This morning, I’m going on a little tour of Montgomery Hall with both thee Grand Forks Historic Preservation Commission and representatives of University of North Dakota’s facilities department. The plan is to run another one-credit course on the history of this building, its place on our campus, and most interestingly for me, how the physical fabric preserves signs of adaptation and reuse.
The original building dates to 1911, and unlike most of the campus from the 1920s on, this building is in the Tudor Revival style. It stands set back from University avenue and represented a nice example of the first major wave of campus expansion under President Frank McVey. Originally, it served as the Commons for the university, but in 1929, it was adapted for use as the university library which had outgrown the contemporary Carnegie Library. It served as the library until the opening of the Chester Frtiz Library in the late 1950s. After that time, the building, presumably rechristened Montgomery Hall, served as faculty offices, classrooms, and in the 21st century, as the deanery first for the College of Arts and Sciences and then for the Graduate School.
Today, the building is mostly empty and ready for its ascent to the great campus plan in the sky. The University is planning to build the new business school on the lot to take advantage of the frontage onto University Avenue and the proximity to Gamble Hall which currently houses the College of Business and Public Affairs. As part of the mitigation efforts, the University is doing the equivalent of a HABS level-2 documentation on the building before it demolition (and I can’t say enough about the current administration’s willingness to take historical documentation seriously). I plan to work with a group of students to understand the traces of history left on the building’s fabric over time following a model that we developed with the Wesley College Documentation Project.
The challenge for me, though, is to also think about how to make this project different from what we did with Wesley College. Recent work in the archaeology of the contemporary world has shaped my recent ways of thinking about how we document and understand campus buildings. The kind of archaeological documentation that I prefer (because I luv data) can subordinate our understanding of these buildings to the routine of our method and rob the experience of being in the spaces of vitality, foreclose a certain amount of creativity, and narrow our view of how buildings make meaning.
Because these buildings are slated for destruction and no longer “living buildings” on campus, it seems like we have opportunities to do things that celebrate the liminal state of these structures: no long in use, but not yet destroyed. Rather than looking at all aspects of what is inside these buildings as evidence for the past, we can try to find ways of understanding these buildings as they exist in the contemporary. How are they changing? How are they producing meaning? Literally, what are these buildings doing?
I know this sounds a bit slippery and elusive, but I hope that by asking these kinds of tricky questions and maybe even thinking about these buildings in different way and with different notions of time will open some productive possibilities.