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:

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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. 

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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.

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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:

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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.   

 

Ruins and Curated Decay

This weekend I read Cailin Desilvey’s Curated Decay: Heritage Beyond Saving (2017). It is a pretty great little book that filled my mind with ideas that cut across a number of things that I’ve been working on (or being tempted by) lately. Her book considers an alternative view of preservation that encourages allowing the formation of ruins rather than the continuous intervention necessary to arrest the decay in historical buildings. She draws on examples from the storm-battered coast of the U.K. and rural Montana that illustrate how allowing certain sites to decay and fall into ruination creates a different attitude toward our material world, nature, and time.

In particular, the process of decay undermines the view that historical buildings should persist forever outside of time. Instead, she proposes a post-human view of these buildings that locate them as part of the natural world, recognizes the dynamic character of the building’s materiality, embraces the potential of  fragmentation, and, nevertheless, still places ruins in historical and mnemonic landscapes. Above all, Desilvey emphasizes that conventional practices of preservation are not the only way to produce meaningful heritage.

The book spoke to three of my projects in slightly different ways.

1. Chelmis. Over the last couple of months I’ve been working on a paper that document the modern (20th century) settlement of Chelmis in the Western Argolid. The site consists of over a dozen Balkan-style long houses in various states of preservation and collapse. What drew us to this site was both a commitment to documenting the 20th century landscape of the Western Argolid, but also our interest in sites of ruin and decay that are not neatly preserved with color coordinated concrete, carefully manicured pathways, and thoughtful conservation plans. The decaying ruins of Chelmis (and sites like it), stand as a kind of counter monument in Greece as they have little legal protection as modern ruins that are both ubiquitous in the countryside and not particularly significant to some national historical narrative (e.g. Classical antiquity, Byzantine and Christian heritages, et c.). In fact, their modest form, association with rural life and transhumant pastoralism, and isolated location provides a scenario where nature and material culture collaborate slowly to obfuscate their history from the national landscape. Our efforts to document these buildings and integrate them into a larger discourse on the Greek countryside is not simply a race against nature and ruination, but part of a larger view of the landscape that is defined by the interplay between natural and cultural processes both diachronically and spatially. These buildings literally embody the work of landscape archaeology.

2. Grand Forks Historic Preservation Commission. This year, I started a term on the Grand Forks Historic Preservation Commission. The Commission’s job, as far as I can gather, is both to document (or assigns to be documented) historic districts, neighborhoods, and buildings in Grand Forks and also to monitor existing historic sites and work with developers, the community, and city leaders to preserve the integrity of city’s historic landscape. This is a good thing, in general, but the work of this commission is complicated. Grand Forks, like most places in the U.S., continues to see growth and development, some of which runs counter to the commission’s charge of preserving the historical fabric of the community.

Desilvey’s book got me thinking about the various historical landscapes present in Grand Forks. These range from typical historic districts like downtown or the Near Southside Historic District to spaces with more complicated legacies, like the ruins of the Lincoln Park neighborhood and the ghostly traces of abandoned neighborhoods preserved on the wet side of the greenway’s flood wall. In fact, the tension between preservation and occlusion manifests in the city’s fabric and almost total absence of ruins represents the community’s struggle against the terrible destruction power of the almost-annual Red River floods.

3. Wesley College Documentation Project. My study of the four remaining buildings of Wesley College at the University of North Dakota didn’t really understand them as being ruins. I recognized, of course, their complex histories as dormitories, administrative offices, classrooms, and lab spaces. I also realized that what we were doing by documenting abandonment was actually documenting the process of these buildings becoming ruins even though this process was ultimately accelerated by the bulldozer. By taking the abandoned buildings serious, documenting their fabric and the objects left behind, ritualizing their final weeks, and commemorating their history in text, music, and images, we managed to engage with the final months of these buildings before their physical form was removed from campus.

What intrigued me the most was the conversation surrounding these buildings in their final months. There were, of course, those who looked for ways to conserve, preserve, or repurpose these buildings in order to remember the history of Wesley College, its leaders, and these “modern” buildings. By maintaining their presence on campus, they would have also served as a reminder that not all that is progressive, innovative, or modern is necessarily destined to persist, to grow, and to improve. The university administration, of course, had valid reasons to remove these buildings. The cost of ruins on a university campus remains steep and they were no longer contributing practical space to campus functions. They also likely saw these buildings as telling the kind of cautionary tale that they aspired to avoid (or at least obscure): progressive fantasies of campus renewal, innovation, and restoration may fail. Ruins, of course, are not particularly welcome by campus leaders because they remind them of their own futility in the face of social and economic change, nature, and taste. 

