The Robinson House

As readers of this blog know, we’ve been working on moving house. We are almost done the process of selling out 1900 American Foursquare and purchasing a slightly older home a few blocks away.

This made me think about houses in the community. A few months ago, a colleague mentioned that the University was looking to destroy Elwyn Robinson’s former home on Princeton St. near campus. The home was built in 1912 by Frank McVey, then President of the University of North Dakota, as an investment property for his wife.  Robinson moved into the house in 1941 and purchased the property in 1946 for $7000.




In Robinson’s own words (from his memoirs):

Much more than these matters was our move to a duplex on Princeton Street on January 31, 1941.  The opportunity came when Dr. Frank Foley, head of the geology and State Geologist, got a job with the United States Geological Survey and prepared to move at the end of the first semester to Salt Lake City, Utah.  The duplex had been built about 1912 by the wife of the university president, Frank McVey, as an investment property.  The McVeys had left the university in 1919 when Dr. McVey became president of the University of Kentucky, but in 1941 he still owned the property (Mrs. McVey had died in the meantime).  Mr. James Wilkerson, the business manager of the University of North Dakota, looked after it for President McVey, by this time in retirement.  The rent was $32.00 a month.


Our move on January 31 was a simple one, for aside from a crib, tow trunks, and an innerspring mattress, we had no furniture (of course we had dishes, bedding, cooking utensils, clothing, a radio, and books).  We were lucky in that the Foleys (Frank’s wife was Adelaide and they had a small child Barbara) wanted to sell their furniture and that, because Eva had drawn her money out of the Ohio Teachers Retirement system – $457.01, we had money with which to buy what they wanted to sell.  Our diary (Volume I, p. 29) showed what we bought:  an old dropleaf table with leaves, $5.00; washing machine, $15.00; overstuffed chair and footstool, $12.50; refregerator, $60.00; two kitchen chairs, $3.50; large rug, $4.00; small rug, $1.00; chest, $8.00.  From Betty Crum, a neighbor at 316 Cambridge Street, we bought a radio table for $2.75 and a table lamp for $1.00.  We also bought a new Jenny Lind bed from Montgomery Ward for $7.95 and new bedsprings from Panowitz’s for $8.95, a new floor lamp for $3.85, a second-hand bureau to be refinished for a buffet for $8.00.  The ruffled curtains for the livingroom cost $5.93.  We spent $157.00 in all.  Before we moved Eva finished an unpainted chair purchased from Panowitz’s for $2.50.

We were delighted with our new home.  It was light and had a lot of space.  On the first floor the livingroom was separated from the diningroom by built-in cases with glass doors about five feet high.  On the livingroom side they were bookcases, on the diningroom side they were china cabinets.

These rooms and the upstairs bedrooms had good maple floors.  The small kitchen had an electric stove, built-in cupboards, a small closet with shelves to the ceiling, and the original sink put in when the house was built in 1912.  The same was true of the old-fashioned fixtures in the upstairs bathroom.  There was a large closet under the stairs and near the front door, another off the upstairs hall.  Each of the bedrooms, good-sized rooms, had a closet.  French doors opened off the diningroom on to a porch.  It had glass windows in large panels that were removed and stored in the spring, installed again in the fall, leaving a screen enclosed porch where we were often to have meals during the summer.


The basement on our side of the duplex had the furnace and hot-water tank.  The other side had the coal bin, the laundry tubs and washing machines, a toilet, and a room where a university student stayed.  It was a poor place, too cool in winter, dusty, with cardboard walls and a poor board floor.  After we moved, the student, who cared for the furnace and the snow removal for the room, fell ill. Dean French of the Medical School came to see him and said it was a poor place for anyone to stay.  We discontinued the practice and took care of the furnace and the snow ourselves.  When we moved, I worried about whether I would have the strength to do the chores that the new place would entail.  It worked out, however.

The heating system was a hot water one, the water circulating by a gravity-convection system, the hot water rising to the radiators and the cooler water returning to the furnace boiler.  It was a large furnace for heating both apartments and of a size to burn North Dakota lignite which had a lower heat value than soft coal.  A group of faculty members who heated their houses with lignite, headed by Henry Doak, ordered lignite a carload at a time through Hanson and Maves, a fuel dealer in East Grand Forks.  Each one told Henry how many tons he could take when a carload was to be ordered.  Then the whole carload was delivered by Hanson and Maves trucks at once, not stored.  There was a substantial savings for we paid, I believe, about $3 or $4 a ton for the lignite delivered.  I have no records to consult, but I believe the duplex burned about 20 tons a winter, so my cost for heating would be about $40.00 a season, very reasonable.  When the lignite was delivered there was a lot of coal dust in the basement.  Ashes had to be carried out every weekend, a big chore. Near the furnace there was a booklet on hand-firing of lignite put out by the extension service of the University of Illinois.  By studying the booklet, I thought that I became quite skillful in firing the furnace.  The house did not cool off too much at night even in severe weather.  It was very comfortable.

The system for heating water for dishes, bathing, and washing clothes was less satisfactory.  A pipe from the hot water tank led into the fire-box of the furnace, heating the water in cold weather adequately, but in warm weather the gas heater under the tank had to be lit.  Then the tank had to be watched closely, for there was no automatic control of the gas heater.  The same tank supplied hot water for both apartments.

While we were getting used to our new quarters, we were also becoming better acquainted with our neighbors, most of whom we already knew.  Our apartment in the duplex was the west one, away from the street.  The east apartment, 423 Princeton, was occupied by Margaret Libby Barr, her husband Paul, head of the art department, their daughter Martha Ann, about seven, and their son Robert, not quite a year and a half.  We had known the Barr family since we had come to Grand Forks.  They were very friendly and kind to us.

Before the winter [of 1946] was over came an event that, like the coming of Robert and Wynona Wilkins, was to have a beneficial influence on the rest of our lives.  It was the purchase of the duplex at 423-425 Princeton Street.  Dr. Frank McVey, growing old and retired from the presidency of the University of Kentucky, wanted to sell. Both George and Marion Richards, the tenants in the front part of the duplex, and Eva and I wanted to go on living there.  And so, though I was not at first particularly anxious to do so and had had no plans to buy a house, we and the Richards decided to buy the property together.  We dealt not with Dr. McVey but with Mr. James Wilkerson, business manager of the university who had been taking care of the property for him.  The asking price was $7,000.  The Richards and we each paid $1,400 down and we borrowed the remaining $4,200 at the Red River National Bank at 4 percent interest.  Each family was to pay $25.00 a month on the mortgage, the payments to cover interest, principal, and real estate taxes.  I suppose the low rate of interest in a time of post-war inflation was partly because of the 40 percent down payment. Now the crucial importance of the government bonds that we had been buying since just before the bombing of Pearl Harbor became clear.  To make up our share of the down payment, we cashed the bonds (nearly $1,100) and borrowed $300 from the university federal credit union.

One Comment

  1. Mike Koppenhaver November 21, 2011 at 7:08 pm

    My parents purchased Henry Doak’s home in 1946. It was located at 504 Hamline Street. Robin Dee and Marie Koppenhaver. R.D. taught accounting at UND for many years. I would be interested in garnering some information on Henry Doak and the house on Hamline Street. I was born in 1944 (old St. Mike’s Hospital) and must have been two when we moved in.


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