tables and knots of students and faculty in deep conversation. But in practice, “the area became more of a pass-through,” said Traci Lesneski of MS&R Ltd., principal designer of the project. “It was never used as it was intended. Snow collected there.”

Nearly three decades later, Luther Seminary has long since achieved a unified, cohesive identity, and a goal of the construction project is to recapture that open space to help create community. “The open space will become our enclosed ‘living room’ with views of the surrounding area, a centralized fireplace and a coffee shop open to the entire community,” said Ellen Elhard, Luther’s senior director of facilities and auxiliary services.

Elhard anticipates the new space will become an informal destination for students who don’t live on campus. Commuter students tend to stay on campus to study. “This tells us that we need informal study spaces, too,” she said. “The library is always packed, but we need the students out of the library talking to each other once in awhile too.”

Community is foremost in the mind of those who talk about the new project, but they’re not simply referring to the faculty and students of Luther Seminary. Bliese takes pride in the seminary’s good relations with the neighborhood. “We’ve worked pretty hard” to integrate the institution with St. Anthony Park, he said, noting that community events like the recent 4-H pie and ice cream social and the St. Anthony Park Arts Festival have taken place on seminary grounds, and that more than half the enrollment of the seminary’s Wee Care early childhood facility is drawn from neighborhood residents.

“We know the neighbors want an open, park-like campus so they can wander through the grounds,” he said. “They have also asked, ‘Can we come here and get coffee?’ ” The answer is yes.

“So far, this has been a real happy project with the community,” Bliese said. “We’ve had strong feedback and support from the neighborhood.” Still, “there may be some tension when the heavy-lifting starts in July,” he said.

Measures have been taken to keep disruption to a minimum, Elhard said. No streets will be blocked off during the construction process and all delivery people have been instructed to come up Hendon Avenue onto Fulham Street. Construction noise will be restricted to normal business hours. 

“Later in the evening is non-noise time,” Elhard noted, adding that if neighbors hear suspicious noises, “good neighbor stewardship would be to call the police.” For neighbors whose topmost concern is the amount of available open space on campus, Elhard stressed that the project will not increase the overall building footprint of the Olson Center.

Neighbors who want to follow the progress of the project are invited to check out the seminary’s website at There they will find a real-time construction web-cam, architectural plans, a construction blog, directions for those seeking the temporarily displaced seminary bookstore, as well as an opportunity to sign up for the Neighborhood Construction e-mail updates.

This is the first major addition to the campus since the original Olson Center opened in 1984. Longtime neighborhood residents will recall that a building was added to the seminary’s open fields facing Como Avenue in 1993, but Elhard explained, “That’s on our property, but it’s not our building.” Lutheran Social Services occupies the site.           

As was true with the original construction in 1984, the major donor behind the current project is the Olson family of Willmar, Minn. Earl B. Olson, founder of the Jennie-O turkey-processing company, provided the original funding. Olson’s son and daughter-in-law, Charles and Sharon Olson, have contributed the bulk of the cost of the current project. Bliese says an additional $800,000 was raised “to make the Olson Center a green building.” The seminary intends to apply for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design [LEED] certification for the building, and that requires updating a number of basic operations and behind-the-scenes maintenance functions.

One high-tech feature, however, will be front-and-center. “We’re going to have a smart classroom on the lower level,” said Bliese. He described a fully wired space where the conventional professor-at-the-front-of-the-class configuration has given way to fluid, shifting seating arrangements that can make use of the projection capabilities available on all four walls. There’s even the possibility that the teacher will have access to a futuristic whiteboard that digitizes a teacher’s notes as soon as he or she writes them, thereby absolving students from the need to take notes. “Although we’re not sure if we can manage that last one,” Bliese said.

“Plan A is to finish [the whole project] by opening day of school [just after Labor Day],” said Bliese, “but if you’ve ever renovated a kitchen, you know what can happen.”

Acknowledging the rapid pace of the project—groundbreaking took place on May 23—Bliese has begun planning festivities for the third week in October, when the seminary board meets, whether or not the addition is fully finished by that time. Although plans are still in the early stages, one thing is certain: All neighbors from St. Anthony Park will be invited to the party.

Judy Woodward is a reference librarian at Roseville Library and a frequent contributor to the Park Bugle.