The End of Wesley College

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.

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The Abandoned Bakken

This past weekend, Bret Weber, Richard Rothaus, and I headed out West to promote our new book, The Bakken: An Archaeology of an Industrial Landscape (NDSU Press 2017) and to visit some of the sites that we documented over the course of the North Dakota Man Camp Project. 

As usual, we spent a good bit of time riding around in Richard Rothaus’s truck and talking about what we saw and what it meant. As importantly, for me, this trip through the Bakken focused on what we should do next (if anything) and how and whether to end a project that has tracked the boom of workforce housing in the Bakken (from around 2012) to its decline in 2018.

Here are my thoughts:

1. Abandonment. I’ve been observing various forms of abandonment in the Bakken since as early as August 2015. This spring’s trip was no exception, but instead of seeing evidence for abandonment that we could use to reconstruct a sites earlier history, we’re now seeing sites that we’ve documented – or even stayed in – for years being dismantled or abandoned. For example, Capital Lodge, which served as our home base in the Bakken for the first few trips to the region, is now being dismantled and the modular units being sold off, bit-by-bit. 

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Near Alexander, two large workforce housing sites have been removed and relocated. The MSpace camp which stood on a rural road outside of Alexander, ND has been completely removed. In fact, we found most of the buildings from the camp in a lot just off the side of Route 85 north of Alexander. 

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The site of the settlement itself, which opened in 2013, is now abandoned.P1010964

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The rough camp outside the old school in Ross, ND is now abandoned as well, and the stackable units in Egan Township are being prepared to be moved to Midlands, Texas.

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2. Methods for Documenting Abandoned Camps. We discussed how to approach documenting abandonment in the Bakken. We both agreed that some kind of survey project could capture the material left behind at the sites if we could receive permission from landowners. It seems likely that the communities would also have an interest in our efforts to document the material left behind after a camp departs. Documenting these sites would have to include collecting movable objects, fixed assets like electrical and sewage hooks up, and changes to the landscape like leveling, scoria roads, and gravel for sites.    

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We also acknowledged the need dig into the various official records of the settlement sites to determine their legal status, property ownership, and any requirements for clean-up and restoration of the sites as well as their prior history.

Finally, we began to discuss how many sites would for a useful sample to say something meaningful about abandonment in our study area. As importantly, we discussed what we mean by abandonment. Do we mean that the sites have to be completely closed or that they’re in the process of being closed? Is our goal to document the remains of the use assemblage or post-abandonment site formation (understanding, of course, that both will be visible and documented).   

3. Settlement Patterns. I was intrigued to notice that some areas seem to have experienced a bit less abandonment than others. For example, the camps around the town of Alexander appear to be largely abandoned and removed, whereas the sites to the west of Watford City, tucked into the hill between the town and the Watford City Gas Plant, appear to still be occupied and the camps around the intersection of US 85 and Route 200 appear to be in rough shape but occupied as well (although the Bakken Buffet building has been removed). The ongoing use of these sites perhaps reflects the distribution of activity in the Bakken and their locations outside of the jurisdiction of local towns which have worked to eliminate temporary settlements – man camps, RV parks, and the like – in their jurisdiction and to transition workers to more permanent housing and hotels. 

4. The Temporary and the Permanent in the Bakken. We drove through the Watford City and admired the growing ring of new building around the town. As I noted a couple of years before, some of the apartments look similar to the mobile and modular housing that they served to replace suggesting that certain elements of industrial and residential design have started to overlap.

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What was equally striking this time through the Bakken was that many of these new constructions were occupied by the same assemblage of trucks and equipment that we saw at camps indicating that they served as worker housing (as well as family housing). A banner advertising four-bedrooms with four-and-a-half baths hint that some of these apartments are designed to accommodate groups of workers and to provide them with their own spaces. More than that, the buildings themselves showed sign of wear that suggested rather low-quality construction. 

In other words, both the residents of the housing may well be temporary. Of course, the permanence of an apartment buildings or even a hotel is relative as the image below of an abandoned modular home site with the closed “Shut-Eye Motel” in the background. 

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While I understand that permanent housing is as much defined by its tax status as anything else (and this has attendant benefits to the local communities), it still leaves to my mind a interesting tension between how our ideals of community and settlement have become increasingly defined by economic relationships that stand in as proxies for social values.

5. What’s next? So far, the North Dakota Man Camp Project has published a few articles and a book, but we’ve barely scratched the surface of the data that we’ve collected or the arguments that we can or want to make. We have another book in the pipeline (scheduled for 2019) and contributions to some other projects in the works, but I can’t shake the feeling that we need to do something a bit more sweeping and general.

