As readers of this blog know, one of my little teaching and research adventures this semester is the Wesley College Documentation Project. This project is a one-credit class of about 10 students who are working to document two turn-of-the-century buildings on campus associated with the now closed Wesley College. Robertson/Sayre Hall and Corwin/Larimore Hall are slated to be demolished this spring and all programs and offices have moved out leaving the buildings in a state of abandonment. The project is also a more ambitious research project on my part that explores these buildings in the context of both an archaeology of the contemporary and the history of campus.
As with any project, it proceeds in fits and starts, but for now, I can offer some notes on progress, prospects, and problems that makes the project interesting.
1. Assemblages. As of this week, we have documented three assemblages at a remarkable level of documentation: psychology research space on the fourth floor of Larimore Hall, psychology office spaces on the third floor of Larimore Hall, and the honors program space on the ground floor of Roberston and Sayre Halls. We feel these assemblages tell a unique stories of abandonment, curation, and practical and ideological values on campus as they represent the things left behind by programs as they moved from their old campus homes to new ones. These assemblage were dynamic in that over the course of our documentation objects continued to be salvaged from the spaces. This salvage work, however, organized by the university rather than departing programs and consequently reflected a broader perspective on the value of discarded objects to campus.
2. Architecture. At first, I approached documenting the architectural history of these buildings with only the broadest brushstrokes, but as I started to explore the buildings more – particularly Roberston/Sayre Hall, I become increasingly drawn both the small details in these buildings as well as the signs of continuous adaptation to the ever-changing needs of Wesley College (and ultimately UND). The architecture of Roberston Hall, for example, tells the story of the changing role of Wesley College for students. Initially designed as a classroom and administrative building, within 20 years of its construction, Wesley College had begun to struggle to maintain its academic mission due to both changes in how the College worked and changes in its relationship with UND. As a result, the third floor of Roberston was converted to a student center where students shared meals, socialized, and met. Apparently some of the office space on the second floor was converted into a chapel for students saving them from the 2 mile walk to church on Sundays. During World War II, the building was adapted to become the headquarters of the College Training Corp division of the Army Air Corps which used Sayre and Larimore Halls for housing. We are only now working to document the traces of these changes in the fabric of the building, but increasingly recognize the story that seemingly minor signs tell.
3. Adaptation and Austerity. One of the great revelations of our work in Sayre Hall was the discovery of Room 108. This room was converted at some point in its life to a large office associated with computer support for UND’s campus. A drop ceiling was installed, one of the doors was enclosed in drywall and dense, low-cropped institutional carpeting was put down over the floors. A bit of demolition work revealed that this austere and functional room, however, wasn’t always this way.
Pulling down the drop ceiling revealed the remains of the coffering. Punching into some drywall revealed the closed door, and we hope some work with a carpet knife will reveal the Greek key mosaic on the floor and some more dry wall removal might reveal parts of the fireplace.
What was most interesting, however, is how the modifications to the room made it look so austere, bland, and ordinary. This change, of course, has, in some ways, contributed to the space being regarded as easily replaceable on campus and not at all distinctive. In other words, the adaptation of this space for the broadly functional needs of a modern has made the space less valuable, less distinctive, and more easily slated for demolition. The tension between modernity and meaning are perhaps nowhere more clear.
4. Scarred Buildings. One of the more vexing issues with Sayre Hall is a scar on its north side.
I’ve been combing through photographs of the building throughout its history to see if I could identify any structure that originally stood against the back of the building. After looking, it appears that this line of bricks does not indicate where another building once stood, but where another building was intended to stand.
In both the 1906 and the more realistic1909 plans for the Wesley College show future structures extending to the north of Sayre Hall. At the same time, these plans were probably not in the immediate future of the campus as the steam plant for Wesley College stood in the existing one story structure to the north of Sayre Hall.
What is curious is that a similar change in brick does not appear on Sayre Hall’s twin, Larimore Hall.
5. Performance and Loss. One of the more exciting developments to come from our work is that we’ve been able to incorporate some performative elements into our commemoration of the building. For example, in Corwin Hall we performed a concert the intentionally linked the past with the current state of the building by both using the original recital hall but also recording the sound through Larimore Hall even though the recital hall was not originally linked to Larimore Hall.
Because Sayre Hall is a memorial to Harold Holden Sayre who died in 1918 in World War I, we’re planning to hold a little event that brings together campus, the local Air Force base, veterans, and the community to show our respects and to recognize that while this building is going away, the memory of this individual will not.