Power House – Old and New

The Old Power House

Original Power House Interior of the Boiler room. Shows the 4 boilers of the former Power Plant.



Prior to 1888, the entire campus was heated by stoves in each building.  However with a growing campus and the need for more heat, a more efficient way to heat the campus was needed.  The original Power House was located away from the main campus, on the bank of the Watab.  It housed 5 large boilers and a pump.

The Power House was steam based and had a network of pipes connecting it to just about every building on campus, as well as a series of tunnels.  Not only did this allow for heat, but also for electricity and for pumping water to a reservoir.  One of the main fuel sources for the plant was wood from surrounding farmers, as well as what was necessary from the forest near the campus.  In addition to wood, a large amount of coal was needed, most of which came from Duluth.  As of the winter of 1930, it took 7-8 tons of coal plus 8-9 cords of wood to heat the campus per day.

After a series of replacement generators to meet the higher demand of the expanding campus and the remodeling of the plant, in September of 1935 the chimney was raised 23 additional feet in an effort to expell the smoke clear of the campus buildings.

In 1945, SJU received permission from the War Production Board to build a new power house.

See Also: 
Hoffman, Alexius, OSB, St. John’s University, Collegeville, Minnesota: A sketch of its history, chapter 3, p. 90. Collegeville: Record Press, 1907. 
Stovik Jordan, OSB, ” Building up St. John’s“, Scriptorium, vol. 3, no. 3, May 1943, p. 16. 

The New Power House

Construction of the New Power House. View from the bookbinding window. August 1945. Power House Tower Power House


Architects: Toltz, King and Day of Minneapolis



Excerpt from the 1978 National Register of Historic Places nomination form:

The Power House, located in the southwestern section of the district, exemplifies the Art Deco/W.P.A. influence on architectural design of industrial type buildings of the World War II era.

This two-storey [sic] brick building measures 64 by 100 feet. The front facade contains some large and striking windows. The towering chimney rises 165 feet above ground. It has a twenty-foot subterranean support of 138 yards of concrete footing and five tons of reinforced steel. The bricks used number about 155,000, of which 35,000 are face bricks, requisitioned from all parts of Minnesota. The interior features two 250 K.V.A. steam-turbined engines powered by three, steel-lined, 225 h.p., Keeler boilers, each capable of holding 200 lbs pressure. A hand-operated ten-ton crane is in the engine room to mount and adjust the turbines and generators. A coal-fed gravity system fuels the boilers. A Crane system of filtration and water-softening is also part of this complex.

The construction of this building revolutionized life on campus. It made it possible to change from the use of direct current to alternating current.

This project was also most memorable in the annals of the monastic community since the members contributed their services in the actual construction of this building. As it arose in the summer of 1945 in a time of labor shortage as World War II came to a close, the monks manned cement-mixers, took care of the steel reinforcements, and hauled the bricks and aided the masons. Their work proved to be a very important contribution.

In 1974, the Abbey received a warning from the EPA to cut emissions after being discovered to be in violation of the Clean Air Act.  Within a year, SJU was sitting at fifty percent below the pollution standard for the area.

As a way to reduce dependence on fossil fuels, SJU decided in 1981 to invest in a solid waste incinerator to burn trash from the campus and surrounding areas for energy.  This plan lasted six years, until in 1986, when, for a number of unspecified reasons, the incinerator was switched to burn wood instead.

As of 2008, the Power House created about 20 to 30 percent of the total energy used on campus annually.  At this point in time, Xcel energy provides most of the power needed on campus, and the Power House acts as a supplement to pick up any slack.

In 2011, the Power House enacted a two year plan to ending in October 2013 to switch from using coal as its primary source of fuel to natural gas.  This switch was predicted to reduce CO 2 emissions by 58 percent, plus reduce any runoff into the lake.  Coal and fuel oil were to be used as secondary and reserve sources for the plant.

After serving as a campus landmark for over 70 years, the brick smokestack at the St. John’s Power House was scheduled for demolition beginning September 6th, 2016. The stack wasn’t able to accommodate emmisions from natural gas burning boilers without a significant investment, and the stack had the potential to pose a safety hazard if left standing due to deterioration of the brick.

The demolition process, officially completed October 11, 2016, was completed from a man lift. The crew hammer cutted the stack into small sections then tipped debris inside the stack. The smokestack’s demolition, supervised by Park Construction, took a total of 5 weeks. 


See Also:

Thanks to Emilie Casebolt ’14  for drafting this text.