In fact, I had a bit of a crisis on the trip as I read Hern, Johal, and Sacco’s Global Warming and the Sweetness of Life: A Tar Sands Tale (MIT 2017). The book reminded me that our work on the Bakken is really a contribution to a global story of petroculture. At the same time, petroculture is an expansive and dynamic body of thought that stretches from climate science to literature. Framing our work in the Bakken around these conversations is a daunting task, but I’m increasingly thinking that this is the most valuable contribution that our work can make (and by making our work visible to the current discussion of petroculture, we’re making our work visible to other scholars as well). 

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.

The Letters of Edward P. Roberston of Wesley College

This semester, I’ve been working with a remarkable group of students on the Wesley College Documentation Project. The goal of this project is to document the four buildings on campus associated with Wesley College, a unique co-institutional college that worked alongside UND to provide music, religious education, and housing for students enrolled in both UND and Wesley College. As part of that project, I’ve spent a good bit of time with the Wesley College papers and have become transfixed by the work and personality of the College’s first president, Edward P. Robertson. I thought I might share some of his personality with a wider audience by putting together a dossier of his letters from 1935, five years after he had retired as president of Wesley College. The letters were written during the Great Depression when the fate of Wesley College was anything but certain. Robertson’s dedication, persistence, and charm comes through in these letters composed during these difficult times. 

Here’s the link. This is just a first draft of this work. Here’s my temporary cover with the preface below: 

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The Letters of Edward Robertson, President Emeritus, Wesley College, from 1935

Preface

This collection of letters by Dr. Edward P. Robertson is the first draft of a hazy idea that I’ll attempt to explain in this short preface.

Dr. Edward Peter Robertson was the first president of Wesley College in Grand Forks, North Dakota. He was hired by the board of trustees of Red River Valley University in Whapeton, North Dakota in 1899. After a few years in Whapeton, he and the board decided that Grand Forks, North Dakota offered better opportunities for an institution of higher learning, and he successfully oversaw the moving of Red River Valley University from Whapeton to Grand Forks, where he rechristened it, Wesley College, in 1905. The reasons for this move are both complex and simple. Robertson felt that there was a better chance for the college to attract students and raise the necessary funds to operate if it were closer to the center of the state’s population which was largely concentrated in the Red River valley. From early on, Roberston recognized the importance of raising money from donors for Wesley College to succeed, and this understanding would shape his presidency and legacy.

This is not to suggest that he neglected the intellectual and spiritual aspects of running a Methodist College. In fact, the other reason that he founded Wesley College in Grand Forks was because of a remarkable arrangement he struck with the President of the University of North Dakota, Webster Merrifield. Merrifield and Robertson agreed that Wesley College would offer housing and courses for University of North Dakota students in religion, music, and elocution and expression and that these courses would count for credit at UND.

In 1908, 1909, and 1910, the first of three buildings at Wesley College opened, Sayre Hall, Larimore Hall, and Corwin Hall. The first two were men’s and women’s dormitories respectively and the third offered space for the music program and university offices. It is no exaggeration to say that in its first two decades, Wesley College moved from strength to strength with programs regularly enrolling as many as 400 students at various levels. They also maintained the attention of loyal and generous donors who ensured that the College had more than tuition and housing fees alone could provide.

The 1920s and early-1930s, however, were more difficult times. The agricultural crisis of the 1920s was bad for North Dakota, Wesley College students, and local donors. This did not discourage Robertson from securing funding from John Milton Hancock for the construction of what would become Robertson Hall which opened in 1930 and which completed a plan for the Wesley College first conceived in 1905.

The same year also saw Robertson’s retirement from the office of President of Wesley College, but the onset of the Great Depression and the worsening of the College’s financial situation, meant that his services were more needed than ever. Almost as soon as he had retired, the 70-year-old Robertson began to canvass his long-time donors for the increasingly urgent needs of the College. Unfortunately, many of these families suffered from the same economic woes as so many Americans and could no longer afford the same generosity that they had shown in the past. More troubling still is that some of the long-time supporters of the College had begun to question whether this undertaking would survive.

Frank Lynch, one of the more devoted supporters of Wesley College, withdrew his support and then agreed to donate more only if Wesley College could raise some funds first. Unfortunately, the details of this agreement remain a bit obscure (although some or another document may well emerge from the archives illuminating the agreement in detail). It appears as though Lynch offered Wesley College $150,000 in his will for an endowment in addition to $25,000 which he would make available immediately if College’s could manage to raise the necessary funds to pay its debt of $60,000 and to cover operating expenses. Using this offer, Robertson began a letter writing campaign to raise the needed funds.

