St. Thomas pieces together a Frank Gehry masterpiece


Workers shore up portions of the overturned cone section of the Gehry house July 6 at the Daniel C. Gainey Conference Center in Owatonna. (Mike Ekern/University of St. Thomas)

A real estate developer donated an architectural gem to the University of St. Thomas a few years ago.

The only catch was that the college had to move the building from its original location on Lake Minnetonka in Orono.

As it turns out, it’s no easy task to take apart a guest house designed by renowned architect Frank Gehry, ship it piece-by-piece about 75 miles and then put it back together.

But crews are making progress. St. Thomas expects the reassembled building to open this fall. The university is turning the structure into a Gehry exhibition space at the Daniel C. Gainey Conference Center in Owatonna.

gehry_mug.jpgGehry designed the guest house for Mike and Penny Winton in 1987.

Dealing with a one-of-a-kind Gehry building has been a challenge for the project’s designers and movers. Gehry, the mastermind behind the University of Minnesota’s shiny Weisman Art Museum on the East Bank campus, is a notoriously unconventional architect known for using nontraditional materials and designs.

Some of the challenges: One part of the structure’s cladding is an enormous piece of sheet medal that could not be taken apart into smaller bits. A bedroom made of stone weighs 50 tons.

It’s been two years since developer Kirt Woodhouse donated the building. So we know how long it’s taking St. Thomas to complete the project. What we don’t know is the cost. St. Thomas, a private university, declined to say how much it is spending to move the building.

The St. Thomas Bulletin provides an update on the project:

The guest house, so architecturally innovative that it once was featured as Time magazine’s House of the Year, was donated to St. Thomas by real estate developer Kirt Woodhouse, who purchased the property from the Wintons.

Los Angeles-based Frank Gehry is considered to be one of the world’s greatest living architects. His designs are known for their use of unconventional materials, such as chain-link fence and metal, both of which are used in the guest house.

The Gehry house tentatively is scheduled to open in October as a “‘house museum’ where people can experience Frank Gehry,” Marlene Levine, director of the Gainey Center, said. The St. Thomas Art History Department and Greg Hennes, a 1985 alumnus who owns a Minneapolis art gallery, are leading the work on an exhibition about the Wintons, Gehry and the relocation of the house to be installed inside the building. The house will be open seasonally and will host open drop-in dates for the public. It also will be available for small-group tours by reservation through the Gainey Center.


Sections of the Gehry house sit on the grounds of the Daniel C. Gainey Conference Center in Owatonna. (Mike Ekern/University of St. Thomas)


A section of the Gehry house sits on the grounds of the Daniel C. Gainey Conference Center in Owatonna. (Mike Ekern/University of St. Thomas)

KARE-TV captured crews moving pieces of the house for a May 2009 story.

The famous Winton guest house was designed by architect Frank Gehry and is on the move. Once Time magazine’s “House of the Year,” the structure has been donated to the University of St. Thomas.

In a painfully slow process, part of the guest house is headed downhill on a trailer bed.

“It barely moves,” laughed Dr. Victoria Young of the University of St. Thomas.

“It barely moves and it makes you think why should this even be moving, but it has to go to Owatonna.”