Wesley College in the High Plains Reader

Last night my social media feeds blew up with the publication of a feature story in the High Plains Reader about the impending demolition of the four Wesley College buildings that the Wesley College Documentation Project has worked to document.

The article basically argues that the Wesley College buildings stand as monuments to the local opposition to the Ku Klux Klan in Grand Forks and, as such, the university should do all they can to preserve the buildings. Taking a cue from the recent controversy over Confederate monuments in the South, local historian Alexis Varvel proposed that destroying these buildings gives the Alt-Right a victory by erasing the memory of a courageous institution in the face of Grand Forks’ racially charged past. I was interviewed for the article and tried to offer a counter narrative or at least a more subtle reading of the situation, but, as so often happens on deadlines and with limited copy space, my views were a bit truncated.

The article is troubling on many levels, and I hesitate to engage with the arguments here, in part, because I think that the effort to save these buildings comes from a good place. It is not meant, for example, to be another effort to saddle the university with obligations that its budget cannot sustain. Nor is it, necessarily, another example of oppositional politics that sees everything done by the University of North Dakota and its administration as inherently bad, evil, corrupt, and corrosive. Finally, whatever naivety that folks like Alexis Varvel demonstrates toward the potential of these buildings doesn’t come from a place of ignorance or confusion, but from a deeply optimistic attitude toward the potential to find solutions to challenging problems.

In fact, I see Varvel, who is quoted extensively in the article, as an ally in making sure that the history of North Dakota, UND, and Wesley College are better known. Responding to some of the elements in this article, I suppose this is part of the risks and responsibilities of dealing with local history. 

First, the reporter mangles the basic history of Wesley College and the monuments. He conflates the architecture of the buildings themselves with the architectural history of UND’s campus. The buildings were not designed by Joseph Bell DeRemer, but the New York City architect, A. Wallace McRae. They’re not Tudor revival or College Gothic, at all, but Beaux Arts. In some ways, they stand opposed to the College Gothic of Joseph Bell DeRemer’s buildings on UND’s campus (e.g. Merrifield Hall) or their successors from Wells and Denbrook (like the Chester Fritz Library).

Second, Wesley College never merged with UND and certainly didn’t in 1905. From its founding in 1905 until it was purchased by UND in 1965, Wesley College was an independent institution in a cooperative relationship with UND. The emphasis on the rivalry between the two schools in the article was misplaced; throughout most of their history, the two institutions had cordial relations and collaborated extensively. Friction over music instruction simmered below the surface at times, but rarely exploded into full blow controversies.

Third, Sayre Hall was renamed in honor of Harold Holden Sayre who was not a lumber baron, but a young man who died in World War I. He was only son of A.J. Sayre, originally from Harvey, North Dakota, who enlisted in the U.S. Army in the Great War and served in the Army Air Corp as a gunner on a bomber. He was killed in action in the Battle of Saint-Mihel in 1918 and the building was renamed as a memorial to his life.

The irony is that by getting these little facts wrong, the past isn’t so much misrepresented as overwritten and appropriated for another cause; in this case, Varvel is looking to use the history of Wesley College to speak to the long history of racial tensions on UND campus, in the community, and in the state. This isn’t a bad thing, but by overwriting the history of these buildings with another narrative (and one that is particular careless with certain elements of the buildings’ architectural and institutional history) this too is an act of forgetting.

My point isn’t to suggest that one narrative should have preeminence over another, but to demonstrate how the past and the present on university campuses refract to create meaningful landscapes. The narrative that Alexis Varvel is promoting, however well meaning, is problematic, for a number of reasons. 

First, the idea that these monuments represent opposition to the Klan in the community or that Wesley College was somehow a bastion of liberalism opposite the conservative UND, is at best, a caricature of the deep involvement on UND’s campus with progression politics across the state in the first part of the 20th century. While it is fair to state that progressive issues and attitudes toward race did not map as easily onto each other as perhaps they do in the 21st century, figures like the Sociologist John Gillette, one of the great “old men” of UND, advanced the cause of the progressive Non-Partisan League as well as women’s suffrage, and his wife withdrew from some of the same Klan dominated elections that Varvel discusses in the HPR article out of concern that the Klan might support her candidacy. Opposing “conservative” UND to “liberal” Wesley College runs the risk of obscuring the real complexities of progressive politics and race in Grand Forks, and while I would not want to offer “complexity” as an excuse for racism, a more subtle reading of 20th century North Dakota politics presents lessons that are no less significant for our society today.      

More than that, reducing the history of Wesley College to the courageous fight against the Klan and transforming these buildings to the status of a monument, ignores the contemporary situation. The real fight against the debased ideologies of the Klan and the Alt-right doesn’t come from monuments or architecture alone, but from what goes on around and in those buildings on campus.

Preserving the buildings of Wesley College is an additional burden at the very time when budget constraints are compromising UND’s ability to perform its educational mission. In fact, the very progressive values that Varvel celebrates in the Wesley College buildings are themselves being challenged on campuses across the U.S. as those who see higher education as a luxury or even a threat seek to devalue its mission. Making the work of progressive voices at UND more difficult, by pushing us to preserve significant, but ultimately obsolete, expensive, and compromised buildings, undermines real efforts to keep alive the mission of institutions like Wesley College. 

To be blunt: The work of my students, myself, UND facilities, my colleagues across campus and in the community to study, celebrate, and document these building through the Wesley College Documentation Project does more to continue the real values of Wesley College, and individuals like Edward Robertson, George Henry, A.J. Sayre, Frank Lynch, and the others, who funded and built these buildings, than fighting to save the buildings. That being said, Varvel is right, of course; we should preserve the memory of courageous individuals who worked to create a more just world, but preserving the past should never compromise building the future.

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