The letters published here come from the Wesley College Papers (UA63, Box 1) currently housed in UND’s Chester Fritz Library’s Department of Special Collection’s University Archives. They all date from the year 1935 and document Robertson’s efforts to raise money on the basis of the Frank Lynch offers and to manage or eliminate the College’s debt. They reflect both Roberston’s determination and passion for Wesley College as well as a kind of congenial and person style of writing. The letters reveal the economic challenges of the time, extraordinary acts of generosity and compassion, and even some of the mundane obstacles that face anyone attempting to do good. They also lay bare Robertson’s occasional frustrations, disappointments, and genuine concern surrounding the fate of the institution to which he devoted his life.

More than that, they’re touching to read.

This publication is part of the Wesley College Documentation Project which is a multidisciplinary project to celebrate both the history of Wesley College and its unique place in the history of the University of North Dakota. In June of this year, the four major buildings of Wesley College are slated for demolition, but it is our hope that documenting these buildings and the Wesley College story will keep the College’s memory alive.

As I noted in the onset of this document, this is a draft publication which will hopefully develop over time and be joined by other works that tell the story of Wesley College. We hope the story of this college and the characters who shared its vision offers enduring perspectives that continue to have meaning today.  

Special thanks goes to the ten students who have worked with me on this project and the staff of UND’s Special Collections and UND’s Facilities Department who have facilitated our research throughout.

William Caraher

Associate Professor
Department of History
University of North Dakota
Grand Forks, North Dakota

Wesley College Wednesday

We are on the clock in the Wesley College Documentation Project with asbestos mitigation looming next week for Robertson/Sayre Hall and simply not enough time or person-power to document everything that we want to document as carefully as we’d like.

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That being said, we do continue to make progress. While Corwin/Larimore undergoes asbestos mitigation, we’ve had three good days of documenting in Sayre Hall and will return today for another few hours. Roberston/Sayre Hall(s) were built in 1930 and 1908 respectively with Sayre serving as a men’s dormitory for until the 1970s when it was acquired by the University of North Dakota. Robertson Hall was Wesley College administration and once it became part of UND, the building served as home to the TV studio, some administrative offices for UND, the learning technology division (under various names), and, of interest to our students, the honors program. The students in the one-credit honors class have worked to document the ground floor of Roberston/Sayre which housed honors until last year.

Another group of us have worked to capture video and still photos of the upper three floors of Sayre Hall – in particular – which featured several well-preserved dormitory rooms. The accommodations consisted of double rooms with a sitting room and a sleeping room. The latter had a shaving sink and a built in wardrobe as well as a small window to the hallway that allowed for cross ventilation in the warmer months.

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The latter had a picture rail that ran around the entire room at about 7 ft. The large windows in both rooms allowed in plenty of light. 

In one room the window glass preserved the etched names of four previous residents.

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Archie Whipple, class of 1910, went on to be head of grounds for UND and then University of Kentucky, follow UND’s President McVey to his new post in Lexington. Ben Russell (’11) became an executive at Idaho Power Co. Edgar Fisher (’13) died in France in World War I, and Ludvig Vobayda (’14?) became a lawyer in Minneapolis. 

The original staircase into Sayre remained in use throughout its history making it easier to envision the organization fo the space. It would appear that Sayre hall was a bit nicer than its twin Larimore Hall across the quad. Sayre featured terrazzo floors even on the ground floor and a common room there, with a fireplace and according to accounts, a piano. It is easy to imagine the clomping of hard soles on the terrazzo floors would be, as one account put it, “like approaching horses on cement.”

Roberston Hall likewise seems more ornate than Corwin with more wood fittings that were more carefully preserved. While Wesley College was never a tremendously prosperous institution, Robertson himself was a tireless fundraiser who courted some particularly wealthy and generous patrons. The well-appointed space of Robertson Hall likely suited John Milton Hancock, the New York investor and donor who made that building, and the completion of the Wesley College plan possible.  

The University of North Dakota’s Writers Conference

The first week after spring break every year (well, at least for the last 49 years), is the University of North Dakota’s Writers Conference. It’s an annual gathering of writers and readers from around the world and around the state.

