Our team is very proud to announce that Sexton Commons at St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota, is the recipient of the AIA Minnesota 25 Year Award. The RRTL Architects (now Architecture Advantage) team members included Lee Tollefson, FAIA, Craig Rafferty, FAIA, and Albert (Chip) Lindeke III, FAIA (now retired). Additional project consultants and contractors included BKBM Engineers, Gausman & Moore, and Knutson Construction.
Established by the American Institute of Architects Minnesota in 1981, the annual 25 Year Award celebrates a 25- to 50-year-old building or group of buildings whose architecture has stood the test of time. Projects competing for the award must be designed by firms with architects registered and practicing professionally in Minnesota.
The origination of this project began in 1987 when our team completed a new comprehensive masterplan for St. John’s University and St. John’s Abbey. That set the process in motion for the need to provide a new student center at the heart of campus, which significantly lacked an identifiable campus center and used miscellaneous spaces in the old Quadrangle Building to meet student needs. The masterplan emphasized the importance of a new facility that had a clear identity and created a hub for the entire university community.
Planning for the building began in 1989 for the Sexton Commons project. Both St. John’s Abbey and St. John’s University served as the clients, and both felt strongly that this new building should be the third most visible element on the campus. The first and highest element is the Abbey Church bell banner, the second is the historic Quadrangle and the third is the student center, Sexton Commons. All three elements are visible from the interstate highway, and all serve as a strong welcoming component to the campus.
In response, the design centers on a visually dominant tower at the key pedestrian intersection and adjacent to the main entry to the campus. Additionally, the new student center blends the historic orange brick building with the historic campus. The client wanted the residential zone to be consistent with the Marcel Breuer palette of building design. These were all critical components portrayed by the clients and carried through the project from design to project completion.
Students also played a role in the design process, providing input into what programs should be included. Students worked with the Student Senate and presented ideas to our planning committee, of which many ideas were incorporated into the final design. This building design should be the living room and hearthstone of St. John’s University. This is portrayed by the design of two different gathering spaces, each with a special fireplace. The main dining hall and a smaller parlor with a more intimate lounge space. The lower level houses a large, new bookstore and lounge space for the creation of a lower-level entry that contains a monumental stair rising to the main level.
Construction commenced in the summer of 1992. The building was dedicated on October 8, 1993, with the grand opening celebration on April 23-30, 1994.
There are four significant concepts that formed the design for the St John’s Sexton Commons student center.
- Contextual Design – Compatibility
- Commons for Student Activities – Gathering
- Campus Focal Point – Identity
- Quality of Construction – Permanence
The most impactful was context. Located at the intersection of the two main campus pedestrian crossways; both are axial north/south and east/west pedestrian malls that divide the campus into four quadrants. The student center is the anchor—visually and functionally—at this key intersection point. The building serves as the keystone interconnection of the academic and student residential zones. The building links, in a hinge-like manner, these zones.
The first floor of the building serves as a Commons, with the campus bookstore and student support spaces. The second level (main level) houses student dining, lounges, and student services spaces. The third floor contains several students’ clubs’ spaces. The top floor, in the tower, is a large conference room with views in all directions. The wide, lineal, central hallway on the second level has major entries on the north and south. Students coming from the student residential zone enter at the north entry and move to the student dining room or continue through to exit at the main entry south going to their academic buildings. The Main Hall on the second floor has a sequence of lounge niches at the edges, allowing this hall to function as a ‘busy urban street.’ The high arched ceiling creates a unique architectural space for this pathway in the Commons. Permanent “long-lasting” materials are used throughout the building.
AIA FRAMEWORK FOR DESIGN EXCELLENCE
Nearly 30 years after its completion, Sexton Commons remains fresh, adding its own timeless quality to the campus. The building’s staying power can be attributed in part to its achievements in the AIA Framework for Design Excellence.
Design for Resources
The client for this student center project is a Benedictine University and Abbey that is an Order over 1,000 years old. The University itself is over 100 years old. In meetings discussing the programming and planning for this facility, the client emphasized building for 400 years, not 40 years. One of our concepts was to design a building with long-lasting materials that needed next to no maintenance. The exterior of Sexton Commons, and many of the interior walls and surfaces, are concrete and masonry, which are long-lasting and environmentally-friendly materials.
Since one of the goals of the owner was to have a new contemporary building, as well as one that blended seamlessly with the other historic orange-brick buildings on this part of campus, we used a similar brick on the exterior and forms that were crisp and clean yet were sympathetic to the older buildings.
We also decided to create a building that was true to masonry architecture and did not use any steel lintels at openings. Instead, we used large precast architectural concrete lintels and jack arches over all the exterior walls and interior masonry walls. The materials and craft are in harmony with the existing buildings on this part of campus.
Design for Equitable Communities
This Student Center was at a point on campus that was the link between multiple existing dormitories and the academic buildings, as well as the existing Student Refectory. The owner envisioned the entry being located on the south side of the building, oriented to the academic buildings. Our concept was to have major entries on both the North and South with a 3-story hallway between the two entries. We thought of this as a city street that was open 24 hours.
The dormitories in this quadrant of campus accommodate over 800 students, and they are almost all traditional two-person rooms with a shared toilet room and a small lounge on each floor. We developed the concept that this student center would function as the living/dining room for the students and provide the type of community space that would create a sense of gathering. The central hall on the main floor connects the dining and gathering spaces. There is a lounge that was developed with a wood-burning fireplace and it became the Parlor.
The award jury cited the building’s clarity, simplicity, and careful detailing. “This is a project that set out to promote human interaction and connection, and it’s clearly succeeded in doing so over the past three decades,” the jury noted. “The masonry and concrete bring together two different eras of architecture on campus into one building that’s of its own time, and the material quality and craftsmanship are so high that it will surely be a long-lived building, like the Abbey Church.”
The students, St. John’s University, St. John’s Abbey, and our team, are proud of the continued use and original function of this building, as a critical core to the residential and academic elements of the campus, it contributes to the mission of the campus, preparing students for personal and professional success in today’s global society. After 29 years the building continues with the same spirited enthusiasm in an extension of the intersecting characters of the campus. The building remains fresh and vigorous, adding its own timeless quality to this beautiful campus.