The potential of ruins to remind a community of time, materiality, decay, and our deep entanglement with nature make them particular valuable monuments. It is all too easy to consign ruins to the countryside where the traditional line between natural and civilization is ragged and blurred. The deeply progressive hopes of communities and campuses need ruins too to temper their own deeply modern impulse toward continuous improvement and remind us that the present rarely planned and always negotiated.   

A Book Proposal: Archaeology and History at North Dakota’s Wesley College

This weekend, I finished reading Alfredo González-Ruibal’s new book, An Archaeology of the Contemporary Era (2019). It is an an exhaustive survey of recent trends in the archaeology of the contemporary that does not shy away from advancing its own interpretative and political agenda. This makes sense since the archaeology of the contemporary emerged from a kind of political engagement with the material present.

González-Ruibal’s book also motivated me to think about both my book on the archaeology of the American experience and one particular lingering project: the Wesley College Documentation Project. This was a eight-week long project that used photography and video, thick description, archival work, performances, and collaborative imagining to understand the history, abandonment, and final months of four buildings associated with Wesley College in Grand Forks, North Dakota. 

This project haunts me, and not just me, my colleague Mike Wittgraf is working on a mixed-media piece that derived from recordings that we did in Corwin Hall, my student-collaborators have approached me about continuing work on the project, and I feel like some of the ideas that I developed during that project cut across a bunch of my current projects – from thoughts on austerity to understanding the life of buildings and technology, to the concept of the contemporary. 

Last semester, I started to write up some of the work we did at this project and before too long, I had about 17,000 words in a document. The words included descriptions of individual rooms:

Larimore Hall, Room 136
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Description and History: This room was originally the northern part of Room 13 which was probably the waiting room of Larimore Hall where guests could wait for their friends living in this dormitory under the watchful eye of the matron. The east and west walls are original. Access to the room comes through a door with a transom window and a granite threshold in the west wall. The south wall of the room has an observation window and it dry wall. This wall does not appear on the early-1970s one-line plan or the 1979 plan.

In its final phase room 136 extended into Room 15 (on the 1979 plans and the one-lines from the early 1970s). Room 15 was a bathroom and with the removal of the drop ceiling, the changes to structure are visible with the ceiling above the bathroom striped of plaster and pipes from the upstairs bathroom visible.The north wall is largely original except for a 7 ft x 1 ft bump out added to accommodate the plumbing from the adjacent bathroom.

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Of course, we didn’t prepare similarly detailed description of each space within the Wesley College buildings, but we documented enough of the buildings to provide high resolution windows that expose the dynamism of these buildings over time. I prepared annotated illustrations of each of the floors.

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We also prepared inventories of the stuff that was left behind in these buildings, which still need to be transcribed, and prepared studies of certain classes of artifacts like desks.

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It also includes synthetic histories of each of the architecture and use of each building and of Wesley College as an institution. 

For example: 

Sayre Hall was the earliest of the four buildings. It was funded by a gift of $25,000 by A.J. Sayre, who was born in Harvey, ND and made his fortune in Canada and on the West Coast in land, timber and other business dealings. The building was opened in 1908 as a men’s dormitory and could accommodate 65 students. In 1919, the building was renamed Harold Holden Sayre Hall after A.J. Sayre’s late son who had died in World War One. The rooms, like in its twin Larimore Hall, were two room suites that included a bed room complete with shaving sink and closet, and a living room area, which opened onto the hall. For many years, these dormitories were considered the best on campus (and even today would compare favorably with most of UND’s on campus housing). Over the course of the early 20th century served as the home for numerous well-known UND alumni including Maxwell Anderson, Aviator Carl Ben Eielson, Garth Howland who would go on to found the Art Department at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and Ralph Henry Hancock, the son of John Milton Hancock.

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The larger narrative of North Dakota’s Wesley College in the history of higher education in the state and even nationally remains to be written, but having taught a course on the UND budget and the history of higher education, I think this would be fairly easy to prepare. 