This year’s theme is “Truth and Lies” which seems both intriguing and contemporary. The features authors include Molly McCully Brown, Nicholas Galanin, David Grann, Marlon James, Lauren Markham, and Ocean Vuong who offer readings, speak on panels, and show films that inspire and excite them.  

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The complete schedule is here.

This year, there will be a parallel event called the Grand Challenges Information Symposium. It features panels that intersect in some way with the Grand Challenges articulated by the visionary president of the University of North Dakota. Two editorial board members, David Haeselin and Eric Burin, and yours truly will be at a panel on Wednesday, March 21, from 2-2:45 in the Lecture Bowl of the Memorial Union to talk about the future of publishing. 

So if you’re in the region, please plan to attend the Writers Conference and our panel at the Grand Challenges Information Symposium! 

Cyprus is Everywhere

Last week, Annemarie Weyl Carr asked if anyone could offer a summary of a recent publication that they might share with the Cyprus American Archaeological Research Institute’s newsletter.  I thought it would be fun to share my most recent book on the Bakken, which in very real ways had its origins in the Eastern Mediterranean and on Cyprus, in particular.

So here’s my little write-up. It’s another attempt at writing in a more breezy and accessible style.

The Bakken: An Archaeology of an Industrial Landscape
Or Cyprus is Everywhere.

My first season excacating on Cyprus was in 2008. At that time, I had completed four seasons of intensive pedestrian survey at the site of Pyla-Koutsopetria, a coastal site located some 10 km east of Larnaka and just inside the British Base at Dhekelia. I was carrying the controller of a differential GPS unit across slopes of loose soil at the coastal height of Vigla while an unlikely colleague, Bret Weber, dutifully held the rover in place and leveled it as I recorded the point. We did this thousands of times on our way to making a high-resolution DEM of our site. It was boring work but gave us plenty of time for conversation.

Bret Weber was the project’s cook and camp manager, and he’d help out in the field almost every day. He also had a PhD in Western History and had almost completed his Masters in Social Work. He was deeply active in issues surrounding housing both in our home town of Grand Forks, North Dakota and in his scholarship in 20th century urbanism and social welfare. As we took point after point, we discussed the Bakken Oil Boom that had just started to rumble in western North Dakota and the growing rumors of life in the temporary “man camps” that had popped up across “the patch” to accommodate the influx of works. Those who couldn’t find room in a hotel or in a man camp ended up squatting in the Williston Walmart parking lot, and in various make-shift camps across the Bakken counties. At the same time, our work at the site of of Vigla where we clicked off point after point, revealed what we thought was probably a 4th-century mercenary camp, housing soldiers who occupied this prominent fortified height on the Cypriot coast during the tumultuous early Hellenistic era. We wondered about life in an ancient camp and whether the mercenary camp was similar to the encampments and short-term settlements that for millennial served miners in the Troodos mountains. Our field work, the history of settlement and extractive industries on Cyprus, and important work of archaeologists and historians to unpack the relationship between the two, framed our discussion of what was going with settlement and extractive industries in western North Dakota.

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When Bret and I returned home we continued to reflect on our fieldwork conversations, we read extensively on the organization of settlement and extractive industries in a global context, we recruited a range of colleagues to our project, many of whom were Mediterranean archaeologists, and, finally, in 2012, we inaugurated the North Dakota Man Camp Project. The Bakken: An Archaeology of an Industrial Landscape (Fargo, ND: North Dakota State University Press 2017) is the first book-length publication from this project.

This book used the genre of the tourist guide to present the bustling and sometimes ephemeral landscape of the Bakken oil patch. The decision to frame our work as a tourist guide once again drew on my experience as a tourist in Greece in the 1990s and then Cyprus in early 21st century which indelibly shaped my view of the landscape. The language of my trusty Rough and Blue Guide for Greece and Cyprus suffused the language of The Bakken, which, like these handy guides, is divided into routes and sites. Our goal was to evoke the modern experience of tourism created, in part, by such iconic guidebooks as Baedeker’s and the Blue Guide which became synecdoches for the informed tourist. More importantly, my summers in Greece and Cyprus as both an informed tourist and an archaeologist reinforced the parallels between these two deeply modern experiences of landscapes. The spaces and places defined and described by both tourism and archaeology are profoundly modern. In short, my time on Cyprus made me aware of my modern way of seeing the world.

In a 1982 essay, the poet Tom McGrath used the phrase, “North Dakota is Everywhere” to reflect on the influence of the prairie state on writers, artists, and readers around the world. In writing The Bakken: An Archaeology of an Industrial Landscape, I hope readers familiar with my other archaeological work will see in its pages that maybe “Cyprus is Everywhere” as well.

