SHAWNEE, Okla. — Work is expected to begin in January on the restoration and renovation of St. Gregory’s University in Shawnee, about 14 months after the largest earthquake in recorded Oklahoma history resulted in major damage to the small campus’ main building.
The 5.6 magnitude earthquake on Nov. 5, 2011, toppled one of the four turrets on each of the four corners of Benedictine Hall and caused significant damage to the building, opened in 1915, that houses administrative offices, the university library and most of the school’s classrooms.
The building is also listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
A second turret was so badly damaged that it had to be demolished by pushing it over, while the other two were dismantled brick-by-brick and will be reconstructed, said St. Gregory’s President Greg Main.
“If you saw how it used to be, with the turrets on all four corners of the main tower of this building gone, it really looks kind of bruised,” Main said.
“We’re trying to move it back to its original splendor. It was a magnificent edifice when it was first constructed,” Main said.
The building, referred to by local residents as “the castle,” has the spires that rose from the turrets at the top of the four-floor building cropped off at the roof. There was also damage to the outer brick structure of the building and to the stone stairway that leads from the parking lot into the lobby.
Main said the stone used in the original stairway construction has been traced to a quarry in St. Louis that will be reopened to provide an original replacement for the steps and that aluminum window siding added in the 1960s will be replaced with wood, as was in the original structure, Main said.
The university did not have earthquake insurance, Main said.
“Nno one anticipated we were going to have an earthquake of the size and magnitude that it was.”
The $5 to $6 million cost of the restoration project is being paid for through a private fund-raising effort that Main said has raised about half of the estimated price.
He said the National Park Service earlier this week granted approval to plans to renovate the structure, including steel reinforcements within the turrets, that are currently hollow inside.
“Somebody once said that you should never waste a good disaster, you know, and we haven’t,” Main said.
Main said his hope is that the repairs will be completed in 2015, the 100th anniversary of the opening of Benedictine Hall.
The cause of the 2011 earthquake, which eclipsed a 5.5 magnitude quake centered in El Reno in 1952, remains under investigation, according to Austin Holland, a research seismologist for the Oklahoma Geological Survey at the University of Oklahoma.
A process known as “fracking” in which natural gas companies inject liquids into the soil to release gas in order to extract the gas and is suspected as a possible cause of earthquakes was not taking place in the area, Holland said.
One possibility, though slight, is disposal wells in which brackish water that is separated from gas and oil is injected back into the soil, Holland said.
“The lead researchers here at OU believe these earthquakes were triggered by injections. I would say it is possible, but not likely,” Holland said. “The data we have isn’t sufficient to answer the question. The energy added to the earth (via injections) was really small compared to the energy released in that earthquake.
“We know there was no fracking going on in the area, so we can rule that out,” Holland said.
The university was started near present-day Konawa in 1875 by two Benedictine monks as Sacred Heart Mission and is the only Catholic institution in the state, Main said.
The original building burned and the Citizen Potawatomie Nation donated land that it now sits on north of downtown Shawnee.
Earthquakes, geologists say, are impossible to predict, but Main said the university will be ready for the next one.
“We are going to make sure that when those turrets go back up that they are reinforced. One of the reasons they fell is that they were just masonry structures, there was no internal structural steel or reinforcement,” Main said.
“And we do have earthquake insurance now.”