Minnehaha Academy Upper School Reconstruction

Architect:  Cuningham Group  Architecture

Owner:  Minnehaha Academy

Location:  Minneapolis, Minnesota

Category: Merit

In 2017, a natural gas explosion destroyed the heart of Minneapolis' Minnehaha Academy, claiming two lives and two of the school's historic structures. This progressive 72,000-square-foot campus addition turned tragedy into triumph and was designed and built in just 18 months. The new upper school embraces the Mississippi River Valley and the city's historic West River Parkway while connecting two existing buildings. Its vibrant and flexible spaces are eager to provide exceptional learning experiences for future generations of learners.

Following the accident, the academy embraced the mantra "Together We Rise" and quickly sought a design and construction team to help evaluate its options for moving forward quickly. In a stark departure from most project briefs in which numbers of students and budget are known variables, the team was asked to design, program, and build the facility in an abbreviated timeframe without those parameters in place. Inspired by Minnehaha's enduring spirit, the team adopted and expanded on the school’s mantra.

"This project skillfully combines the memorialization of the previous school's compelling story with appropriate spaces for today."- Jury comment

During the process, the academy grieved both the loss of life and its historic 1912 and 1922 red-brick buildings that played a significant role in the school community's fabric. While replacing what was lost in the explosion would have been a more straightforward course of action, the academy was determined to reconsider its approach to learning and embrace new buildings that built on its legacy in a new way. The design process began with a reevaluation of the school's earlier master plan, completed in 2013, and all conversations focused on young learners and their emotional needs.

A poem written in 1916 by Ella Wheeler Wilcox, recited at Minnehaha's first graduation ceremony and again at its 100th anniversary, was recovered after the accident. It played a pivotal role in shaping the upper school's forms, organization, and materials. Unlike the original buildings, the new learning spaces and common areas are rife with floor-to-ceiling windows that provide ample daylight and offer students stunning views of the Mississippi River. The team retained a natural feel through simple and honest material selection, including concrete and wood. The finishes add touches of color where needed and assist in wayfinding.

"This project skillfully combines the memorialization of the previous school's compelling story with appropriate spaces for today," noted the jury. "The jury valued how the design team had a short timeframe but still incorporated robust community input, which is also evident in its history's integration into the design and interiors. Their successful integration of the site provides openness and transparency between learning spaces and the outdoors."

The new upper school addresses many of Minnehaha Academy's strategic goals embedded in its Christian mission. This 21st-century learning environment now reflects the quality of the school's programs and the highest aspirations of its community. Its adaptable and technologically advanced infrastructure lets teachers extend their reach and spark curiosity among their charges.

Additional information

Design-Build  Contractor: Mortenson  

Owner  Representative : TEGRA Group  

Engineer  - Structural: Palanisami & Associates, Inc.  

Engineer - Mechanical/Electrical: Obernel  Engineering  

Engineer - Civil:  Loucks  

Engineer - Acoustics:  Kvernstone, Ronnholm & Associates, Inc.    

Food Service Consultant: Rippe Assoicates  

Lighting Consultant: Pritchard Peak  Lighting, LLC  

Technology Consultant:  Manage.net, LLC


Olivia Graf Doyle, Assoc. AIA (Chair), Architecture for Education, Inc, Los Angeles, CA

Angela Freeman, Reynolds School District, Portland, Oregon

Evie Klein, Assoc. AIA, Pratt Institute, New York, NY

Mathew Ryan Lowe, DLA Architects,  Itasca, Illinois  

Image credits

Minnehaha Academy - Upper School Reconstruction-03

Corey Gaffer Photography, LLC

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Corey Gaffer Photography, LLC

Minnehaha Academy - Upper School Reconstruction-05

Corey Gaffer Photography, LLC

Minnehaha Academy - Upper School Reconstruction-06

Corey Gaffer Photography, LLC

Minnehaha Academy - Upper School Reconstruction-07

Corey Gaffer Photography, LLC