As part of this work, I also combed the documents preserved in UND’s Department of Special Collections, and I pulled together the letter written by then President-Emeritus Edward Robertson in 1935 to raise money for Wesley College during the Great Depression. You can download a private “alpha” version of this book here.

This range of material offers a view of perspectives on the Wesley College buildings, higher education, leadership, and abandonment. My plan is not to weave these perspectives together into a coherent or synthetic narrative, however, but to model my book on the buildings themselves. By arranging the materials paratactically, the book will attempt to represent the complex times and histories of the Wesley College buildings and leave the potential narratives to understand this open and dynamic. The buildings themselves are gone, but their time remains through our documentation, through various campus and historical narratives, and through our media interventions.

I started to play with this kind of non-narrative, non-argument, presentation in my little guide to the Bakken oil patch where the structure of the tourist guide allowed for the paratactic juxtapositions of the modern and the historical, the spatial and the conceptual, and site and the landscape. 

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Here’s the challenge. I could finish a draft manuscript of this book in a month or six weeks at most. The problem is that I have no idea where I should send it. It will be around 25,000 words, probably, with lots of images, documents, and, if possible, links. 

I’d prefer the press to be peer reviewed and open access, but it needn’t necessarily be the latter. 

More than that, I want a publisher that will get this kind of project and support a more, rather than less experimental approach to what I’m trying to do.

Any thoughts?

Harold Sayre, Wesley College, and the Great War

Last year, I had a remarkable group of students who worked with me on the Wesley College Documentation Project. We spent time in the Wesley College collection in the University of North Dakota’s Department of Special Collection’s Wesley College papers. In a folder titled “Harold Sayre Tributes” the students discovered a pair of poems written by Horace Shidler who served with Sayre in World War I. Sayre died in the Great War.

Sawyer Flynn, one of the students in the class, transcribed the poems and prepared this introduction. He generously gave me permission to publish this material here.

Sayre Poem

Last semester at the University of North Dakota, I had the pleasure of working with a team from the History Department under Dr. William Caraher. A 1 credit course based on documenting “Two Old Buildings” (which became the name of the course), ultimately lead to the Wesley College Documentation project. Over the semester, a group of students, faculty, and outside experts went room to room in Robertson-Sayre and Corwin-Larimore halls, buildings that in some cases dated back to 1909, documenting the architecture and the objects within. While our findings on this front were interesting, we weren’t expecting to find a story as deep as that of Sayre Hall. While most buildings on campus are named for important administrators or donors, Sayre Hall was named for a man who was, by all accounts, a war hero.

Harold Holden Sayre left Stanford University as a sophomore and enlisted in the American Field Service in 1917. While he began service in the ambulance corps in the Balkans, when the United States formally entered the war, he entered the U.S. Army Air Service in the 11th Aero Squadron.

There, as a rear-facing gunner for his pilot, Horace Shidler, Sayre lost his life on September 14th, 1918 over Saint-Mihiel. Ambushed by Jasta 11, the squadron Manfred Von Richthofen, the “Red Baron”, had commanded until April of that year, the bombers were easy prey for veteran German pilots. The German fighters emerged from above the bombers using the cover of the sun and quickly engaged multiple bombers, losing only one of their own.

Harold Sayre opened fire on the fighters and was struck repeatedly by machinegun fire. In spite of this he “kept his guns going until life left his body”, and in standing up to fire, shielded Shidler from the volley of bullets that would have taken his life.

When the strap holding Sayre’s body upright was struck by a bullet, Sayre’s body fell against the controls in the rear cockpit, forcing Shidler to crash land in a copse of trees. There, Shidler buried Sayre, despite being badly wounded himself. A German soldier waited at a distance for him to finish, and then captured him.

Shidler became a prisoner of war, and it was in his cell that he wrote “AT THE GRAVE OF A DEAD GUNNER.” The second poem was written in 1919, after the Great War had concluded.

These two poems struck me as incredibly poignant when I first read them. Today, the 100th year anniversary of the Armistice that ended World War I, the Wesley College Documentation Project went back to the Elwyn B. Robinson Department of Special Collections to scan these documents in honor of Harold H. Sayre and all the men and women who served in “The War to End all Wars.”

