Small Scale

Model of Old Main is a playful view of history

Doug Cloud, an assistant professor in CSU’s Department of English, is a hobby LEGO builder and created a model of Old Main at the invitation of the Office of the President. Photos: Ben Ward / Colorado State University

Old Main went up in flames on May 8, 1970, when an unsolved act of arson torched Colorado State’s original academic building and destroyed the University’s most significant early structure. The blaze left little beyond memories of the stately brick building that stood off College Avenue and Old Main Drive, in the northeast corner of campus.

But Old Main is back, 50 years after the fire known as CSU’s greatest mystery.

The building has risen like a miniature phoenix, brick by injection-molded brick. To be exact, 6,837 bricks. Most in the curiously named color of “medium nougat.” But – sorry – you can’t eat these bricks; indeed, they are choking hazards.

Because this little replica is constructed with LEGO. It was built to help mark the University’s 150th anniversary during the 2019-2020 academic year, a reminder of meaningful history lost in an inferno two generations ago. In April, the LEGO model of Old Main will be installed for public viewing in the foyer of Morgan Library.

The construction engineer, purchasing coordinator, job foreman, carpenter, roofer, and building inspector are one and the same: Doug Cloud, an assistant professor in CSU’s Department of English. Cloud is normally busy teaching rhetoric and composition to undergraduates. But he recently labored for nearly 150 hours to create the Old Main maquette in his basement workshop, surrounded by cabinets, drawers, and bins full of meticulously sorted LEGO pieces.

While constructing the model, Cloud grew obsessed with the original red-brick building, which was erected starting in 1878 on the open plain outside Fort Collins. The structure was as alien as the deciduous saplings planted around it.

“When I close my eyes, I see the building,” Cloud said. “In some ways, it seemed out of place because you’ve got this arid, high desert, and then you just plunk down this grand building. It was a striking intervention on the landscape.”

And an optimistic intervention: The State Agricultural College of Colorado, which would evolve into Colorado State University, was officially founded on Feb. 11, 1870, as the state’s land-grant college. It was funded in part with grants of federal land and, like other land-grant schools, was established to spur national progress by steeping the sons and daughters of farmers and other working classes in science and scholarship.

Eight years after the college founding, work started on the Main Building – it wasn’t “Old” yet – and construction was finished at a total cost of $8,801.65. In 1879, the college opened, contained entirely in the two-story structure. The first students flocked by foot, horseback, and horse-drawn wagon to learn in “a building of which every inhabitant of the state, and especially of Fort Collins, may well be proud,” according to a news report in the Fort Collins Courier.

Old Main of Legos by Doug Cloud
Old Main, the University's first academic building, is re-created with LEGO.

We’re indulging in nostalgia here, so we won’t get too far into early headaches – like the legal snarl resulting from cost overruns among subcontractors or discovery that the building’s lightning rod wasn’t properly grounded. (Ah, construction.)

The building’s architect was a young English immigrant named George E. King, who landed in Colorado Territory in 1875 and started professional practice in Boulder. After designing the college Main Building in Fort Collins, King followed the money to the mining town of Leadville. There, at the frenetic height of the state’s silver boom, King designed the iconic Tabor Opera House, Tabor Grand Hotel, Lake County Courthouse, Delaware Hotel, and Temple Israel. His best-known buildings of the time reflected Italianate and Second Empire architectural styles and remain standouts in Leadville’s National Historic Landmarks district.

Old Main likewise was constructed in the Italianate style, with architectural features including narrow arched windows, prominent eaves with decorative brackets, and a central tower, all topped with ornamental cresting and finials.

“It’s sad that it’s gone,” said Anna Simpkins, a graduate student in CSU’s construction management program who has a background in historic preservation and researched Old Main for a class project. “I would have loved to have seen what it was like inside.”

LEGO depiction of a campus tour
A modern campus tour depicted through LEGO.
Lego scene of mini figures in an early graduating class posed for an official portrait
LEGO mini figures represent an early graduating class posing for an official portrait.
Lego mini figure of Ruth J. Wattles, an English instructor and the University’s first official historian
Ruth J. Wattles, an English instructor and the University's first official historian.
Lego minifgures University presidents enjoying a picnic
"The Impossible Picnic" attendees are important figures from throughout University history – founders, professors, and presidents, including President Joyce McConnell.

At least she can see what it was like outside: Cloud’s LEGO model has all the details.

Let’s just say, the parts aren’t standard in the construction business. To replicate ornamental roof cresting, Cloud used tiny plastic sai, pieces based on ancient tri-pronged weapons used in the martial arts and designed for minifigures of Raphael, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle. When building an original project with LEGO, “you have to know what pieces exist,” Cloud explained.

Good thing he’s an AFOL – adult fan of LEGO.

Turns out, there’s an energetic subculture of grownups who have not outgrown LEGO. They buy, sell, and trade bricks and specialty pieces. They create elaborate custom structures and wow kids and other AFOLs at trade shows and LEGO touring events. They amass trivia: Did you know, for instance, there was a LEGO manufacturing facility that operated in Loveland, Colorado, from roughly 1965 to 1972? And they exchange building ideas through clubs, including the Colorado & Wyoming LEGO Users Group, to which Cloud belongs.

Growing up in northern Ohio, Cloud’s first LEGO set was a Duplo train for toddlers. When he was 5, his parents coaxed him to ride his two-wheel bike using a LEGO set as the carrot; he dropped training wheels the same day. As an older kid, he was into LEGO aquanauts, boats, and submarines. His last set was a tie-in to the Harry Potter book and movie franchise – left unbuilt as Cloud turned his attention to teenage things.

Like many AFOLs, he rediscovered LEGO after a long pause. Now 34, Cloud is a dedicated hobby builder and – thanks to parents who didn’t ditch buckets of bricks from his boyhood – has incorporated countless pieces from his younger years into his current LEGO supply.

“They’re kind of dear to me,” Cloud said. “LEGO is a great medium because it lasts, you can take it apart and put it together, and it makes people happy.”

Cloud then offered a room-by-room tour of his masterpiece, a small-scale medieval castle that took two years to build; its details include a great hall with parquet floors and little courtly figures engaged in a feast. Much of the time invested in such creations is spent finding and ordering specific building pieces from other AFOLs. That was the case with Cloud’s version of Old Main, which he built at the invitation of the CSU Office of the President.

To construct the replica, Cloud studied archival photographs of Old Main and tracked down color-correct pieces after analyzing a brick recovered from the fire of 1970. While the original building had a footprint measuring about 40 by 60 feet, the replica’s perimeter is 14 by 16 inches.

Another difference: The model of Old Main presents a celebratory picnic arranged on a studded front lawn of green baseplates. The invitees are important figures from throughout University history – founders, professors, and presidents, including President Joyce McConnell. The mini picnickers are shown enjoying some of LEGO’s best menu items, including hot dogs, fresh fruit, pies, and ice cream. Cloud calls this tableau “The Impossible Picnic” for the figures it brings together across time.

But if you think that’s implausible, try this: Cloud has never experienced the singular misery of stepping barefooted on a LEGO piece. “I tread lightly,” he said.

Don’t worry, Dr. Cloud, there’s still time.