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UNK prepares for Otto Olsen destruction

Photo by Jiyoon Kim Classes in the Otto Olsen building have been permanently moved to Discovery Hall.

After hosting a number of programs since its completion in 1955, the Otto C. Olsen building will be demolished early next year. The project follows the completion of Discovery Hall, which now houses many of the programs that once called Otto Olsen home.

For officials in Facilities Management and Planning, this project has been a long time coming.

“The building [replacing Otto Olsen] has been one of the top capital construction priorities for the university system — UNK specifically but the NU system in general — since the mid 80s,” said Lee McQueen, director of Facilities Management and Planning at UNK. “Why didn’t we do it quicker? Because we needed to pile up the money.”

That money came in 2016 as a result of Nebraska Legislative Bill 957, which set aside $30 million for the construction of Discovery Hall as well as an additional $2 million for what would later become the Plambeck Early Childhood Education Center.

With that project complete, UNK and the NU system now turn to tearing down the old building.

“When we say demo, there’s more to it than just demo of it,” McQueen said. “Otto Olsen still houses the copper line — the voice line system — on campus, so we’re in that transition going from copper feed to voice over internet fully for the campus. The east side of Otto Olsen below grade is the path for a steam pipe that feeds Fine Arts, and we can’t just knockdown Otto without pre-handling that steam pipe. So even though it’s a destruction event net, there is some construction that needs to go with it.”

Much of this construction will be handled by the central administration. In a recent budget review, much of the responsibility for campus construction in the NU system was moved to central administration’s Facilities Planning and Capital Programs with Associate President Ryan Swanson at the helm. 

Central administration is now responsible for organizing the necessary contracts for Otto Olsen’s demolition. 

“Their project manager on site, Greg Kristen, is developing those same documents [that UNK facilities would have handled in the past], and he’s going to be bidding that project to demolition contractors in the near future,” McQueen said. “His first step that he’s already underway with is getting the initial abatement contract in place so that when the demo contractor arrives, they are ready to go.”

The range of dates for the demolition project to begin is narrowing, with a date in late February appearing likely McQueen said.

“Usually when somebody asks that question [of how it will be destroyed] what they’re really asking is, ‘Are we gonna blow it up?’” McQueen said. “No, we’re not going to blow it up — it’s not a site that lends itself to that type of demolition. What I expect is a large track hoe will come and just nibble away strategically at pieces after the contractor has gone through and salvaged whatever material they see that has value.”

Individuals wanting to get a piece of Otto Olsen before it’s torn down will have an opportunity to bid on some elements, such as old desks and classroom materials, through an online auction.

 Facilities Management and Planning also hosted a walk-through event earlier this month for those curious about and wanting to reflect on the building’s history.

“All those programs came together on that site and now have an opportunity to grow and expand and bloom in the new Discovery Hall beyond the limitations of what the older facility put on.” 

McQueen said. “The legacy of Otto will be the grand stepping stone: come to Kearney State, come to UNK and look what you can discover. And now, look what we all can discover with the advances at Plambeck, with the creative opportunities in Fine Arts and now what we can discover in our Discovery Hall STEM center.”

For more information about the history and legacy of Otto Olsen and the man behind the building’s name, visit the Calvin T. Ryan Library in person or online at 

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