My Favorite Places at the University of Minnesota: a photo essay

I have spent my last six years, indeed, my entire adult life, around and attending the University of Minnesota.
And it’s amazing! I am really going to miss this place.
No really, it is amazing. Most people around the world, when I talk with them, assume that Minnesota – which they have vaguely, maybe heard of, is some isolated backwater.
Let me assure it’s not. No one would ever call the Mississippi River a ‘backwater.’
What I like about the U of M:

  • Close to nature, with trees, and a river gorge where you can pretend no major city exists two miles away. The St. Paul Campus even more so. Especially taking horticulture classes in the humid greenhouses there, in January.
  • Yet, still close to the city, with lots to do, opportunities, guest speakers, wild parties…
  • A program for everything. I could not imagine attending a smaller school. I loved attending electives on all sorts of subjects. The excellent Center for Medieval Studies is a great example of what isn’t possible in many other places.
  • Affordable, close to home, world-class, and offering PSEO for high-schoolers
  • A beautiful and interesting campus, as I am about to show you below!

University of Minnesota Rankings: Top in the World!

umnratingI am skeptical about these ranking systems, but here they support my point, so I will go along with it. Top 40 in the world, eh? That’s behind only a handful of schools. Although, I’ve never quite got why US News ranks it as, say 38th in the world, but 69th in the nation? Maybe the US has a bunch of colleges on the moon, and they rank higher. Which would be neat, I need to do a semester there.


The University is situated along the Mississippi River Gorge, with the downtown looming in the distance. More accurately, this is only one of two campuses of the Twin Cities part of the University (the St. Paul campus is beautiful, on a hill in a small sea of farm fields, surrounded by suburbs) and there are several other campuses across the state. But we don’t talk about them much -as the Minnesota Daily once said, the Crookston campus appears on satellite imagery to have burned down in 2006, although no one has bothered to check for sure.

Light rail line, Weisman Art Museum (left), Bruininks Hall (right) and the bridge to West Bank in the center.

In the center of this all is ‘the Mall’ along which most of the oldest buildings stand. Northrop Auditorium dominates one end, and Coffman Student Union the other. Most of the campus is on this, east, side of the river, but some programs, like the business school where I did my graduate studies, were exiled to West Bank in the 1970’s.
Northrop plaza, and the strange, but iconic, giant lawn chair

It can be hard to tell where nature ends and the city begins. The university dock is just visible to the right.

Rowers on the University team get out almost as soon as the river ice breaks up in spring. I would watch them more from the Washington Avenue Bridge, but if you loiter there too long, someone thinks you are about to jump, and comes up to stop you. It gets awkward, fast, then.
Seriously, I’ve had this happen twice. Well, once was on the cliffs near Yudof residence hall, where I stayed for one year with a Brazilian roommate. Regardless, do I really look that sad that I want to jump? Throw them over, maybe. But me jump? Not without a base-jumping suit, I’m not. Now base-jumping off the bridge, that would be cool…
The University’s riverside viewed from just to the north, across the Bohemian Flats


Around Campus: the buildings

I won’t start with the fancy, but something simpler, and nearer to my heart:

Nolte Center

This building was once an entirely self-contained summer school for the university. With dining hall, library, chapel, and dorms, it suited all summer needs. The beautiful dining hall was only this last year converted into a classroom, which I think a crime. The library and reading room, however, still has a lot of the original furniture, and look great!

Nolte Center Reading Room

It was one of my favorites places to study as a PSEO student. PSEO, that is, the Post Secondary Enrollment Opportunity. Basically high school students can apply to do university classes instead of high school, for free. I did it for two years, all but one semester of which was full-time. It was a fantastic opportunity which more students should have.
Usually it’s pretty quiet at Nolte, despite a relatively central location, few students enter this building as it hosts few classes.
Owls above the wood-paneled dining room in Nolte. Owls are a common theme in old university buildings.

The Tunnels

It gets cold in Minnesota supposedly, although I’ve never really seen anything below about negative 40, so it’s not really that cold. Also, we are apparently the ‘Gophers’ who like living in tunnels.
Thus, we have a tunnel system that connects many of the buildings together.

