MONTAGE: An abandoned building is bad enough. But what about an abandoned campus?

It’s been a long time since I’ve shared a mostly photo-driven blog article, and I can’t think of a richer array from recent years than that of Dana College, a private educational institution founded in Blair, Nebraska. Originally affiliated with the Danish Evangelical Lutheran Association (the denomination and nationality of the original pioneer founders), various consolidations eventually placed the college under the aegis of the much larger Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA).img_4988But Dana College struggled throughout the 2000s, apparently due to an increased consumer appetite for online learning—a pedagogical approach to which Dana’s leadership was chary to adapt. It didn’t help that Midland Lutheran College (now Midland University), with similar roots, stood just 30 miles to the west in Fremont. In an attempt to stave a complete shuttering of the school, a private equity firm announced its intention to transform Dana into a for-profit campus, an academic/business model that (at the time) blossomed due to high demand. But regional accrediting agencies rejected this model, questioning its long-term viability, and the investors abandoned the sale.

In the summer of 2010, just weeks after the school year ended, Dana College indicated that it would not re-open in the fall. The Board of Regents, after announcing the school’s closure, offered the remaining students the opportunity to transfer to University of Nebraska at Omaha or the Lutheran-affiliated Grand View University (in Des Moines) or Midland University (in nearby Fremont, Nebraska). The 125-year-old school was no more.img_5007

But college leadership failed to devise a sustaining new purpose for all that real estate. The growing Midland University—having recovered from similar dire straits after a name change under the leadership of President Ben Sasse (now Nebraska’s junior U.S. Senator)—considered expanding its scope through a new branch, to the extent of signing a lease agreement in June 2013, which included an option of purchasing and reopening the Dana campus.  But nothing had coalesced by spring of 2016, and representatives at Midland announced that upgrading the facilities and achieving accreditation at Dana was cost-prohibitive. Thus, the university withdrew its planned expansion, instead concentrating energy on the increased enrollment at the Fremont campus and expanding the school’s presence in Omaha.

Not much has happened since. With the exception of some of the athletic facilities staying open for local youth sports programs, the majority of the campus has remained completely unused. What does this mean for the small city of Blair? A significant portion of land within its city limits—121 acres to be exact—now languishes from neglect.img_4993The campus is empty, unused, yet still completely open to the public. Only closed at night.img_4994And, after six years of vacancy, visual evidence of blight has begun to creep in. It goes without saying that buildings cannot go unmaintained for long at all before they start to fall into disrepair.img_4995img_4998

It’s easy to gauge which facilities remain the most viable by judging the overall exterior physical conditions.img_5002The Gardner-Hawks Center remained operable for various amateur sporting events and thus appears well-maintained. But after Midland University discontinued its lease earlier this year, these structures have remained closed as well, leaving both the maintenance of the building—and the operability of the youth clubs—in doubt. Meanwhile, the neighboring athletic fields show little evidence of use.img_5005Apparently the City of Blair has managed and maintained some of the ball fields due to community demand, but the track facilities are languishing.

Outside of the athletics, most remaining Dana College structures have fared worse.img_4999Dorms like Rasmussen Hall may eventually offer opportunity as affordable apartments, but the dormitory arrangement—in which multi-user restrooms serve large expanses of sleeping rooms that otherwise lack plumbing—would require considerable, expensive surgery to transform each room into a freestanding apartment unit. The older, sex-segregated dorms look much worse.img_4997img_5016img_5017One of the newer dorms, Holing Hall, seems to be managing better.img_5032img_5031Looks can be deceiving though: vandals flooded the basement in 2014 by turning on a fire hose. Not far away, another campus residence—clearly much newer than the others—also appears to remain in salvageable condition.img_5004I suspect this later edifice helped fulfill demand for more apartment-style suite living to cater to upperclassmen. My suspicion is that this facility also served as temporary emergency shelter for Missouri River flooding victims in previous years. But it seems the exception among dorms, not the rule. Dana College (perhaps once again demonstrating how out-of-step with the times it was) required all students to live on campus through the entirety of their commitment, granting exceptions on rare occasions. As a result, this small school (enrolling barely 500 at its closure) contained a disproportionately large number of student residences.

