A Conclusion to Hearing Corwin Hall

This week, I started pulling together a short article for Shawn Graham’s journal Epoiesen. I’ve been posting them in somewhat random order here on my blog. Because I wanted to foreground Mike Witrgraf’s video work “Hearing Corwin Hall,” I decided to introduce the article with only a very short lede and then embed the video work on the page. You can read that here and watch the video here.

Then, treating “Hearing Corwin Hall” as a kind of archaeological data or object, I proceeded with a longer discussion that offers context for the piece and some basic analysis. You can read more of that here.

Finally, I’ve put together a not entirely satisfying conclusion here which draws on the work of Sara Perry, Ruth Tringham, and Cornelius Holtorf. This will obviously require some revision for clarity and it’ll also need to be expanded, but I’m tired today and have grading to do and some other projects that are demanding my attention. So for today, this feels like a wrap. I’ll put the entire piece together sometime in the next week or two, circulate to my co-authors, and then send it off to Shawn and Company early next year.  


The piece seeks to communicate in non verbal ways the history and archaeology of Corwin Hall. This approach to archaeology with parallels with recent calls for an affective archaeology. Sara Perry’s work, for example, explored the role of enchantment and affect in producing knowledge of the past (Perry 2015, 2019). For Perry, enchantment lies at the core of archaeology’s ability to produce action. Hearing Corwin Hall communicates the anxiety of change in campus through a range of non-verbal techniques anchored in the reproduction of the acoustic character of the recital room and the various events associated with the Wesley College Documentation Project. The techniques used in Hearing Corwin Hall paralleled those discussed by Ruth Tringham’s in her recent article on creating ways to explore the deep past that do not rely on the use of contemporary language. Tringham’s willingness to create engagements with the past that allow for significant ambiguity where the audience has opportunities for an emotional response, imagination, and reflection often lost in traditional archaeological texts, descriptions, and reconstructions (2019). We hoped that Hearing Corwin Hall allows listeners to not only experience some of our own encounters with these buildings, but also formulate their own views. Despite the ambiguity of many of the electronic sounds and the garbled looped voice, and the abrasiveness, abruptness, and density of the piece invites strong opinions and responses.

In many ways, the appeal of Hearing Corwin Hall to the enchanting and affecting potential of heritage, does not entirely avoid appealing to“crisis based” or “heritage at risk” narratives. As Cornelius Holtorf has argued crisis based narratives which seek to communicate a sense of urgency by viewing of cultural heritage as a limited and ever shrinking resource has only a limited potential to motivate more expansive, inclusive, or resilient views of the community (Holtorf 2015, 2018). At the same time, by seeking to commemorate and recognize the destruction of the Wesley College buildings on UND’s campus through conventional documentation practices as well as performances and the Hearing Corwin Hall recording we situated the demolition of these buildings within a larger conversation of change on campus and the anxieties that liminal states induce. Our efforts to document the changes to these buildings prior to their destruction by using the compromised acoustics of the recital hall as filter for Hearing Corwin Hall serves as both a reminder that campuses have always been the locations of change and art, music, history, and archaeology offer ways to bring attention to both the emotional impact of the contemporary situation, but also the resilience of the campus community. Hearing Corwin Hall makes clear that the loss of the Wesley College buildings contributed to a sense of local trauma. Performances offer one way to recognize, communicate, and ultimately mitigate the impact of continuous trauma of liminal anxiety on our campus.

More Fragments from Hearing Corwin Hall

This week, I’ve been working on a piece for Epoiesen based on Mike Wittgraf’s “Hearing Corwin Hall.”

You can watch the video here: 

My article introduces the video with a brief lede. The rest of the article follows the video and includes a short introduction to the Wesley College Documentation Project called “Studying Corwin Hall” and then a section on the history of Corwin Hall (“Building Corwin Hall”). The final two sections, which I’ve included in the blog post, deal at least superficially with performance, ruins, and affective and emotive archaeology.