There’s a different world just beneath the surface

It is also an absolute maze most of the time, despite the appearance of helpful signs, and it usually takes twice as long to get to places as it would walking in a straight line on the surface. Knowing the basement routes, however, was one way I got to show off as a freshman, coming in from PSEO.
Still, nothing is as bad as trying to navigate the Mayo Building, with its four lettered sections, with duplicate room numbers!
Behind the grate there is visible a walled-off “Section M” which makes me dreadfully curious.

I really only go down here when I want a surreal experience to liven up my day.

Northrop Auditorium

Recently remodeled and home to the Honor’s program office where I used to meet with advisers. It is an awesome place to study.
Except that, in order to keep the quiet, sanctum atmosphere, the seating is kept limited. So you must fight to get a seat if you want to study here. Or just sit next to someone else (because students like many empty chairs between them and other humans, usually), and then scare them away.
neat eh?
The large, diffuse sunlit marble makes the place few extraordinarily grand. It is another place that brings education to an altogether higher level.
This building, which from the exterior looks a bit like the Pantheon, was once the home of the orchestra and theater, but now it is almost exclusively the home of various traveling dance productions (I saws Dido and Aeneas here performed as opera/ballet). Well, of course, it also home to various university ceremonies, major public speakers, and so on.

My sister Kelly and my mom look out from Northrop

Viewing Morrill Hall from Northrop, where the president of the university and staff reside

Civil Engineering

Architects like shiny buildings. Engineers like complicated buildings. Thus the Civil Engineering building, built by people who had spent too long designing the mines of northern Minnesota, is a bit unique…

A sketch of Civil Engineering, showing the sub basements mined under a layer of rock.

The building starts with a ground floor, numbered floor one just like any other building. Except floor number two is the next level down. And so on, down to floor seven, the seventh basement level. There’s also one catch: floor five doesn’t exist, but is a solid layer of basalt rock, beneath which the six and seventh floors were tunneled out.
To be honest, it reminds me a bit of the silos from the Wool book series by Hugh Howley.
Personally, I wonder if these engineers were perhaps overly concerned with a nuclear attack, and wanted a nice bunker. There’s also the Minnesota Traffic Observatory here, which watches cars driving around all day, every day. Interestingly, everyone in that office seemed to have a bike they used for commutes…
Viewing the mined basement

The giant re(de)construction room


Tate Hall (Lab of Physics)

I came here for my introductory physics classes. It was an old building, emphasized by the chalkboards, fancy mail cubicles, and various high-tech communication electronics dating to the 1940’s and 50’s.

The Tate Hall lobby

It is now a new building, vaguely reminiscent of the British Museum, that is with large glass ceilings lighting up the old brick walls. The new classrooms there look fantastic! Alas, my days of taking classes there finished several years ago. I might, however, still be here this fall when the rooftop observatory has it’s weekly astronomy sessions, which I should really try.
Unfortunately it’s difficult to capture the place in a photo.
My sister and mom are hypnotized by the light displays.

Walter Library

This is one of the premier buildings of the university, and it looks it.

So the capitals are gold-leafed, and the ceiling is just a golden-tan for the stone, and golden paint. However, the HDR makes it look all gold in this photo. The columns here are the most remarkable marble columns on campus.

Amusingly, there aren’t actually that many books at Walter. Instead, there are ornate reading and study rooms, 3D printers and a supercomputer. Most of the books live in the less-lively looking Wilson Library on West Bank. Less-used books live at the Anderson Library, which is literally built into a cave along the riverside cliffs for storage. The university has something like 11 major libraries in the Twin Cities campus alone, and there are departmental libraries as well!
A close-up of the details of the ceilings of Walter Library.

During the school year, I hate this place, because it is absolutely packed with students. Why do many students attribute magical study properties to libraries? They are distractingly busy, not a great place to study.
In summer it is much quieter, thankfully.
A reading room at Walter

The quiet study room has a wonderful timber ceiling, but you’ll have to go see that for yourself.

STSS (aka Science Teaching and Student Services aka Bruininks Hall)

A newer building, in which I have had quite a lot of classes. It was renamed to Bruininks Hall a couple of years ago, but I still call it STSS, as all enlightened people still do.

