Wesley College Documentation Project: Hearing Corwin Hall

On Thursday, February 21st at 7 pm on the beautiful campus of the University of North Dakota, Mike Wittgraf will perform his “Hearing Corwin Hall” in the recital room in the Hughes Fine Arts Center. This piece developed from the Wesley College Documentation Project and, as I have blogged about before, is brilliant. It not only incorporates the acoustic signature from the now-demolished Corwin Hall recital hall, but also embodies the tension, anxiety, and conflict present on the University of North Dakota’s campus.


As part of the program on Thursday night, Mike has asked me to give a bit of background. Since I’ll only have about 15 minutes (and have a TON to say), I figured I need to write some of it down to help me prioritize my little talk and not detract from why people have really come to the event (to hear Mike’s piece).  I need to introduce Wesley College and the four Wesley College buildings. I also need to introduce the WCDP. Finally, I want to frame Mike’s piece within the history of the our campus, the history of architecture, and contemporary policies in higher ed both at UND and nationally. Here is my rough draft:


The performance tonight is part of the Wesley College Documentation Project. This is a project that I started with a group of students as a 1-credit Honors “pop up course” that ran in the spring of 2018. The goal of the project was to document in as many ways as possible, the physical fabric of the Wesley College buildings, their history, and the the process of abandonment. We worked in collaboration with UND Facilities, who provided access to the buildings and offered their considerable expertise concerning the physical fabric of the buildings. The Department of Special Collections at the Chester Fritz Library welcomed us to the UND archive and helped the students pour over the documents relating to Wesley College and the four buildings: Robertson/Sayre Halls and Corwin/Larimore Halls. Last but not least, the students themselves gave far more than 1-credit worth of time to the project and produced textual, photographic, and video documentation as well as energy, enthusiasm, and ideas for the project.

For those of you who might be familiar with the story of Wesley College, it was founded as Red River University in Whapeton, North Dakota and opened in 1892 in what is now the Old Main at the North Dakota College of Science. Funded by an ambitious group of largely local donors and affiliated with the Methodist church, the college realized that to grow and thrive, it needed to move to a more populous location in the state. In 1905, the college’s new president, Edward Robertson struck an innovative (and frankly revolutionary) deal with the president of UND, Webster Merrifield to move the Red River University to Grand Forks and to rename it Wesley College. The College entered in a co-education relationship with UND allowing its students to take courses at UND and Wesley College graduating with a degree in both. Wesley College specialized in elocution, religious education, and music courses which were likewise open to UND students.

Robertson was ambitious and a tireless fund raiser. In the first years of the 20th century he courted the successful businessman Frank Lynch (formerly of Casselton, ND, but whose various concerns, which ranged from investments to timber and railroads were based in San Diego) and bonanza farmer N.G. Larimore who had supported Red River University, and managed to attract the support of lumber magnate A.J. Sayre, Stephen Corwin, financier and long-time UND donor John Milton Hancock. He contracted New York City based architect A. Wallace McRae who planned a campus in the very contemporary Beaux Arts style. Sayre, Larimore, and Corwin Hall opened in 1908, 1909, and 1910 respectively. Robertson Hall, which completed the matched pair of the two-building compounds opened in 1929 having been funded by Hancock. 

Sayre and Larimore Halls were dormitories for men and women and housed some of UND’s most famous alumni from Maxwell Anderson and Aviator Carl Ben Eielson and to Hancock’s son and daughter who lived in Sayre and Larimore respectively. Corwin Hall housed the music conservatory with its impressive recital hall and pipe organ as well as Wesley College offices which eventually moved to Roberston Hall upon its completion. When A.J. Sayre’s son died in World War I, the building was renamed in his memory, and in the spring of 2018 we organized a ceremony to recognize that we are removing a memorial from campus.

Despite (or pehaps because of) its innovative character, Wesley College struggled financially and with enrollments in the post-war period and in 1965, the college leaders sold the buildings and property to UND. UND converted the buildings to classrooms, offices, and labs over the next 50 years and erased a good bit of what made these buildings unique. In 2017, it was decided that continued upgrades to these buildings and their maintenance were too expensive and unnecessary and scheduled the buildings for demolition. This happened in spring of 2018.

The demolition fo the Wesley College buildings offered an excuse to study the buildings both as dynamic architecture with over a century use and adaptation as well as structures undergoing abandonment. Through conversations with the Wesley College Documentation Project team, we began to recognize certain profound tensions present in these buildings and their history that resonated with campus life in the 21s century.

For example, the Beaux Arts style was the first distinctly modern and professional architectural style which emerged at the turn of the century and quickly became the hallmark of progressive buildings from college campuses to train stations. At the same time, the neoclassical references in the Wesley College buildings, from the monumental arches of their south facade to the prominent Greek key patterns in glazed brick on their cornices, evoked the permanence of buildings and architectural values. Progress and persistence juxtaposed.

The role of architecture in progress in the early-20th century promoted a growing awareness of certain buildings as obsolete. The depreciation of buildings was reinforced in the U.S. tax code and a new sense of practical functionalism came to define architecture in the 20th century. The practical requirements of buildings and their ephemerality belied their monumental and representational form. That UND found these buildings obsolete in the 21st century on the basis (in part) of “deferred maintenance” fulfilled a vision of early 20th century architecture that recognized depreciation and obsolesce as part of the fiscal and physical life of a building.

Of course, at universities we tend to celebrate both progress and persistence. The juxtaposition of the modern Beaux Arts of Wesley College and the college Gothic of the Joseph Bell DeReemer and Wells and Denbrook buildings on campus reflect just this tension. With the spiritual and mystical character of the college Gothic offering a charismatic critique to the rational and progressive style of modernity. That the Wesley College buildings stood apart from our campus reminds us that past futures litter the present.    

When the news spread that UND had the Wesley College buildings scheduled for destruction, several people marshaled some protests that emphasized both their distinctive architecture and their historical significance. At the same time, the buildings had been adapted over time to new functions. A fire stair case compromised the acoustic of the Corwin Hall recital room, the dormitory rooms on the fourth floor floor of Larimore were almost entirely removed for laboratory space, and the mosaic floors, coffered ceilings, and fireplace of the Sayre Hall parlor were obscured by wall-to-wall carpeting, drop ceilings, and institutional textured walls. In other words, the function of value of these buildings, in the past, overwrote the historical value of these buildings in the present. In abandonment, outdated computers, massive and dated steel desks, disfigured pastel-colored particle-board and plastic furniture, and the marks of thousands of student and faculty footsteps remained behind in the building.The worn and tattered character of the abandonment assemblage and the century of architectural compromises made it possible to think of these spaces less as symbols of the past and more as failures in the present. 

As both UND and universities around the country are facing the tension between their progressive, forward thinking missions and their grounding in historically constituted practices, traditions, and disciplines, the question of when and how much past practices can be adapted for new uses without losing their character resonates. The crass functionalism associated with the depreciation of architecture, deferred maintenance, and demolition, refract against the persistent values of the college Gothic buildings, the humanities, and the arts. Overwriting failed futures erases the memory of past progress in a way to keep the present unburdened. This tension between value, progress, tradition, and the past in the present, is part of what makes a college campus exciting and terrifying, dynamic and disconcerting, and at the core of how I understand Mike Wittgraf’s “Hearing Corwin Hall.”

Specifically, it evokes the tensions that we experienced in Wesley College and instead of the attempt to balance them in through some long-winded historical, architectural, or archaeological analysis, preserves them so that we can consider and communicate our experience without the need for reconciliation or resolution.   


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