Celebrating Wesley College’s Corwin Hall

I’m on the road today delivering boxes of North Dakota Quarterlys to the Magic City, but I figured folks might enjoy a video from yesterday’s send off for Corwin Hall. Here’s a blog post on that.

We’ll release a far higher fidelity recording of the music next month, but for now, here’s a Facebook video.

 

Hearing the Past in Byzantium and North Dakota

It was a happy coincidence that I read Sharon Gerstel and co.’s recent article in Hesperia on the acoustics of two well-known churches in Thessaloniki on the same week that I’ve arranged for a little concert in Corwin Hall at the University of North Dakota as part of my Wesley College Documentation Project.

I’ve been lucky enough to chat a bit with Amy Papalexandrou about ideas very similar to those Gerstel and her crew sought to document at the Acheiropoietos church and Hagia Sophia in Thessaloniki. The goal of the project was to determine whether the architecture of these buildings functioned to promote (or more likely co-create) certain soundscapes in these buildings throughout their long histories. The evidence is suggestive, if a largely inconclusive. The buildings themselves have changed since the Byzantine period and their acoustic character is likely significantly different than it was in the past. Painted plaster wall instead of marble revetting, the removal of parapet screens between columns, and the absence of fabric wall coverings, rugs, and other damping in the buildings promoted different conditions that transformed the sound of these churches. As significantly, human bodies absorb sound and large congregations on feast days, for example, would have transformed the signature of the building as well. 

None of this is to diminish the significance of the acoustic research into these spaces. After all, most architectural and art historians can look beyond later modifications of these spaces to understand and “see” the original structures and their visual impacts. My own work, for example, considered the role that the columnar screens between the aisles and the central nave played on the visual experience of a processional liturgy. The impact of sound on both the experience and the shape of the liturgy in long-lived buildings would have almost certainly been as significant as the visual experience of the Christian rite. 

Later today, we’ll be recording the acoustic properties of the turn-of-the-century Wesley College recital room in Corwin Hall on the campus of the University of North Dakota. Rather than trying for a kind of rigorously empirical recording that seeks in frequency response and other quantitative measures to document the sonic signature of a room, we are attempting to capture the essence of the space through performance. We are fortunate to have a willing collaborator in Mike Wittgraf, from UND’s music department, who is an accomplished musician as well as a specialist in electronically mediated music that takes advantage of multiple speakers, microphones, and other acoustic devices to create new sounds.

We’re doing this with the full understanding that this room has been modified in rather significant ways. The most significant modifications occurred in the late 1970s where the north wall of the room was moved forward some 8 feet and drop ceilings were installed around the edge of the room to hide ductwork. The windows have been partly filled in with more efficient aluminum windows and the room lacks damping drapery or other window treatments that almost certainly would have featured in the original building.  

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All the same, the room clearly possess some of its former acoustic properties. The high vaulted ceiling, for example, creates what Mike Wittgraf called a distinctive “ring” to the room. Performing in the space today, however, will tell part of the story of the building’s history. While we don’t have original recordings from the space (at least that we know of), our recording in the building will offer a perspective from which a savvy ear or just a curious mind might imagine what the room sounded like in its original configuration just as an experience or imaginative eye can see through various renovations to the space and visualize its original form.

Finally, I’d like to imagine that this is part of an archaeology of care. Corwin Hall is scheduled for demolition this spring and the space surely witness more than its share of nervous and exuberant performances over its first 50 years of life as a recital hall (from 1909 to 1965 or so). Wesley College originally served as the music department for UND and Mike Wittgraf’s parting concert – featuring Wesleyan hymns appropriate for a funeral – serves as fitting send off for the room and the building.

Tune in to my Facebook page at around noon today to catch a broadcast of the concert. We’ll also release the various recordings with some explanation in the future.  

The Wesley College Documentation Project

In about a half hour, I start my one-credit class designed to document the two buildings on the University of North Dakota’s campus associated with Wesley College: Robertson/Sayre and Corwin/Larimore halls. I’ve christened this project the Wesley College Documentation Project

1. Research Questions and Goals

The project has a number of overlapping research questions that focus on how buildings make manifest the history and changing priorities of an American university and its campus. In particular, I am interested in how the architecture of Wesley College, the innovative relationship between Wesley College and UND, and the organization of space within the original buildings reflects the negotiation of campus priorities between the two institutions over the 50 years of their co-institutional existence. 

