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).But 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.
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.The campus is empty, unused, yet still completely open to the public. Only closed at night.And, 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.
It’s easy to gauge which facilities remain the most viable by judging the overall exterior physical conditions.The 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.Apparently 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.Dorms 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.One of the newer dorms, Holing Hall, seems to be managing better.Looks 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.I 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.Argo Hall shows telltale signs of breaking and entering, manifested by the missing windowpanes.The unusual round building near the center of campus most likely housed the student union.Peering 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.Meanwhile, 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:The back is completely shuttered; again it’s a mystery to me why the photo is so fuzzy.Judging 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.Conversely, others seem untouched. In fact, looking at the image below in isolation, it would be impossible to speculate that the school is abandoned.But that almost goes without saying, considering that the grounds remain regularly (however crudely) maintained.After 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.And 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:
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.But 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.The 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.Vandals 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.
And 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.