Phelps, Somsen Hall claimed historical


Melissa Van Grinsven/Winonan

Phelps and Somsen Hall may be just the location for various business, marketing or journalism classes to some students, but the two buildings are also nationally acclaimed historical property.

The Minnesota Historical Society has recently declared both buildings as part of the National Register of Historical Places.

Winona State University was once the Winona Normal School, the very first teacher training school in Minnesota when classes began in 1860. The Model School Building, now Phelps Hall, was home to the laboratory school program, while College Hall, now Somsen, held the junior high school program and the main offices of the Teachers College.

Denis Gardner, a National Register historian at the Minnesota State Historic Preservation Office, said he believes students should be aware of the historical presence around them as they study in these lecture halls.

“As a society, we have this curious tendency to believe that history resides in the pages of a book,” Gardner said.  “Events in our history can be found there, of course, but it is better to understand that history resides all around us. The places where we live, work, play and pray are steeped in history.”

According to the National Register criteria, in order for a building to reach this status of preservation, there must be a certain set of significance. The historical site must be important in American history, architecture, archaeology, engineering and culture.

The National Register lists the buildings on its website, along with the reasons why they have historical significance.

Mass communication professor Tom Grier provided some detail to these age-old buildings.

One interesting things is the stairs, Grier said about Phelps.

“Don’t you ever wonder why these stairs are so short?  It’s because little kids had to use them. It was built for fifth graders,” he said.

That’s still a holdover from the days of it being a model school, he said.

The process to add these buildings to the catalog had multiple steps.

First, there is extensive research to establish the building’s important history. Second, the information is written on a form, which is reviewed by the State Historic Preservation Office and presented to the Minnesota Historical Society’s State Review Board.

Once the board has checked that the property meets the criteria, the Register at the National Park Service in Washington, D.C. completes a final review. The site is then added to the National Register and is officially recognized as a historic site.

There are also a number of other local sites in Winona that have made the National Register. Winona City Hall, Winona Hotel, Sugar Loaf and Winona Savings Bank Building are among those listed.

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