Leavitt talks plans to rebuild or renovate Polk


Photo courtesy of Polk Library – As staff were getting ready to host Titan Nights in Polk Library in February 2022, the heating and air conditioning vent sprung a leak, spewing steaming hot water across the carpet and setting off the fire alarm. Water was even pouring out of the building.

Josh Lehner, Staff Writer

UW Oshkosh Chancellor Andrew Leavitt revealed long-term plans to replace boilers and renovate or entirely rebuild Polk Library during a recent town hall meeting.

Currently, both the library and boiler projects sit in the planning and feasibility phase, which will be ongoing for the next two years. This phase will determine what to replace the boilers with and whether Polk will be renovated or demolished and rebuilt.

“Polk turns 60 this year and is in dire need of repairs or an upgrade,” Leavitt said in a recent blog post. “A study will help us assess whether the best plan is to renovate the space to meet the needs of the 21st-century student or if we need to start from scratch.”

Polk Library Director Sarah Neises said that, while the library has suffered water damage in many areas, most of it has been cleaned and remediated. Still, she said that rotting pipes and ceiling leaks may cause future damage.

 “The pipes are rotting,” she said. “You can pick up a pipe and it just crumbles underneath your fingers.”

Neises said that some of the most critical leaks were caused by pipes running above the library’s archives, which store documents that don’t exist anywhere else.

“The most catastrophic leak we had happened in May 2022, when a pipe leaked over the archives,” she said. “We barely were able to save artifacts such as an early 20th-century marching band outfit.”

In February 2022, Polk hosted Titan Nights. However, Neises said that on the afternoon before the event, a floor-level heating and air conditioning unit sprung a leak.

“Steaming, hot water poured onto the carpet,” she said. “Our librarians and staff grabbed mops and tried to soak up the water before facilities could come and shut off the unit.”

Neises said that the library archive hasn’t completely lost anything to water damage and that it has been moved to a different location. However, she also said that the library has thrown out entire sections of books due to damage.

The UW System requested more than $21 million in building trust funds to provide studies and project planning to replace facilities between 2025 and 2027, the project request document stated.

Of that $21 million, more than $5.3 million has been requested for studies and planning in the Polk library renovation or reconstruction. The report places the total Polk project budget estimate at more than $111 million.

Leavitt said that the $5.3 million requested for studies and planning will help determine ways to update the library.

The study will address space needs aligned with how libraries of today are used,” he said. “This would include collaborative spaces, quiet spaces and technology-enabled spaces, enhancing the library’s role as a neutral space that welcomes students from every academic discipline and walk of life.”

In a report to the Board of Regents, Neises stated the need to improve the quality and scope of the library.

“A new or renovated library would greatly encourage students to use the library,” she said. “A new building would require improved lighting, furniture, flooring and reconfigurable spaces to inspire concentration and collaboration.”

During the town hall, Leavitt also said that the boilers, some of which are 75 years old, no longer meet the campus’s heating capacity.

“They are not reliable and they are certainly not efficient,” he said. “Simply, the Oshkosh campus is at risk of not having enough steam during peak usage to heat our buildings.”

Leavitt said his administration is looking at different technologies and called the opportunity a once in a several-generation project.

“We need to figure out a different way if we are going to be carbon neutral by 2030,” he said.

Central Heating/Chiller Plant Superintendent Daniel Biese said that Leavitt has created an Energy Study Committee and Sustainability Study on options to replace a 50-year-old boiler.

Commenting on both the boiler and Polk projects during the town hall, Leavitt said that he expects to hear from Gov. Tony Evers soon.

“I’ll be spending a lot of time in the Capitol in March and April,” he said, adding that the state budget will be decided sometime in June.