It is the little building project that could.
For more than 10 years, the UW-Madison School of Nursing building has gone through a strange and twisting odyssey as politicians and officials flip-flopped about the fate of the project.
It was placed at the top of priority lists, then taken off completely; it was slipped into a state budget in the middle of the night, then pulled out just as slyly.
But finally, on Saturday, school officials and Gov. Scott Walker broke ground on the $52 million building.
"We did it," said UW-Madison Dean of Nursing Katharyn May to kick off the ceremonial ground-breaking at the Health Sciences Learning Center. "They said we wouldn’t get it done."
The process dragged on for so long that Signe Skott Cooper — who was a major donor to the building — told campus leaders she just wanted to live long enough to see it completed.
The need for a new building was first identified in the early 1990s, said Mark VanderWoude, assistant dean for facilities and planning. Despite several remodeling projects, the school’s presence in the Clinical Science Center, which is located in UW Hospital, dwindled as other programs expanded.
Back in 2001, a new nursing building was submitted to the state as a top campus building priority, but it wasn’t funded. For the next several years, the project was refined, and the school worked on fundraising.
In 2009, then-state Sen. Judy Robson, D-Beloit, a former nurse, inserted the project in the state budget during an all-night session. But campus leaders weren’t ready for it. They asked that it be taken out while they continued to plan for two more years.
When 2011 came, Walker recommended it be deferred for another two years. UW-Madison officials scrambled and came up with a plan to use less state funding. About one-third of the project will come from donations while two-thirds will come from the state.
UW-Madison Provost Paul DeLuca gave credit to May for tenaciously lobbying for the facility. He joked that he lived in fear of seeing her on campus because he knew she’d badger him about the project.
"I’d see her coming down the hallway, and I would hide in closets," he said.
The five-story building, designed by Milwaukee-based architect Kahler Slater, Inc., is slated to open in the fall of 2014. It will be located across Highland Avenue from the UW Hospital complex.
The new facility will increase enrollment by at least 30 percent, May said, helping offset a projected shortage of nurses.
The building will be named Signe Skott Cooper Hall. Cooper, an alumna and pioneer in nursing education, pledged her estate and that of her sister, Hilda, who died in 2000, to fund the building.
Cooper, 91, was there for Saturday’s ground-breaking ceremony.
She sat quietly and smiled as several hundred people gave her a standing ovation at the Health Sciences Learning Center lecture hall. Cooper was driven by golf cart to the dig site.
As she posed for photos with a hard hat and a shovel, the retired nurse declared the long-awaited event "a very exciting day."