St. Olaf College | News

Reconstruction of Flaten Art Barn turns old into new

The reconstruction of the Art Barn has maintained many of Flaten’s original carvings, including the ornate entry, the most iconic portion of the 1932 building.

The newest building on campus is also one of the oldest.

The Flaten Art Barn, which opened this fall in its new location adjacent to the wind turbine, is a reconstruction of a 1932 building that served as the first home of St. Olaf College’s Art Department.

The reconstructed art barn will be dedicated Thursday, November 7. Christie Hawkins, the technical supervisor in the St. Olaf Department of Art and Art History and one of the individuals involved in the construction of the new building, will deliver a chapel talk about the Flaten Art Barn.

A ribbon-cutting ceremony and reception at the new art barn site will be held immediately following chapel.

In its new life, the Flaten Art Barn will play host to a variety of activities. In addition to serving as a space for classes — the first of which include an environmental studies course and a folk school course — the barn has the potential to be utilized as a retreat center, all-day meeting room, and a conference building.

The new art barn was built using methods and materials designed to make the building as self-sustaining as possible, and as a result it requires very little energy to maintain temperature and lighting.

Preserving the past
The original Flaten Art Barn was designed to house the Art Department and was constructed by Arnold Flaten ’22, the founder of the department, and John Berntsen, the superintendent of grounds and building at the time.

The structural integrity of the building had deteriorated over the years, and it was decided in 2007 to remove the building from its original location near Old Main to make way for the construction of Regents Hall of Natural and Mathematical Sciences.

“The Art Barn is one of my favorite buildings at the college,” says Assistant Vice President for Facilities Pete Sandberg. “But there was very little holding that place up, and it didn’t lend itself to being moved.”

While the building as a whole couldn’t be saved, a number of pieces that included carvings by Flaten and his students — including the ornate entry, the most iconic portion of the building — were preserved.

Although the shapes and sizes of the two buildings are similar, and both feature a hand-made nature, the new Flaten Art Barn is not a replica of the original building. Rather it was inspired by it. And the new building — unlike the original — is a timber-framed structure built by St. Olaf faculty and staff who traveled to the North House Folk School in Grand Marais, Minnesota. There they learned how to carry out the timber-framing process, including working together on complex joinery such as cutting and notching the timbers that now form the frame, or skeleton, of the new structure.

The collaborative nature of both building projects is their most distinctive similarity. “The same way that Flaten and Berntsen constructed the thing originally, people from the community constructed it,” says Sandberg.

Detail of an interior carving
Detail of an interior carving

A work of art
Some of the most important pieces to preserve from the original building were the many carvings done by Flaten and his students. Flaten came to teach at St. Olaf in 1930 at the beckoning of President Lars Boe. Formerly a pastor, Flaten was sent to Europe to receive formal training in art.

In 1932 Flaten returned and was charged with establishing St. Olaf’s Art Department, the second art department founded among colleges in Minnesota. Flaten impacted St. Olaf’s history significantly through the tremendous amount of original carvings he did around campus, most of which still grace campus today.

The carved entry of the Flaten Art Barn recalls the “dragon portal” found on many stave churches in Norway. These carvings often represented beasts from pagan lore being held at bay by the door to the church.

The pillars that support the entrance to the Art Barn contain carvings of a Native American face, the face of a Viking, the face of a young man that was meant to represent youth, and a carved likeness of a Norwegian named Hans Nielsen Hauge, who led a religious revival in the early 19th century.

Many of the art barn’s interior carvings done by Flaten were also preserved and will soon occupy the new space.

See more of the Art Barn in this Lunchtime Live presentation (starting at 8:21) and in a brief Facebook video.