French House residents were preparing for their year in Lee House on St. Olaf Avenue when they received word that water damage had rendered the building unlivable. Facilities staff found that a broken toilet had flooded the house before the final inspection of the summer.
“We’re not sure how long it ran; we discovered it on a Monday morning. It could have run all weekend,” said Peter Sandberg, Assistant Vice President for Facilities. “It was a small pipe, but it flooded the entire kitchen below, and got in the interior and exterior walls.”
While they inspected the water damage, staff discovered that the house’s existing infrastructure was subpar from the beginning.
“The sub-floor, we realized, wasn’t very good quality in the first place. When the walls came down, we saw that the wiring was pretty bad, and there’s no insulation. It’s a serious mess,” Sandberg said. The most immediate concern was for the house’s soon-to-be-residents.
“We got this e-mail about a week before we moved in,” Erika Meierding ’15 said. “We’re currently in Thorson.”
“We are trying to organize the move so that everyone is up-to-date and everyone has a fair say,” said Heidi Beckmann ’15, French House President. She feels that the College has handled the crisis gracefully thus far.
“We appreciate and are thankful for the way the College has handled and responded to the situation. They’ve given us so many alternatives,” Beckmann said.
“We’ve had a week and a half to process. It’s an unsettled feeling,” Meierding said. “You have to see some humor in it. The toilet literally exploded. For a while I was really upset, but then I was like, this is kind of funny.”
At this point, the College is inclined to demolish the house, though nothing is scheduled or confirmed.
“My group recommends that it come down and that we develop a green space. We met with the Buildings and Grounds committee, who agreed with the recommendation. If it does come down, we’re exploring the possibility of putting the wood to beneficial reuse,” Sandberg said.
A vocal group of students are concerned about the ethical implications of the house’s potential destruction. Alumna and two-year French House resident, Katelyn Hewett ’14, is spearheading an effort to save Lee House. She has been in contact with the Minnesota Preservation Alliance.
“I am trying to work up a student response against this and get the administration to consider other options, rather than rushing into the irrevocable decision of tearing down a 100-year-old house,” Hewett said.
Debra Steinberg ’17 has publicized the group’s reasoning via the St. Olaf Extra alias. The widely-circulated e-mail cites environmental and financial concerns, while emphasizing the house’s historic value. They ask for a “period of community reflection and response.”
Sandberg appreciates the sentimental attachment to the house, but questions the logic of some of the protesters’ claims.
“Is ‘old’ automatically historic?” he said. He suggests that Lee House’s identity as the French House is not deeply embedded in St. Olaf history. “It’s only been the French House for a relatively short time.”
The historical significance of Olav Lee a founder of the college and the Lee House’s namesake is also a topic of contention. He was noted for pioneering disability services at St. Olaf, particularly for the deaf. Yet his legacy is not heavily detailed in the official college archives.
“Olav Lee was on the faculty for many years, but we were unable to find out much about him in college history books, or online,” Sandberg said.
Still, the fact remains that the house is unlike any that would be designed today.
“I think it’s a shame that they would tear it down. You can’t just build another house like that,” Meierding said.
In response to the allegations of environmental recklessness in the “Save Lee House” e-mail, Sandberg insists that the College has a strong track record of conscientious renovations.
“We do try to be thoughtful,” Sandburg said. “Previous renovations of residence buildings show our commitment to doing things right. If this thing does come down, I wouldn’t want something to just go up in its place. I’d like to develop a more park-like setting; it would be a beautiful space. If we have the opportunity, we’ll try to do that well.”
The French House, as a concept, does still exist.
“We have been hosting events. We just haven’t had a house to put them in,” Beckmann said. “The French House is living on, with cheese and baguettes and berets.”