Citation: Harold Sayre Tributes. Wesley College Papers. UA 63, Box 4. University Archives. Elwyn B. Robinson Department of Special Collections, Chester Fritz Library, University of North Dakota, Grand Forks, ND.

AT THE GRAVE OF A DEAD GUNNER.
By His Pilot. LIEUT. HORACE SHIDLER
April 17, 1919.

Oh Pard! I’ve come back to you,
As you lay here beneath the sod.
I can see your features strong and true,
Turned upward toward God.

Thinking of the hours that you an I,
Have spent, as thought we were one.
Sailing across the pale blue sky,
‘Tween earth and the burning sun.

When we roamed together through the vineyard,
By our billet in the old Chateau,
And felt that growing kindred.
How close that kin did grow!

Since you left me, Pard, I guess I’ve been
Through near an earthly Hell.
Thro’ Par, you know it was not through sin
That I went to the Prison Cell.

In the evening gloom would go the wall,
in that cell of German Alsace.
And becknoning to me with a call
You would come in to its place.

Wearily the days and weeks went by,
And at last come the end of the war.
No more by the deadly weapons to die,
Were men in battles’ horror.

But is stand here, Pard, beside your grave,
With a wound that is bleeding tears.
While you’re with the One whose life He gave,
For humanity, through all these years.

But a life I’ll live in honor to you,
With the help of God on High.
I’ll think of you my whole life through
And join you when I die.

………

LIEUT. HAROLD SAYRE,
From his Pilot at the Front,
Lt. Horace Shidler

On the fourteenth morning of September
Just after the clouds rolled off;
On a mission of death they sent us
to bomb a place southwest of Joeuf.

We crossed the lines at Verdun
Where the ground was soaked blood,
The Archie was pounding up at us
And burst with a hollow thud.

Thru a screen of shrapnel we flew,
Led by a man who’d of’t been before;
Who had gone thru many of such
and who lived to go thru more.

Over the objective the Squadron sailed
And the signal to bomb was given,
Straight to their mark, like a leaden dart,
Our heavy bomb were driven.

I saw them light in the yards of Conflans,
Saw a train fly to bits by their crash,
It was the troops, artillery and supplies
Of the enemy we had to smash.

Then the guns from the ground ceased firing,
And the shrapnel ceased to burst;
We were alone with the moan of our engines
I knew mine was doing her worst.

Pard and I was flying the position
Of end on the wing to the right;
The easiest machine to attack,
In case of an aerial fight.

Then out of the sun on our left
Dropped thirty German Chasse;
Straight into our flanks they drove at us
Attacking in a mass.

Oh! where was the American Chasse!
To help us against these numbers;
South of our lines, of course
Peacefully resting in slumbers.

The squadron that came against us
All fliers, knew to be bad;
They were the remnants of the old Ritchthoffen,
The best the Germans had.

The first to fall of our number,
Was one in the left of the flank;
The machine behind gave throttle,
And moved forward to fill the blank.

The next to go was a German,
Who pitched forward into flame;
And it wasn’t from the wreck of that machine
That they found its pilot’t name.

Then on to us drove three black streaks
In desperate hot pursuit;
The dash was splintered, the fabric split,
My God! how they could shoot!

And here the sadness of it begins,
As i tell this story to you;
And the sadness felt by me,
Is seldom felt by few.

Harold Sayre was a man of men,
Proud was I that he should be;
The man that handled the guns,
That protected the aft of we.

He was shot and fell against the tarrel,
And held by the belt around him;
For after protection I knew I had none
and I felt so helpless without him.

Then close up they came,
For they knew I was defenseless;
With throttle open I tried to run
For I know that I was helpless.

I was getting away while around me flew,
The tracers in all directions
They shot the dial, they ripped the wings
Sure they shot me up to perfection!

The belt that held poor Pard was shot,
It broke and let him fall;
On to the controls, I felt them jamb,
And I knew that that was all.

The right wing dropped into a slip
The machine then started to spin;
Three followed us down still shooting,
Just trying to do us in.

With only a little rudder control
And just a little stick;
I got the old bus out of the shot,
And managed to turn the trick.

To try to land upon the ground,
Would be certain death for us both;
I had hopes of Pard still living,
Then I saw blood come from his mouth.