Performing Corwin Hall

By the time that the Wesley College Documentation Project began the buildings were already abandoned. The last psychology faculty had reluctantly pulled up stakes from Corwin-Larimore Halls only after he had sent off the last grant application of the season. The honors program and campus technology services had departed Robertson-Sayre Hall at around the same time. Thus the buildings themselves entered a period of liminality. The traces of their prior use continuing to linger in the rooms, offices, and hallways, but at the same time, their fate was sealed and asbestos mitigation and demolition scheduled. The objects left behind and the histories of these buildings seemed to have reached a clear end point. Offices with mid-century desks, 21st century chairs, particleboard books shelves, bulletin boards, window air-conditioner units, and locked filing cabinets still preserved the imprints of their former occupants. Classrooms remain filled with rows of abandoned chairs too outdated for even state-university surplus and tables and lecterns long ago supplanted by high-tech ”teaching stations” with integrated computers. The labs of the third floor were filled with aging computers, dense tangles of obsolete connectors, and abandoned equipment of uncertain age and function. The content of these spaces reflected not only their present abandoned state, but revealed the abandonment as a process that began long before the university scheduled these buildings for destruction.

Our encounter with Corwin and Larimore Halls was not only infused that its failure to survive as an independent institution and its impending erasure from campus, but also by the objects that were left behind which served as a diachronic reminder that campuses exist in a state of constant flux. As a result, our work in the liminal space of the Wesley College buildings amplified the pervasive sense of anxiety across campus. In an effort to recognize the liminal state in which these buildings existed, we decided to combine our work with two events designed to mark out both contemporary and past changes on campus. The first event centered on recognizing that Sayre Hall was renamed in the 1920s for Harold H. Sayre who was killed in World War I. To commemorate the demolition of this building almost exactly a century after the Armistice that ended the Great War, we invited campus dignitaries, officials from the Grand Force Air Force Base and the city, as well as faculty, staff, and students to a short ceremony designed to recognize the end of this memorial building. The event involved brief reflections on the building, the sacrifices of veterans, and a bagpiper on a beautiful spring day. The program included a poem composed by Sayre’s pilot who credited Sayre’s bravery with saving his life when they were shot down in France.

Simon Murray’s recent book, Performing Ruins, considers the feelings that ruins evoke when they serve as the setting for performances. Murray acknowledged that the definition of ruins was ambiguous, but that the term typically described buildings that were in movement or between the states of use to terminal collapse. In this context, the Wesley College buildings, while still standing and intact, were ruins as their abandonment, neglect, and fate combine to create a sense of inevitable decline. As Wyatt Atcheley’s photographs, which accompany this article demonstrate, the status of the Wesley College buildings as ruins produced an experience of the uncanny which is common in liminal spaces and confused encounters with the familiar and unfamiliar. In Murray’s work, he notes that the occupation of ruins through their performance seeks in some cases to suspend these spaces and to arrest, for a moment, their movement into oblivion (288-289). The ceremonies associated with Sayre Hall implicitly invited the community to consider the parallel between Sayre’s death and the destruction of his memorial. By accentuating Sayre’s memory, the ceremony briefly reversed the inevitable flow of time toward the building’s destruction and the memorial’s erasure from campus. This also presented an opportunity to critique the changes taking place on campus by drawing attention to buildings prior to their destruction. The tendency for contractors to demolish in between terms and in the summer months when students and faculty are not on campus is often a concession to safety, but it also has the effect of making buildings seem simply to disappear.

The second performance associated with the Wesley College buildings was a final concert in the Corwin Hall recital room. William Caraher introduced the room and the selection of songs with brief remarks at the beginning of the event. Then, Michael Wittgraf performed several songs from the Methodist hymnal on an electronic keyboard to a small audience who sat amid stacks of abandoned classroom chairs, tables, and scraps of paper. At the end of the performance, he recorded a series of sounds designed to capture more clearly the acoustic signature of the space. To record the room’s signature and the concert we arranged seven microphones both within the recital hall, but also throughout Larimore Hall and on the landing outside the southern entrance to the room. Our goal was to produce an acoustic archaeology of the room by capturing not only whatever character of the original recital hall remained, but also the sound of the transformed space. In this way, we use acoustic recording methods in a similar way to the visual recording techniques typically used by archaeologists to record buildings and landscapes.

