The Storied History of Steensland Hall
Despite its modest proportions, no St. Olaf College building has served more purposes than the 120-year-old Steensland Hall.
One of the most iconic buildings on campus, the small Neoclassical Revival–style structure is nestled next to Old Main and featured in many of the most picturesque photos of campus. One of just two St. Olaf buildings on the National Register of Historic Places, Steensland has held many titles over the years, from library to recital hall to art gallery.
In recent years Steensland Hall has largely sat vacant, with its future purpose a source of intrigue among students, faculty, staff, and alumni. But the long wait is finally over. After a substantial renovation, Steensland reopened in the fall of 2021 as the new space for the Hong Kierkegaard Library, home to the largest collection of works by and about the 19th century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard outside of Denmark.
In keeping with the return to its original role as a college library, the newly renovated space in Steensland resembles the original layout of the building. The main floor is lined with bookshelves filled with works by and about Kierkegaard, while the lower level offers study spaces for visiting Kierkegaard scholars and the capacity to be utilized as a classroom.
St. Olaf Director of Facilities Kevin Larson notes that an important part of Steensland’s renovation was consulting with architects who understand historic restorations and being mindful of maintaining the historical integrity of the building. Kierkegaard Library Assistant Curator Eileen Shimota shared archival photos of the way Steensland looked in its early years with the team overseeing renovations. “Keeping the building’s history was something that was very important throughout the renovation,” she says.
While staying true to the historical integrity of Steensland Hall was at the forefront of discussions, so was bringing the building into the 21st century. Renovations totaled $1.5 million, and included new heating and cooling systems, all new doors and windows, and important updates to make the building compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), including a new restroom and a lift to take visitors from floor to floor. The renovations enabled the building to better serve today’s campus community.
“It is great to see Steensland meet the needs of the Kirkegaard Library with a classic look in a beautiful building,” Larson says.
The college’s first library
Built in 1902, Steensland was among the first buildings constructed on the young St. Olaf campus, a sign of the importance early college leaders placed on having a dedicated space for a premier library. The building’s namesake, Halle Steensland, was a Norwegian-American immigrant and businessman who covered the bulk of the $13,000 cost to construct the library. Steensland served as vice consul for Norway and Sweden in Madison, Wisconsin, and at the time his gift was the largest the college had ever received.
In its initial four decades of use, the library’s collections grew tenfold, coinciding with a rapidly expanding student population. It quickly outgrew Steensland Hall’s small footprint, which was unable to hold its collection and serve the college community. Students and alumni began advocating for a new library, and in 1942 Rolvaag Memorial Library — which continues to serve as the college’s library to this day — opened.
New uses for an old space
Once the college’s library collection moved to Rolvaag, Steensland began serving new purposes. It became a recreation center, then a concert hall, a rehearsal space, an office space for student organizations, and a destination for relaxation between classes. A 1942 article from the student newspaper recounts that “It stood there by Old Main, simple and graceful in architecture, its tall pillars in a way symbolic of its purpose. […] Steensland Library has not grown useless. For the second time in its history, it is a building which has answered the call of a great need on the campus.”
The main floor of Steensland became performance space for hundreds of student music recitals, and rehearsal space for the St. Olaf Choir and Manitou Singers. At the same time, the lower level housed the offices of the student newspaper and the Viking yearbook. For a time, Steensland was a place for students to relax between classes, and it provided a space for the college to screen movies for the community, and host debates and lectures.
For a brief time between 1943 and 1946, the building was even used as a pre-naval flight school, when hundreds of naval cadets arrived at the St. Olaf Naval Flight Preparatory School for training at the start of World War II.
In 1976, more than three decades after Steensland’s role as the library ended, it became the college’s premier art exhibition space. Steensland Gallery housed many senior art shows and faculty exhibits, as well as works from renowned artists such as Edvard Munch, Andy Warhol, and Keith Haring.
During this time, Steensland went through a Museum Assessment Program, and in 1996 the building was officially renamed Steensland Art Museum. This title, however, was relatively short-lived. In 2002 the campus art museum moved to the Center for Art and Dance, where it still is housed today.
A library once more
Since 2002 Steensland Hall has sat empty, with much discussion and debate among the college community as to how it might best be utilized. A 2018 article published in the Olaf Messenger suggested that Steensland would be an ideal space for a cafe and study space. An earlier article floated the idea of using the space as a language lab.
In 2006 the infamous hail storm that severely damaged many buildings on campus shattered Steensland’s iconic stained glass cupola. David Kjerland ’65, who at the time owned a stained glass studio in Northfield, discovered that the firm that had supplied the glass during the building’s construction in 1902 had original sheets of the glass, and thus the cupola was able to be restored in the most authentic way possible.
During Steensland’s vacant years, various college departments considered how to utilize this historic building. When the Hong Kierkegaard Library Committee proposed the idea of Steensland becoming its new home, it received support from a wide range of stakeholders on campus and approval from President David R. Anderson ’74.
“Housing the world-class Hong Kierkegaard Library in one of the college’s most iconic buildings is a marriage made in heaven,” Anderson says. “This move celebrates the significance of the Hong Library and renews and returns one of the college’s earliest buildings to its original purpose. It’s a good thing.”
Housing the world-class Hong Kierkegaard Library in one of the college’s most iconic buildings is a marriage made in heaven.President David R. Anderson ’74
The Hong Kierkegaard Library has fully moved into the space, and Steensland now houses almost 15,000 volumes by and about the philosopher. Another 5,000 volumes that are part of the Hong Kierkegaard Library are held in the rare book collection vault in Rolvaag Memorial Library.
Over its century of service to the college, hundreds of artists, musicians, writers, and scholars have found their place in Steensland Hall. The tiny-but-mighty structure has served as an important space for creating community on the Hill. The Hong Kierkegaard Library will continue that tradition, welcoming scholars from around the world and inviting professors to house classes in the lower level of the library and students to study surrounded by the stacks.
“The hope is that this majestic building becomes an integral place on campus available to students, faculty,
staff, and scholars,” Shimota says. “It’s an important space with an incredible collection that is meant to be used and appreciated. We hope that all who are interested will come to reap the wisdom or simply enjoy the space.”
Read more about the works that Steensland Hall now houses in the accompanying article in St. Olaf Magazine titled “A World-Renowned Center for the Study of Kierkegaard.”