Finlandia's Old Main lives again

More than a century since it was built and several years after it was closed to the public, the historic building known as Old Main on the former Finlandia University campus is coming back to life. The new owner, Naturally Michigan Properties, is renovating the building, with plans to open to the public again in the spring.

In fact, they already have. A fundraiser for Real People Media, a Calumet-based nonprofit, was held last Sunday at Old Main and the Chapel of St. Matthew, both recently purchased by Naturally Michigan Properties. 

The event was called A Sunday Afternoon at Suomi Opisto, which is Finnish for Suomi College, the original name of the university. The buildings were open to the public for a fashion show from the early 1900s, shortly after Old Main was built. An afternoon tea featured Finnish sweets. Guests heard about the history of the building and plans for its future use. Musicians played, and there was a silent auction.

Real People Media

Real People Media is a nonprofit dedicated to helping people share their stories through the literary, visual and performing arts, and through media. They run the Keweenaw Storytelling Center in downtown Calumet and are developing plans for a new community radio station called Radio Keweenaw.

Real People Media will have a satellite site in Old Main. There, it will host Around the World in 80 Hats, a collection of hats from across the globe and the stories that go with them. Michigan world traveler and collector Linda Weston has lent the collection to Real People Media. Guests get to try on the hats.

Real People Media also plans a stop-motion animation workspace this summer, where people from the community can make short films. Its artists-in-residence may also stay in Old Main while working in both Hancock and Calumet. During certain hours, the public will be able to watch them work. 

Natural Michigan Properties plans

Natural Michigan Properties plans to open both buildings for weddings, with wedding ceremonies in the chapel and hotel rooms and reception space in Old Main. They also plan a boutique gallery there.

Plans are to operate Old Main as an inn, with a fulltime innkeeper. Natural Michigan Properties is considering installing a spa for guests as well. Other future uses for the space could include yoga retreats and business conferences. 

Finlandia history

Finlandia University was originally called Suomi College. Suomi means Finland in Finnish. It was founded in 1896 by J.K. Nikander, a Finnish pastor who wanted to provide seminary training in America. He also wanted to preserve the Finnish identity here.

Old Main was the first building built at Suomi College. It was built in 1898 and made of Jacobsville sandstone, quarried locally at the Portage entry to the Keweenaw Waterway.

The college changed its name to Finlandia University in 2000.  The university said at the time that the name change was designed to help students, administrators and others connect the institution with its Finnish roots. The word “Suomi” was often not understood by people of non-Finnish heritage. Finlandia also hoped its new name would attract students outside of the Finnish community.

But financial problems plagued Finlandia since 2001, when the university was placed on provisional certification by the U.S. Department of Education for failure to meet the department’s standards of financial responsibility. 

In 2014, Finlandia embarked on a bold new plan for increasing enrollment: adding athletics. It began with football. The plan was to have seven new teams: wrestling, tennis, Nordic skiing, men’s and women’s lacrosse and men’s volleyball. None of those teams ever got off the ground. 

In 2021, the school’s audit report listed more than $15 million in long-term debt, less than $1 million in cash on hand and only $12.2 million in annual revenues. In the spring of 2023, faced with an insurmountable burden of debt, the university’s board made the difficult decision to close. 

Finlandia’s properties went into receivership. Some were sold to private individuals, companies and organizations, others at auction. Old Main was one of those auctioned. 

Naturally Michigan Properties had only intended to buy the chapel, but when no other nonprofit stepped up to purchase Old Main, the historical preservation organization decided to purchase it too.

“Someone could have built a high-rise on a parking lot,” a Naturally Michigan spokesperson said. “Someone could have used the parking lot for construction, warehousing. So it became apparent that it was in our interest and in the community’s interest to purchase it.”

Now Naturally Michigan Properties and Real People Media are committed to restoring the historic buildings for community use.

Jennifer Donovan is a reporter with more than 40 years of experience on daily newspapers, magazines and university writing and editing. She is retired as director of news and media relations at Michigan Technological University and lives in Houghton.
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