The inspiration for this project came from several recent efforts to capture the acoustic character of Byzantine churches in Greece and Turkey (Papalexandrou 2017; Gerstel et al. 2018). These projects typically involved sophisticated recording strategies and technology as well as choirs performing period appropriate music. This work, however, sought to reconstructing ancient, Medieval, or Early Modern “soundscapes” (Smith 1999). It was appealing to imagine that we could reconstruct the original acoustics of the now-compromised Corwin recital room, but we neither had the technology nor the time to attempt such an ambitious sonic simulation. Instead, by performing in the Corwin Hall room, we aimed to document the room’s abandoned and transformed state. Like the project’s broader effort to recognize the traces of use throughout these buildings, the acoustic signature of the room would capture, even if in subtle and indistinct ways, the sounds of its transformation, neglect, and abandonment. By performing this event with an audience we once again sought to pause the inevitable progress of the building toward demolition and abandonment. We also sought to locate bodies in the acoustic space of the building invoking its history as a recital hall, a classroom, and part of a bustling department and campus. In short, our recording both recognized the terminal status of the building and the room, while also capturing its transformations. The songs were superficially familiar, but the transformed space rendered them uncanny.

Hearing Corwin Hall

The event in the Corwin Hall recital room was not the final performance associated with the project. The recordings of the music and the sounds of the rooms became the basis for a multimedia performance work called Hearing Corwin Hall which captured the liminal state of Corwin Hall but also embodied the anxiety present on our university campus. These performances, in turn, became the basis for the video associated with this article. By using the acoustics of Corwin Hall as a filter for the audio component of performance, Wittgraf located the anxiety present in the recital hall’s liminal and compromised space. It also embodied the anxiety endemic on university campuses and in the particular situation on UND’s campus created a heightened sense of anxiety.

Hearing Corwin Hall told the story of the buildings and the Wesley College campus. From the construction of the buildings, triggered by the placement of a brick on the stage at the 1:30 mark which interrupted the peaceful chorus of crickets that comprised the first 100 seconds of the piece. The introduction of the sounds of motors and passing traffic along side the crickets and soon a looped track of Caraher’s voice indicates the purchase of campus by UND in the 1960s. The initial placement of a sledge hammer on bricks, then brings in the organ and Sheila Liming’s bagpipe from the Sayre Hall memorial ceremony as the din of traffic and Caraher’s looped voice continues. The powerful blows with the sledgehammer at the 6:40 mark the start of the building’s destruction which then slowly descends into the reverberation acoustics of the Corwin Hall. The last four minutes of the piece lingers offering a false sense of resolution. The buildings are gone, but their echoes persist.

Hearing Corwin Hall

One of my favorite things is Shawn Graham’s Epoiesen journal. As its tag line suggests, Epoiesen is a journal for “creative engagement in history and archaeology,” and I’ve been looking for an opportunity to contribute something more substantial than a response to its digital pages.

A couple of years ago, I worked with an amazing team of students and friends on the Wesley College Documentation Project. As part of that project, my colleague Mike Wittgraf produced a mixed media piece called “Hearing Corwin Hall.” He has both performed this piece nationally and recorded a video version. Our plan is to submit the video version with an accompanying essay to Epoiesen sometime “soon.” The video is done and my essay is… well, it’s coming together. The hardest part so far is balance my need to explain everything with the desire to allow the work to stand on its own. My current solution is a short “lede” followed by the video. I think will develop more of the academic component of our piece in a “discussion” after the video. None of this is cast in stone, obviously, but I present it here as a start.

Hearing Corwin Hall


Hearing Corwin Hall is a multimedia work composed and performed by Michael Wittgraf. The piece is based on two month archaeological, architectural, and archival documentation project of two, adjoining, double buildings on the University of North Dakota’s Grand Forks campus: Robertson-Sayre Halls, built in 1929 and 1908 and Corwin-Larimore Halls, built in 1909/1910. The buildings were originally part of Wesley College, an independent, Methodist Institution established in Grand Forks in 1905 and closely affiliated with UND. Sayre and Larimore were men’s and women’s dorms respectively and Robertson and Corwin hall were offices and classroom space. Corwin Hall also housed music rehearsal rooms and the college’s recital hall, a fine room with a capacity of 100.

