A landmark at Havre’s university finally will see some repairs, with plans set to stabilize Donaldson Hall while plans are completed for its future use at Montana State University-Northern.
Northern Chancellor James Limbaugh said in a release that the university has reclassified the building as an academic facility, opening up state funds for its repair and maintenance.
“Donaldson Hall is a very important building for MSU-Northern and the Hi-Line," Limbaugh said. "It represents our history and the dedication of our founding fathers. We believe these steps will keep the building structurally sound and will make it possible for us to renovate it and bring it back into service in the near future."
The plans are to use a combination of Northern funds and state funds to repair the exterior masonry and to solve water drainage issues. Work on the project is expected to start almost immediately.
Northern Vice Chancellor of Finance and Administration Brian Simonson said this morning that the $300,000 project will use a combination of state architect and engineering funds and some of Northern’s building maintenance funds.
The first completely new building erected for use at Northern, Donaldson has been essentially empty since 2008, when problems with the electrical, plumbing and heating systems led the administration to move the offices in the building, including the Northern Alumni Association and the MSU-Northern Foundation, to Cowan Hall, adjacent to Donaldson.
The future of the building has been in limbo ever since. Chancellor Alex Capdeville had proposed, prior to 2008, renovating the building into an upscale dormitory, but the price tag — more than $8 million — stopped that.
A year ago, Bullhook Community Health Center proposed using a grant from U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to lease and renovate the building to use as a clinic. Limbaugh and Commissioner of Higher Education Clayton Christian, both of who took office after those plans began, decided that would not fit into Northern’s educational mission.
That project was moved, with work to build a new health center across from City Hall on 5th Avenue and 4th St. now underway.
As a residence hall, Donaldson could only be maintained or repaired through the university’s auxiliary fund, which is funded through student fees and payments such as rental of rooms in the residence hall. Now that it has been reclassified, other sources of funding can be used.
The release said a community event is being planned for the building this fall, with details to be released later.
Simonson said for what Northern eventually will use Donaldson, once repairs and renovations are complete, still is in the planning stages.
“Our goal is to stabilize the building in order to preserve it for future use. Donaldson is one of our few iconic buildings in the community, and we cannot afford to abandon it to the elements,” Simonson said. “This project is going to help stop the deterioration and buy us another ten or more years so we can define its future and secure additional funding for a complete renovation.”
While East Hall, now demolished, was the first building used at Northern and Pershing Hall, still in use, was built using material salvaged from Fort Assinniboine and opened in 1934, Donaldson was the first completely new building erected for use at the college.
Donaldson opened as a women’s dormitory in 1936, housing 116 students, and was named in 1949 in honor of deceased Northern English instructor Jeannette Donaldson.
A focal point of the building is the elegant Donaldson Commons on the west end of the building, which was used for dining and dances and has hosted campus and community events, meetings of the board of regents and with Montana governors and hosted U.S. presidents, most recently Bill Clinton when he was in Havre in 2008 campaigning for his wife, Hillary, in her presidential campaign.
The building served as a symbol for the young college, with pictures of the dorm used in the masthead of the college newspaper for many years.
Donaldson was retired as a residence hall in 1971. The lower floors were rented to the Havre school district at that time, and Donaldson saw limited use as a dormitory or temporary housing space in the 1980s and 1990s with regular dormitories operated in other buildings.
The Northern Alumni Association completed a major remodeling of some of the lower floors in the 1980s and have worked on many other projects to maintain the building. The building housed several offices for the college, including the Alumni Association and the Foundation until 2008.
But failure of electrical, plumbing and the the heating system the building led to those offices being moved. The building has been essentially shut down for the last several years.
Local contractors have helped keep the building from completely deteriorating, but much more work is needed to restore it to full use.