Jane Wemhoff spent more than 30 years overseeing the dining hall connecting Cather and Pound halls, the central hub between the two towering dormitories.

Along with hundreds of others Friday morning, Wemhoff watched as the University of Nebraska-Lincoln residence halls came tumbling down in a controlled implosion, ending an era in her professional and personal life.

“Oh, my heart just kind of dropped along with the building,” Wemhoff said. “It was pretty emotional actually.”

Leading up to the implosion, Wemhoff teased her husband, Elmer, who went to work at UNL for the final time as an all-around handyman in Neihardt Hall, occasionally chipping in at the nearby Cather-Pound complex.

“I told him the place would fall apart without him,” she joked.

Promptly at 9 a.m. Friday, Cather and Pound began to fall apart.

A rhythmic series of explosions, like a bowling ball rolling down a flight of stairs, shook downtown Lincoln. Some reported hearing them as far away as Waverly.

Packed atop the UNL parking garage at 19th Street and Antelope Valley Parkway, and anywhere else with a view in the blocks surrounding the 500 block of North 17th Street, thousands of onlookers held their breath.

Dust puffed through the geotextile fabric enveloping the first floor of both dormitories, before the north face of Pound Hall and the south face of Cather Hall began to slip, like ice cubes melting near a flame.

The rest of the 13-story buildings followed, rolling gently toward one another in near-perfect synchronization, forcing a cloud of dust into the sky that shrouded the scene for several minutes.

Blown south and east away from City Campus by a light winter breeze, the cloud cleared to reveal the remnants of the former homes to thousands of UNL students as a singular pile of rubble 32 feet tall.

The simultaneous implosions went off without a hitch, UNL officials said, the culmination of a decade of planning and preparation.

Sue Gildersleeve, director of UNL’s housing and dining services, said a study of how to best update the dormitories and the connecting dining hall, which first opened in 1963, determined “the cost to renovate the buildings exceeded what could be justified.”

Suite-style residence halls to replace the towering dormitories opened in 2013-14, and a brand-new Cather Dining Complex went into service earlier this year, meaning the Cather-Pound complex was no longer needed at UNL, Gildersleeve said.

“I know it’s a bittersweet moment for so many,” she said. “We’ve heard from alums who have told stories about the special communities and lifelong friendships formed while living in those two halls.”

Walking the site after the dust cleared, Larry Shippen, UNL’s associate director of housing and facilities, said efforts to minimize damage to surrounding buildings in the dense part of campus had been largely successful.

“The only thing we identified was one cracked window” on the side of The Courtyards residence hall facing the demolition site, Shippen said. UNL will continue examining the condition of the surrounding buildings in the coming days and weeks, he added.

Grant Watson, UNL’s construction manager, said the university and its demolition partners — Controlled Demolition Inc. of Maryland and Ark Wrecking of Oklahoma — were pleased with how well the implosion went off.

Some of the campus wildlife might have different opinions, he joked.

“We do have some very disoriented squirrels, I’ll tell you that."

Ark Wrecking will begin conveying the debris — an estimated 32-34 million pounds — to the Bluff Road landfill, where it will be buried with the in-fill masonry walls, bathroom fixtures and other parts of the buildings already at the main landfill.

A second scale installed at the landfill will speed the removal process as UNL plans to transform the land once occupied by the dormitories into green space by May or June.

“They will be crunching up that concrete and removing the steel and using that for road fill,” Watson said.

The implosion also offered a unique opportunity for Nebraska engineering students to study what happens when large structures begin to collapse.

Students placed a total 32 accelerometers throughout the two dormitories, as well as sensors in four adjacent buildings to measure vibrations in the structures as demolition crews intentionally stressed the building before the implosion.

The sensors also recorded data as the buildings fell Friday morning, making a first-of-its-kind study at a public university. The project is led by Richard Wood and Daniel Linzell.

“Our aim is to understand how the loads redistribute when the columns were removed,” said Wood, an assistant professor of civil engineering. “The ultimate goal is to improve resiliency in engineered structures.”

Hundreds of gigabytes of data were collected in the lead-up to Friday’s implosion, as well as during the demolition itself, which the civil engineering team will now begin sorting through.

Wood said a preliminary report could be done by the end of January.

While thousands gathered around the demolition site, other curious onlookers put their Friday morning on pause briefly to watch the implosion.

About 25 people crowded around windows on the 10th floor of the state Capitol to watch and listen as the buildings came rumbling down.

“Oh, wow. The sound of it even,” said transcriber Vickie Stepanich.

They could see the dust and dirt obscure the people gathered on a parking garage east of the buildings.

“I would run,” Stepanich added.

She watched the implosion of the old Cornhusker Hotel in 1982 — a demolition also managed by Controlled Demolition Inc.

This one, with the twin buildings marking Lincoln's skyline, was reminiscent to her of the World Trade Center towers brought down on Sept. 11, 2001.

“We were living in the D.C. area at that time,” she said, describing how the emotions came back.

Unicameral Update Editor Heidi Uhing watched the implosion with her family, in town for Christmas from Ava, Missouri, including nieces Emma, Eden and Elli.

“Awesome," said Eden Uhing, 8.

Wemhoff said she did not expect to experience the emotional reaction she did Friday as she watched the center of her livelihood for three decades be reduced to rubble.

It reminded her of the implosion of two silos on her father’s farm, but on a grander scale, and with applause to accompany it.

“It just went down so smooth,” she said.

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7120 or cdunker@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @ChrisDunkerLJS

Reporter JoAnne Young contributed to this story.


Higher education reporter

Chris Dunker covers higher education, state government and the intersection of both.

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