Academic buildings rarely look much better.img_5021img_5033Argo Hall shows telltale signs of breaking and entering, manifested by the missing windowpanes.img_5022The unusual round building near the center of campus most likely housed the student union.img_5028img_5030Peering through the windows, it is obvious that paint from the ceiling has begun to peel—something that usually happens quite quickly when a building endures with no real climate control.img_5029Meanwhile, Pioneer Memorial, on the opposite side of College Drive from the majority of campus, shows evidence of both neglect and restoration. My apologies that these photos below turned out so poorly:img_5012The back is completely shuttered; again it’s a mystery to me why the photo is so fuzzy.img_5013Judging from both its location and the architecture itself, I suspect that Pioneer Memorial was the primary administrative center for Dana College. (I could even see yellowed files through some of the unboarded windows.) Though the condition may seem poor from these grainy images, it looked better than most of the dorms, and the mighty building has served as a focal point for local clean-up efforts.

Not surprisingly, vandalism has been a persistent problem. Some of the structures seem lackadaisically secured, making them easy for trespassers to enter.img_5040img_5003img_5009Conversely, others seem untouched. In fact, looking at the image below in isolation, it would be impossible to speculate that the school is abandoned.img_5006But that almost goes without saying, considering that the grounds remain regularly (however crudely) maintained.img_4996img_5001img_5015img_5024After all, it isn’t actually abandoned; it’s merely awaiting its next use. The nonagenarian owner of most Dana College property, Omaha-based developer Frank Krejci, relegated most maintenance of the structure to the Midland University, the lessee from 2013 to 2016, who mowed the grounds and retained some rudimentary landscaping at an estimated cost of $250,000 per year. Krejci, who still believes he can find a second life for the entire tract, has since negotiated with a local company to mow the campus. But rare Google Images of the old campus before it closed suggest a lush, flower-strewn environment that belies the drab groundskeeping in the college’s current state.img_5025And even though someone is paying to mow that lawn, no edging seems to be taking place, judging from the general condition of sidewalks and parking lots:img_5008img_5023

These photos, from July of 2016, may come from an opportune moment in time: shortly after Midland terminated its lease and simultaneous with a major initiative among locals and Dana alums to prune the overgrown shrubbery. Next April, long after the homecoming celebrations and a winter dormancy, the benign neglect could re-emerge with a verdant fury. In its current state, I suppose the school could look much worse: only intermittent vandalism (whose perpetrators at least occasionally get caught) and, from my observations, no real graffiti. But the campus, completely open to the public during daylight hours, remains vulnerable every night, and the absence of streetlights across such a broad expanse makes it difficult to patrol. Since my July visit, vandals struck several buildings again, and several of the buildings, doused by water from fire hoses, now suffer encroaching black mold—a costly predicament.

None of this stands to benefit the City of Blair in the least, since the college served as its signature institution and a major contributor to its economic and cultural life. From what I can tell, the middle-class homes that surround the campus remain well kept.img_5034But how much does it help their assessed value to directly face a seemingly abandoned campus? And main street Blair, though hardly a hotbed of activity, at least appeared tidy, its old commercial buildings mostly occupied.img_4991img_4990The closure of Dana College might have elicited a stronger impact, if it hadn’t enforced on-campus living among its students. In that regard, at least, Blair did not confront a sudden spike in vacancy among its rental properties. But the city lost its de facto cultural center, its highest profile employer, and some of its most aesthetic open space.

It comes as no small consolation that the hub of Dana College, Trinity Chapel, also appears the benefactor of some restoration work.img_5019img_5020dana_college_chapelVandals aren’t responsible for all of the campus’s damage. A hailstorm swept across the region in June of 2014, damaging the rooftops of structures throughout Blair. A local roofer has partnered with insurance companies to supervise most of the repairs across the campus, and it wouldn’t surprise me if Trinity Chapel is a top priority, not only because it could continue to function as a religious building, but it was obviously among the campus’s newer structures.