In 1965, UND acquired the buildings and until 2016, they housed various departments, programs, labs, classrooms, and offices. In 2018, UND demolished the buildings as part of an effort to reduce the campus footprint by eliminating buildings encumbered with significant deferred maintenance costs from the university budget and campus. A team of students in collaboration with William and Susan Caraher formed the Wesley College Documentation Project to study the buildings and the objects left behind. They had virtually unfettered access to the buildings in the time between their abandonment and their demolition. This project produced not only a small archive of descriptive data, photographs, and analysis, but also coordinated two public events and published a photo essay that commemorated and critiqued the buildings, Wesley College as an institution, and the contemporary financial and cultural situation on UND’s campus.

Hearing Corwin Hall draws upon the work of the Wesley College Documentation Project. It integrates images from the building’s final months, audio drawn from the project’s public events, and the acoustic signature of the Corwin Hall’s recital room which although compromised over the 100 year history of structure preserved traces of its past function. Michael Wittgraf’s Hearing Corwin Hall is also set against the backdrop of significant institutional, administrative, and cultural changes at UND and in higher education more generally. A more thorough consideration of the work and the Wesley College Documentation Project appears in the discussion below.


College campuses are anxious places.

The looming demographic downturn, changing funding priorities among donors and legislators, and a whelming tide of anti-intellectualism in American life have contributed to a growing sense of uncertainty surrounding the future of higher education. Many college campuses, at least in the United States, have initiated strategic planning, prioritization, and reimagining programs designed to help institutions navigate an uncertain future. Each year, another crop of books appear promising to diagnose, mitigate, or manage current or anticipated crises in funding, enrollment, teaching, research, and student expectations. There is an expectation that higher education is an industry in transition and that the college campus of the future will look very different from the campus of today.

The contemporary situation in higher education in many ways follows a familiar path. State universities, in particular, have long situated themselves at the intersection of progress and tradition. They celebrated both cutting edge research and conservative practices both in the rituals of college life, the architecture of campus, and the academic and research programs undertaken by students and faculty. College Gothic buildings rub shoulders with the latest in post-modern architecture, the century-old rituals of commencement and graduation accommodate spectacles of more radical inclusivity and reconciliation, online teaching introduces students to Classics and calculus, and researchers on Shakespeare share library budgets with new programs in nanotechnology and unmanned, autonomous vehicles.

Many contemporary college students remain liminal creatures as well. They live communally in dormitories or rental housing, and their lives pivot as much around the rhythm of the semester as off-campus employment, family life, and socializing. As a result, many college students neither bear the full economic and social responsibilities of adulthood nor the living arrangements and dependence of childhood. As any number of commentators have observed, college is a time of social transition for students. In college students learn to navigate the responsibilities of adult life without fully giving up the structures of student life or parental protections which are often transferred to institutions who provide food, housing, and social opportunities. The distinctive space of the college campus, for example, often locates the liminal experience of college students in areas not entirely public and integrated into the fabric of their community or entirely private and set apart.

Thus, college campuses embody a kind of liminality that not only emphasizes the current sense of institutions in transition but also longstanding tensions between progressive values and traditional practices and between adulthood and student life. As mid-century anthropologists have taught us these liminal situations often contribute to a sense of anxiety which underscores the vulnerability and strangeness of institutions and individuals that resist clear definition and stand “betwixt and between” various social statuses. Societies often seeks to resolve and contain liminal individuals and groups through formally structured ritual practices, confinement, and other forms of social limiting designed as much to protect society from the destabilizing entities as to confer a temporary status on those outside of traditional categories. Rites of passage, for example, frequently mark the successful navigation from one status to another and resolve the tension of liminal transitions with celebration. At the same time, we continue to treat individuals and groups who are unable to escape from the liminal status with deep suspicion.

The Wesley College Documentation Project involved a group of students interested in studying the Wesley College buildings on the University of North Dakota campus. The class began as a 1-credit Honors “pop up course” that ran in the spring of 2018 and paralleled an honors class dedicated to studying the UND budget which had undergone significant changes over the preceding years. The goal of the project was to document in as many ways as possible, the architecture and material culture of the Wesley College buildings, their history, and 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.

Brokenness and Repair

Over the last week or so, I’ve been carrying around Francisco Martínez’s and Patrick Laviolette’s book Repair, Brokenness, Breakthrough: Ethnographic Responses (Berghahn 2019) in part to keep my fingers in the book that I’m trying to write on the archaeology of contemporary America and, in part, because I thought it might speak to me about the headlines these days that emphasize the brokenness of, say, the US health systems. (That there are case studies involving the Pantheon clock and Swiss watches is just a happy bonus!). 