The bottom of the slightly futuristic spiral stairway

Inside, the supports holding up the shiny glass exterior

It’s interior classrooms feature modern ‘group work’ style lecture halls. Instead of rows of chairs, there are many round tables each seating eight people. All tables are equipped with microphones for asking questions and wall TV monitors. Overall, I would say it’s a much better system for teaching, when used properly at least.
Mostly I used the flexible microphone stalks to make various unique sculpture arrangements. This was inspired loosely by the Calvin and Hobbes cartoons featuring snowmen.
Calvin and Hobbes

Folwell Hall

Right across the street from where I stay we have this wonderful building.

A dragon statue atop Folwell

Folwell Hall houses language departments. And it has a wonderful marble hallway connecting nice classrooms and study rooms. There’s not much more there, but one cannot deny the marble grandeur gives a certain sense of significance to the learning that takes place there. What more can you say, it’s got dragons on top!
The marble hallways of Folwell. Green, yellow, and tan marble? Seems an odd combination to me. Still neat.

Professor Nicholson always believed that the marble in Folwell, because of its random appearance, must have been the unwanted leftovers from building the Minnesota State Capital, which was built around the same time.

Viewing west from Folwell towards Northrop over Williamson Hall. I have never really like this statue, sorry.

Burton Hall

I’ve never had a class here. I was never even inside this building until today, but I have admired its decaying atmosphere frequently as I bike right past it as I start almost every ride.

Burton Hall

It has a frieze over the top of the entryway (slightly visible in the photo above), a surprisingly rare feature in modern buildings, even though it was once common on the Roman buildings we copy.
The inside lobby of Burton Hall

The inside feels a bit like a miniature Library of Congress. Stained glass ceilings, carved references to literature and Rome, and heads, carved ones.
The unusual crenelations of Burton

It’s a bit of a strange building, but a unique one perhaps deserving more attention. The university gets a tens-of-millions or even hundreds-of-millions-$ (like Tate) approved renovation/construction every year or two, but Burton is far down the list. There are hundreds of University buildings, and so many need attention.
Next up for reconstruction is Pillsbury Hall, the second oldest building on campus and made of imposing amounts of stone. It’s got a T-rex skull hidden embossed on the exterior walls. I’m excited to see what the reconstruction of that looks like.

Nicholson Hall

Nicholson is a relatively boring but pleasant building. Most importantly, it is the home of the Classics and Near Eastern Studies department. Thus, it wins. Not that this was a competition, or anything.

Trees reflected in the entry of Nicholson Hall

Some Other Places of Note

The Giant Rocker Statue

I’ve always loved sitting here by this thing. It’s right by Jones Hall and across the street from Nicholson Hall, if you take an official campus tour, you can’t miss it.

Fun to climb on, but only on cloudy days. The metal gets very hot in the sun.

The Shiny Rocks and the Oasis by the River

There’s a small quiet place behind the Education Sciences Building near the river. Sheltered by trees and native plantings, but with the downtown visible in the distance, here (by the Dunn Bros, open only at lunchtime during the school year) the place feels both isolated and connected at the same time. The passing cyclists and pedestrian traffic going to the Northern Pacific Bridge Number 9 – to and from the downtown – add to the general quiet but attached feel of the place. I have enjoyed going down there to reflect, read, and watch travelers go by.
Also, it has mirror-covered rocks.

Like I said, shiny rocks.

Wally’s Falafel and Hummus

This has been my favorite restaurant in Dinkytown to go to. I’m a fan of the Chicken Kabob plate with hummus.

The new Wally’s location, opened this last year two doors down from the previous location.

Finally, we have my home

From left to right: Sydney Hall, Dinkydome, Folwell Hall, and Jones Hall. The recently redone traffic area is called ‘Eddy Circle.’

I currently live in Sydney Hall (far left, above). I previously lived in the attached ‘Dinkydome’ Building, which was a neat two-level apartment… but had no direct sun. Now I’ve got south-facing windows for my plants.
At least for another two weeks. I soon move out of here, with my lease ending. Then I am not quite sure what the order of events will be, but eventually I will be in Washington D.C.
Farewell Minnesota, you are one of the best places one could hope to live, I will miss you.

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