In the history of American academia, Dana College is a footnote. Hundreds of colleges and universities have opened and closed their doors. But X-hundred is a fraction of the XX-thousand schools that make the U.S. such a powerhouse for higher learning, so the closure of an institution—particularly one that operated successfully for over a century—remains a big deal. It was a catastrophic announcement across most Nebraska media at the time, and at least one national outlet covered the closure. More recently, the widely publicized demise of all-female Sweet Briar College in Virginia prompted a monumental effort from alumnae to raise money, which, at the very least, galvanized enough additional media coverage to attract both significant donations (above the $12M required in the settlement) and renewed interest from applicants. The chair of the college’s board of directors even stated late last year that Sweet Briar’s financial challenges might have been hyperbole: the endowment remained at $70 million, and operating expenses for the upcoming year would requite $3.5 million—a draw of only five percent.

The Sweet Briar predicament remains far from resolved, but it demonstrates the capacity of a college to elicit a powerful emotional and financial appeal to its alums, as long as memories of the experience—the closest a university has to a gestalt—remain positive. For most alums, that campus defines at least four years of their lives. Little evidence I have found suggests that Dana College made a similar appeal or inspired a “Save Dana” campaign among its alums, who now simply host homecoming events in the most well-kept buildings, while trimming back the overgrowth elsewhere. One might argue that Dana lacked a distinctive selling point for which it could demonstrate its indispensability, but quick research reveals that simply to be untrue: the school’s Dana-LIFE Library contained literary and historical records of Danish-American settlement that existed nowhere else in the country. It was, in many respects, the repository for Danish-American intellectual heritage.

Until recently, many of those records continued to sit within the shuttered buildings. They seemed safe enough. After all, Dana wasn’t abandoned; it was merely awaiting another use, owned by an Omahan and leased by nearby Midland University. But the hailstorm and acts of vandalism revealed the vulnerability of these books and documents, so archivists from Danish American Archive and Library (DAAL, formerly housed within Dana College) rescued what they could from campus buildings over the past summer.  Unfortunately, the vast majority of the college’s collection suffers under mounting threat of black mold.

img_5011And the threat of the assets inside the buildings only helps to shed light on the deteriorating conditions of the structures intended to protect them. Until DAAL came to rescue all that content, many neighbors did not necessarily know that the buildings remained fully stocked with academic material. But, as is typically the case when an entire campus closes (if “typical” could ever describe such an occurrence), the fate of such a large swath of real estate leaves people scratching their heads. The school sits in limbo. Every passing day, as the buildings fall into greater disrepair, the cost of rehabilitation rises. One could argue, as many have, that owner Krejci has been negligent, but he also has offered to donate the entire property to an entity with a compelling vision to reinvigorate it. But even a small liberal arts college may prove too large of a glove to fit any new hand. And the physical property is probably only the least of Krejci’s concerns: according to the Nebraska Department of Revenue, Dana College owes the eight-highest amount of delinquent taxes in the state—a condition left after the school went into receivership that Krejci apparently inherited when he purchased the land.

A campus typically involves a highly customized configuration of structures and grounds, tailored precisely to the ambitions of the institution that owns and constructs it. Even if another college moves in, what are the odds that it would find a use for all the buildings? Subdividing the parcel seems increasingly likely, making way to salvage the athletic structures and maybe to repurpose the theater as a Blair performing arts venue. Some of the buildings could remain viable office space. But those old dorms? They’re institutionalized housing, and the most likely outcome would serve some other institutionalized population: a prison, perhaps, or an orphanage. (Do orphanages even exist anymore?) Probably not uses that the City of Blair would prefer to see. But would it prefer an abandoned appearance? Would it be willing to watch most of these buildings face a demolition crew? Twenty years from now, the possible outcomes for the former Dana College seem vast. But it almost definitely won’t look like the Dana College that all those alums, those proud Vikings, came back to visit on a blustery weekend in October…like the one coming up.

 

For additional photographs on Dana College six years after closure, go to this site

13 thoughts on “MONTAGE: An abandoned building is bad enough. But what about an abandoned campus?

    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      I had to think long and hard about your reference, but I’m proud to say I figured it out without looking it up!

      Yes.

      Reply
  1. Cathy Christensen

    Eric- Thank you for sharing this with us. I can not help but wonder why the city of Blair has not vigorously pursued a re-use or sale of this property for the benefit of the town? Yankton college in South Dakota did this years ago. It closed but sold the property to the state for a prison! However, the photos of downtown Blair look bleak also.
    The idea of black mold is very sad- this could be a death knell for the building.
    Great photo montage!