The essays largely focus on the materiality of brokenness and repair. The case studies from Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Republics in Central Asia offered particularly compelling case studies. In these contexts, brokenness largely represented the transition from state-controlled and centrally administered regimes of maintenance to a system grounded in the market economics. Tamta Khalvashi’s ethnography of brokenness and maintenance in the elevators of Georgia, for example, provided insights into the strategies used to ensure that the elevators in Soviet era apartment buildings continued to function once the centralized maintenance systems became privatized. From coin boxes to the contributions of residents (and the various efforts from folks to game the system or to avoid paying their share of elevator maintenance costs), Khalvashi maps the adaptive strategies of various communities in their effort to preserve the material manifestations of an earlier regime. Similar ethnographies of roads, holes, and buildings in other former communist block countries demonstrated similar trajectories where brokenness represents discontinuities within the history of these places and repairs present efforts both at preserving experiences and utility of objects and places as well as marking the passage of time.

As someone who has spent most of my adult life on university campuses and some recent time exploring and documenting soon-to-be-demolished buildings, I found the exploration of brokenness and repair a useful way of understanding the fabric of these buildings. More than that, it helped me appreciate the materiality of their history and how their fragmented and discontinuous pasts challenge the kinds of cohesive narratives that institutions cultivate. If the two tensions of traditional and progress define university campuses, then the visibility of repairs complicates a present constructed as an uninterrupted expression of past values. It also suggests that progress does not follow a continuous and rational trajectory from the flawed and imperfect to the improved and perfected. Repairs indicate recursive and imperfect encounters with tradition and the halting and discontinuous working of progress.

On our campus, then, the buildings most scarred with repairs the first buildings that ambitious administrators seek to erase with new constructions. These new buildings embody progress by overwriting the past and suggest tradition by creating a purified version of the architectural styles present across campus which then stand is as pure examples of an uninterrupted past.

In short, brokenness and repair create problematic ruptures in the way in which communities understand their past. At the same time, preserving evidence for repair, in turn, preserves the ruptures in the past that reveal agency in ways that the rather disembodied or heroic narratives of progress and tradition attempt to overwrite. 

Montgomery Hall

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.

Montgomery Hall on the UND campus is an example of the Tudor Revival architectural style The hall was designed by architect Joseph Bell DeRemer and built in 1911 to be the dining hall for students

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. 

Wesley College Entombed

Last fall, my colleague (and student) Wyatt Atchley published a photo essay in North Dakota Quarterly based on our work with Wesley College buildings on the campus of the University of North Dakota. You can download this essay (and the entire volume of NDQ for free here) or go and check out the digital exhibit here. For more on the larger Wesley College project, go here.

This past week, Wyatt developed more of film photographs from this project and sent them along to me and agreed to let me post them here on my blog. He took this next group of photos from the Wesley College “bone yard” where that UND has stored the various architectural members of the demolished buildings. Wrapped in plastic, encased in wood, and set on pallets, the glazed brick facades and cornices of the Wesley College buildings are still shockingly modern. Their Classical motifs represent efforts in the contemporary university to preserve parts of their past — albeit out of sight and maybe out of mind—while moving forward.  

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Chairs Telling Stories

I read last week that Michael Wolf died. He was a photographer whose work mostly concerned cities. As part of his interest in urban street life he produced a series called “Bastard Chairs.” You can check it out here.

There’s something strangely personal about chairs. They reflect our daily routine and our daily movements. They are our constant companions and the make their forms and limits felt in our bodies. I have a favorite chair at home that reminds my neck and back weekly of our incompatibility. At various times in my career, I’ve collected orphan chairs from around the various buildings where I worked and moved them to my office. They aren’t terrible comfortable or attractive, but they sometimes prove useful. An office or a room without a chair seems particularly abandoned or unoccupied. A chair represents human presence and is a useful metonym for the human who occupies it: e.g. department chair. 

One of my favorite books is Jonathan Olivares, A Taxonomy of Office Chairs. (2011), and it was a helpful guide to the abandoned office furnishings in the Wesley College buildings that were destroyed last summer.

Here are some of the chairs left behind. I love how they’re rarely at the center of the photo and often out of focus. At the same time, they represent the absent presence of the individuals and groups who dwelled in these spaces.

