The final demolition of the four Wesley College buildings starts today on the campus of the University of North Dakota. I’m pretty bummed to think that next time I’ll be on campus, those buildings won’t be there. As readers of this blog know, I’ve been working in and around those buildings for a few months and have compiled an intriguing and, I think, compelling archive that documents their place on campus.
On the other hand, I do think that I did my part to document and preserve them, and I am still intrigued that there is more that I can do in the fall when I return to campus through documentary records, interviews, and compiling the vast store of data that we collected.
As I’ve followed the conversation on social and traditional media about the demolition of these buildings (and, in particular, listened to what Alexis Varvel, the most eloquent and persistent advocate of these buildings has had to say), it’s helped me think through what I’m going to say about the Wesley College buildings (when I get back to writing them up) is that the fate of the buildings emerged at an interesting intersection of three things:
1. The buildings were adapted for use on the contemporary university campus. This, on the one hand, made them more useful to the campus and ensured that they served as the home for a number of programs and departments over their long history. At the same time, this compromised their distinctive character and made them less unique buildings with unique functional characteristics and more like every other building on campus. As they approached being functionally the same as every other building both through perceptions and manipulations of their fabric, they endured the same fate as any other space on campus. When they no longer were useful, they could be destroyed.
2. When Wesley College folded, it made the history of the institution and its leaders, students, and donors faded in public memory. Because no one on UND’s campus really know who Edward Robertson was (and some folks on campus still try to correct my by saying “oh, you mean Elwyn Robinson.”). The Sayre family is unknown, the Corwin’s sell cars, and Larimore is town. These names no long evoke some kind of storied past that makes these monuments integral to campus life.
3. The dynamism of a campus in flux. One of the most intriguing aspects of the Wesley College buildings is that they were modern buildings, but also contemporary with another time. While they do evoke certain timeless properties, part of what makes them compelling is their distinctive (and, to be blunt, out-dated) aesthetics, proportions, and modularity. At the same time, I suspect that their modernity has made them vulnerable. They aren’t like the rest of campus and instead of fitting into any of the cohesive master plans for UND, they stand apart as the failed framework of an unrealized future. I sometimes wonder whether they’d be easier to save if these were a tepid college Gothic or some kind of universal red-brick building, they might have found a place or formed a relationship with the rest of campus.
Of course, it’s easy enough to also note that the distinctive character of these buildings should encourage our efforts to preserve them, and you wouldn’t be wrong, but campuses are dynamic places and they constantly work to remake their own image into coherent landscape informed by aesthetics, memory, and functionality. The visual language of a campus creates its own logic that we can think away (of course), but usually only in the service of another plan. These plans emerge as much through the casual and contingent juxtaposition of buildings and spaces as they do through intentional “master planning” efforts that construct and create traditions that interweave the contingent persistence of the past with meaning in the present.