In about a half hour, I start my one-credit class designed to document the two buildings on the University of North Dakota’s campus associated with Wesley College: Robertson/Sayre and Corwin/Larimore halls. I’ve christened this project the Wesley College Documentation Project.
1. Research Questions and Goals
The project has a number of overlapping research questions that focus on how buildings make manifest the history and changing priorities of an American university and its campus. In particular, I am interested in how the architecture of Wesley College, the innovative relationship between Wesley College and UND, and the organization of space within the original buildings reflects the negotiation of campus priorities between the two institutions over the 50 years of their co-institutional existence.
I am also interested in abandonment, however, and want to understand how the material manifestation of the abandonment (and demolition) of these buildings manifests the complicated relationship between university financial strategy, budget cuts and austerity, faculty, staff, and students needs in the 21st century, and the construction and preservation of historical memory at UND.
These research questions boil down to three goals:
1. Study the history of Wesley College in the context of Robertson/Sayre and Corwin/Larimore Halls.
2. Document the historical architecture, spaces, and memories tied to the physical fabric of Wesley College and UND’s Robertson/Sayre and Corwin/Larimore Halls.
3. Document the process of abandonment throughout these buildings as evidence for 21st century university life.
This course will focus on the careful examination and documentation of both the architecture of Robertson/Sayre and Corwin/Larimore, but also how the university adapted these buildings over time to serve new functions for campus. From their origins as dormitories to their final days as classroom, offices, and labs, R/S and C/L halls have functioned as quintessential university buildings and have both preserved traces of their pasts uses and their present abandonment.
The best way to recognize these changes and the history of these buildings is looking carefully at the physical fabric and what was left behind. To do this, we will document carefully rooms across both buildings noting what is in the rooms now, whether the rooms have been changed or transformed, and how the various transformations provide clues to their functions across time. We will use photography, video, sketch drawings, and textual descriptions to document the life of these buildings on site as well as some time with archival descriptions, photographs, and plans.
The Archival Research
The University Archives in the Department of Special Collections at the UND library has a good collection of Wesley College Papers some of which describe the construction and funding of Robertson/Sayre and Corwin/Larimore halls and some describe life in these buildings. While creating a digital collection of papers related to these buildings is not as pressing a priority as documenting the buildings themselves, it is something that we should start this semester.
There are also published and unpublished works similarly tell the story of Wesley College and its buildings. We should look to create a bibliography of these works over the next two months.
Memories are often linked to space and places. Engaging long time denizens of the Wesley College buildings and encouraging them to tell stories about their time in the buildings will be a key aspect of our work. Creating an oral history archive to accompany our archival research and archaeological and architectural documentation will ensure that memories tied to the physical fabric of the buildings is not lost.
Most archaeological knowledge is based on careful observation and systematic documentation. The core of our work in these buildings is looking carefully and documenting what we see.
In many cases, the rooms in Robertson/Sayre and Corwin/Larimore are still filled with stuff. This stuff is the detritus of years of use as offices, dorm rooms, classrooms, and associated spaces, and in many cases reflect a distinct moment of the abandonment of these buildings.
The plan is to create two-person teams, each with a phone, a camera, a notebook, and a floor plan.
1. One team member takes a video with their phone of the room starting at the doorway and then moving systematically through the space using smooth, even, and deliberate movements. The video should be at least 30 seconds long and might be much longer depending on the size of the room. Once the video is complete, record the file number in the notebook.
2. The second team member starts to describe the entire room in the notebook starting with the ceiling, floor, and window, and then moving counter-clockwise around the room one wall at a time noting (1) any evidence for changes to the fabric or organization of the room over time, (2) all of the rooms features including power outlets, ethernet boxes, light switches, nails in the wall, (3) all furniture with whenever possible, the name of the furniture manufacture, (4) all pieces of technology, (5) all other objects or signs of use (papers, stickers, trash).
3. The first team member sketches the room onto the “one-line” drawing making sure to position the furniture and objects accurately in relation to the architecture.
4. When the sketch and drawing is done, one team member photographs the room systematically making sure that each side of the room is photographed in such a way to capture all the objects and features of the room. The number of photographs for each room will vary depending on the size and organization of the room, but more photos are always better then fewer photos.
Just last night, I had a conversation with Richard Rothaus, a collaborator on this project, and he nudged me to think about how we can commemorate the lives of these buildings through performance. As we toured the buildings last week, we talked about having the letters between Wesley College President Edward Robertson and one of the major donors to the university A.J. Sayre, after whose late son Sayre Hall is named. The letters, particularly after Sayre’s son died in WWI are sad and personal and it makes clear that Sayre’s contribution to Wesley College were grounded in early 20th century ideas.
We also talked about doing something with Maxwell Anderson’s 1911 senior play, The Masque of the Pedagogues. Anderson was a resident of Sayre Hall and the characters in his play trace the experiences of a student early 20th century UND in a humorous and irreverent way. I have an idea who could play the part of Orin G. Libby…
I also think that the Wesley College spaces could be used, on last time, to perform music.
For more on the Wesley College Documentation Project, go here.