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Living on Campus in Larimore Hall

The Wesley College Documentation Project has long simmered on the back burner, but I haven’t lost track of it. This weekend, I read Carla Yanni’s Living on Campus: An Architectural History of the American Dormitory (2019), and it helped me understand and contextualize a few of the more interesting features of Larimore Hall.

The first floor of Larimore Hall featured two rooms who function, arrangement, and features confused us at first.

The first room is a space was a space originally marked as Room 7 on early one-line plans of the space and it stood at the south (left) side of Larimore Hall before it widens out to form the lowest level of Corwin. 

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The space was entered by a double door with an elaborate wood frame:


The ceiling preserved the lines of the central hallway, but these were coved to great a more interesting and elaborate space. The windows were likely decorated with wainscoting and more elaborate trim than the windows elsewhere in the building and there is evidence for a picture rail running just below the coving on the ceilings.

This more elaborate, common space was characteristic of women’s dormitories at the turn of the century. These spaces were often larger than their counterparts in men’s dorms for a number of reasons. They provided a chaperoned space for men and women to interact as well as a spaces for women to perform domesticity. The need for these kinds of spaces reflected not only turn of the century social critics’ fear that lesbianism might might arise from women living together without the company of men, but also the restraints on the social movement of single women in outside of campus. 

The opposite end of the same floor in the building was another similar space that spanned the entire width of the structure on the northern side of the building (and on the one-line plan above is divided from the hallway by a later wall). The earliest floor present in this space preserved a series of wooden slats set into the concrete floor. These served to support a floating floor. More evidence for this comes from the baseboards which are set over two inches above the concrete floor into which the rails were set. This gap allowed for space for a wooden floor to stand. It is likely that this space supported a wooden gymnasium type floor for a fitness or exercise room. Like the parlor on the building’s south side, this too spanned the entire width of the building and was entered through another pair of double doors. 

The presence of an exercise room in a women’s dorm initially struck us as a bit odd. Yanni’s book, however, argues that at the turn of the century university leaders were as worried about the physical health of women as their social standing. The inclusion of fitness facilities in the women’s dormitory was not particularly unusual.

Yanni’s book also revealed the spread of the “double-loaded corridor” style dormitories at the turn of the century and demonstrated remarkable parallels from the across the U.S. The similarities in plan, for example, between A. Wallace McRae’s Larimore Hall (1908) and the York and Sawyer’s Martha Cook dormitory (1915) at the University of Michigan, show both similar educational philosophies to residential life as well as solutions to practical problems. The double-loaded corridor plan allowed administrators to limit access to the building at key points to manage visits from outsiders, particularly men. The arrangement of closets along the outer walls of the dormitory rooms dampened the noise from the hard floors of the public hallways. The arrangement of rooms as two rooms suites ensured some social interaction between residents of the dorm and served to socialize residents.

In the end, the book’s clear-eyed and historical treatment of the priorities of campus life offers relatively few surprises to anyone familiar early 20th century higher education and campus plans. At the same time, Yanni’s attention to the practical execution and implementation of these priorities – from socialization to the forming of gender norms and educational philosophies and practices –  offers a distinct perspective on the way in which university administrators hoped that architecture would make a campus work. 

Images of Austerity from the Wesley College Documentation Project

One of the coolest things about being the editor of a little magazine like NDQ is that I have a platform to support the work of my extraordinary colleagues and every now and then I can let my other interests bleed over into the Quarterly’s page.  A few years ago, I co-edited a volume on slow (NDQ 80.3 (2013)) and in the most recent volume, we included a photo essay by Wyatt Atchley called “Images of Austerity” which contributes to a special section on the Humanities in the Age of Austerity. 

Wyatt took the photographs in this essay during the Wesley College Documentation Project, and the photographs feature the now-demolished Corwin-Larimore and Robertson-Sayre Halls. 


The argument that Wyatt’s photographs make is not explicit, but implicit. It makes visible the relationship between austerity and waste, consumption, and neglect present on just one of the many campuses around the world enduring the often paradoxical consequences of austerity.

Check out his essay and some of the photographs here. Check out more of his photographs from the project hereAnd download and read the entire volume including the section on the Humanities in the Age of Austerity here.

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.