I am also interested in abandonment, however, and want to understand how the material manifestation of the abandonment (and demolition) of these buildings manifests the complicated relationship between university financial strategy, budget cuts and austerity, faculty, staff, and students needs in the 21st century, and the construction and preservation of historical memory at UND. 

These research questions boil down to three goals:

1. Study the history of Wesley College in the context of Robertson/Sayre and Corwin/Larimore Halls.

2. Document the historical architecture, spaces, and memories tied to the physical fabric of Wesley College and UND’s Robertson/Sayre and Corwin/Larimore Halls.

3. Document the process of abandonment throughout these buildings as evidence for 21st century university life.

2. Methods

This course will focus on the careful examination and documentation of both the architecture of Robertson/Sayre and Corwin/Larimore, but also how the university adapted these buildings over time to serve new functions for campus. From their origins as dormitories to their final days as classroom, offices, and labs, R/S and C/L halls have functioned as quintessential university buildings and have both preserved traces of their pasts uses and their present abandonment.

The best way to recognize these changes and the history of these buildings is looking carefully at the physical fabric and what was left behind. To do this, we will document carefully rooms across both buildings noting what is in the rooms now, whether the rooms have been changed or transformed, and how the various transformations provide clues to their functions across time. We will use photography, video, sketch drawings, and textual descriptions to document the life of these buildings on site as well as some time with archival descriptions, photographs, and plans.

The Archival Research

The University Archives in the Department of Special Collections at the UND library has a good collection of Wesley College Papers some of which describe the construction and funding of Robertson/Sayre and Corwin/Larimore halls and some describe life in these buildings. While creating a digital collection of papers related to these buildings is not as pressing a priority as documenting the buildings themselves, it is something that we should start this semester.

There are also published and unpublished works similarly tell the story of Wesley College and its buildings. We should look to create a bibliography of these works over the next two months.

Oral History

Memories are often linked to space and places. Engaging long time denizens of the Wesley College buildings and encouraging them to tell stories about their time in the buildings will be a key aspect of our work. Creating an oral history archive to accompany our archival research and archaeological and architectural documentation will ensure that memories tied to the physical fabric of the buildings is not lost.

Archaeological Procedures

Most archaeological knowledge is based on careful observation and systematic documentation. The core of our work in these buildings is looking carefully and documenting what we see.

In many cases, the rooms in Robertson/Sayre and Corwin/Larimore are still filled with stuff. This stuff is the detritus of years of use as offices, dorm rooms, classrooms, and associated spaces, and in many cases reflect a distinct moment of the abandonment of these buildings.

The plan is to create two-person teams, each with a phone, a camera, a notebook, and a floor plan.

1. One team member takes a video with their phone of the room starting at the doorway and then moving systematically through the space using smooth, even, and deliberate movements. The video should be at least 30 seconds long and might be much longer depending on the size of the room. Once the video is complete, record the file number in the notebook.

2. The second team member starts to describe the entire room in the notebook starting with the ceiling, floor, and window, and then moving counter-clockwise around the room one wall at a time noting (1) any evidence for changes to the fabric or organization of the room over time, (2) all of the rooms features including power outlets, ethernet boxes, light switches, nails in the wall, (3) all furniture with whenever possible, the name of the furniture manufacture, (4) all pieces of technology, (5) all other objects or signs of use (papers, stickers, trash).

3. The first team member sketches the room onto the “one-line” drawing making sure to position the furniture and objects accurately in relation to the architecture.

4. When the sketch and drawing is done, one team member photographs the room systematically making sure that each side of the room is photographed in such a way to capture all the objects and features of the room. The number of photographs for each room will vary depending on the size and organization of the room, but more photos are always better then fewer photos.

Performance

Just last night, I had a conversation with Richard Rothaus, a collaborator on this project, and he nudged me to think about how we can commemorate the lives of these buildings through performance. As we toured the buildings last week, we talked about having the letters between Wesley College President Edward Robertson and one of the major donors to the university A.J. Sayre, after whose late son Sayre Hall is named. The letters, particularly after Sayre’s son died in WWI are sad and personal and it makes clear that Sayre’s contribution to Wesley College were grounded in early 20th century ideas.

We also talked about doing something with Maxwell Anderson’s 1911 senior play, The Masque of the Pedagogues. Anderson was a resident of Sayre Hall and the characters in his play trace the experiences of a student early 20th century UND in a humorous and irreverent way. I have an idea who could play the part of Orin G. Libby…

I also think that the Wesley College spaces could be used, on last time, to perform music. 

For more on the Wesley College Documentation Project, go here.