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      Hi Cathy! Good questions. Funny you should mention Yankton: I visited that town too and took pictures of the minimum-security prison there. You’ve already anticipated another blog post!

      The fact remains that a private developer bought the property, and I’d imagine, to a certain extent, the City’s hands are tied. I’m not sure it has the resources for a strong economic development division, as you noticed by the anemic main street. Putting together the resources for an economic development expert is often a real challenge for a city the size of Blair. But that, in my opinion, would be the best way for the City to forge negotiations with the developer, who otherwise seems to be treating the property as speculative real estate. A real shame.

      Thanks for reading!

      Reply
  2. Brian Reid

    On the serious side, thanks for sharing the story. I worry that the decline of such colleges could signal and end to liberal education.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      This one in particular seemed to fail to adapt to a growing demand for online learning. Also, Nebraska has a number of very small state schools, which offer a similarly intimate culture at a much, much smaller price tag.

      Reply
  3. Tucker

    Interesting! I have heard of Dana College and knew of its closing, but I thought that Midlands Lutheran (the name I knew it by) in Fremont did take over the facilities as a branch campus. I didn’t know the deal feel through! I walked around Dana once many years ago when school was on break, and I did drive through Blair when I was in Nebraska last fall (I have a friend who lives in Ft. Calhoun on Hwy. 75 north of Omaha, which probably explains both visits.). Like you say, I thought Blair was in pretty decent shape for a town with an abandoned college (imagine how much more vandalized the campus would be if it were located somewhere else). It’s interesting, there are other small liberal arts schools in eastern Nebraska that would seem to be vulnerable to falling enrollment and closure. I think of Doane out in Crete and Concordia in Seward (affiliated with the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod) as similar to Dana in that way. My sociology Ph.D. program at UNL would supply professors to a lot of those little colleges in Nebraska and Iowa, but I wonder how sustainable those are given high tuition costs, relatively low prestige, and a falling population of college-age students. Maybe it will wind up like all the abandoned retail you’ve documented across the country, empty buildings that are hard to repurpose for other use and that become magnets for vandalism and other crime.

    I wonder what will become of the Dana campus now. Do they give up on finding another suitor and reopening the grounds? From reading your post and links, it seems like they put all their eggs in the Midlands basket (like I said before, I thought it was already in operation), and it’s hard to see who else would want the campus when you have a plethora of other educational options not far away in Omaha, Lincoln, Fremont, or even Sioux City or Wayne. Is it time to tear down all the buildings except those that have other uses (like the chapel and sports center)? I’ll be curious to see how things go.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      Thanks for the nice comments! I wasn’t familiar with Doane except that I had heard of it as a college; apparently it became Doane University just a few months ago, as it has expanded its offerings. Probably is the best way to go for these small liberal arts colleges: Marian College in Indianapolis became Marian University just a few years ago as well, since it will soon have a med school. More undergraduates are realizing that having a Bachelor’s simply isn’t enough, and it’s time the schools themselves catch up with these pursuits.

      Reply
  4. Lisa Irvin, Class of 2003

    I found your article rather interesting. As a Dana Alum, I can say that I did live on campus for 4 years and loved every minute. I made so many lifelong friends and learned so much more from being in class than I ever would have learned in front of a computer. The closing of campus was a shock to me, as well as my network of fellow Dana Alumni. To suggest alumni didn’t invest in turning to keep our Alma Mater alive is unfair. The first I heard of the dire financial condition was on the evening news the day of the closure. Hail Dana!

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      Hi Lisa, thanks so much for your thoughtful response. I’d imagine the conditions were so dire in those final months/years that there may have been some seriously limited opportunities for alums to help out. I wasn’t exactly attuned to this, but it doesn’t appear that Dana College’s closure earned nearly as much national attention as the near-closure of Sweet Briar College last year. And perhaps, thanks to the media attention, Sweet Briar was able to rally the support it needed to salvage its operability. (Then again, many reports have also suggest that Sweet Briar’s fiscal conditions weren’t nearly as catastrophic as the initial announcement might have suggested.)

      I feel very sad for alums who might reflect upon these photos and hope that the campus finds a second life before the buildings deteriorate beyond repair. I can only hope my blog article will do its tiny part in calling attention to this occurrence.

      Reply

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