A forest then was our only chance
To it we had to make it;
So toward that I worked our way,
And smashed headlong down through it.

The wings stayed high in the tree-tops,
We came to rests three feet from the dirt;
Then I yelled to Pard who was silent,
“Oh Pard! How bad are you hurt”.

My belt was quickly unfastened
Over the wreckage I made a leap;
And there in a sickening looking pile
Lay Pard, “lifeless”, in a heap.

Then to get him out of the wreck,
Was a thing I had to do;
I lifted and pulled and tugged,
Until I exhausted grew.

But finally I got him out of the wreck,
And by him on the ground I knelt;
There alone with him in those woods,
Only God knows how I felt.

He was the closest friend I ever had,
A model of his kind;
Healthy and strong in his body
Clean and straight in his mind.

A soldier in his “teens” had found us
And his feelings seemed to be deep;
When he saw how close I was,
On the verge of beginning to weep.

A tree stood near Pard’s head,
And there I carved into its bark,
His rank, his name, a cross and then,
The date beneath his mark.

I am not a “goodie” fellow
No one likes a “Man” like I;
Some say it is only women
Who pray, and weep, and cry.

But there in that Loney timber,
In range of the Mighty Gun;
I prayed to the Heavenly Guardian
For the sake of someone’s son.

How my own flesh wounds are almost well,
And soon will be no more;
But the wound in my heart will never heal
For it reaches to the very core.

As I sit here now, alone in my cell
My eyes dim till it is hard to see;
Remembering the look on his pitiful face,
When he looked up at me.

Strange things happen in peace or war,
To this we’ll all agree;
Oh God! if one of us had to go,
Then Lord why wasn’t it me.

But now you have chosen me to stay
In this land of joy and trouble;
Let me live and raise a boy to be,
A “Harold Sayre’s” double.

LIEUT. HORACE SHIDLER,
U.S. Air Service,
Returned Prisoner of War.

Hearing Corwin Hall

On Friday afternoon, after a long week filled with jet lag, frantic course preparation, and seemingly endless page proofs, I snuck off to hear UND’s music department perform their regular faculty showcase. I was particularly excited to hear Mike Wittgraf’s “Hearing Corwin Hall” performed. This piece developed from our work at the Wesley College Documentation Project which focused on studying the four buildings on UND’s campus associated with Wesley College prior to their demolition in May 2018. 

Last week, this piece debuted at the KYMA International Sound Symposium (KISS) in Santa Cruz earlier this month and this was the first time that it was performed in North Dakota. 

Here’s Mike Wittgraf’s abstract for the piece:

Hearing Corwin Hall uses sound sources from the third floor of two adjoining now-demolished buildings, resulting in a radical altering of the acoustic space of that location since the time of recording. It is fascinating to look up at the open space where the third floor used to be, twenty feet above the ground, and imagine the former building structure and its acoustic signature, as well as the mics, cables, and people present during the recording. Corwin and Larimore Halls, formerly on the campus of the University of North Dakota, demolished in May of 2018, were originally constructed in 1909 as part of the Methodist-Church-affiliated Wesley College, which later was absorbed by UND. For a period of time Corwin Hall housed the Music Department, and adjoining Larimore hall served as a women’s dormitory. Hearing Corwin Hall uses source sounds from a recording taken on March 13, 2018, after the buildings were abandoned, but before they were demolished. The recording took place on the third floor, which included the Corwin recital hall. Eight microphones were placed in a variety of locations. During the recording the composer presented an informal “memorial service” that included a keyboard synthesizer performance of five hymns from the Methodist hymnal, after which attendees were encouraged to wander the third floor and engage with the microphones in order to capture the acoustics of the space. Hearing Corwin Hall takes digital data from these sound sources and applies them to time-based parameters in a live-processing environment in order to symbolize the fleeting nature of time and objects, as well as highlight the acoustic signature of the space. Using time in this manner creates an altered state in contradiction to the usual passing of time. Video projection of historical and recent photos, as well as photos of the demolition and post-existence of the buildings accompany the music.

~

Our plan is for Mike to perform it once more on campus and to record it for publication. My hope is to have something suitable to publishing in Epoiesen over the next six months. Our article will have three themes to it (as I conceive of it not) which work at the intersection of archaeo-acoustics, the study of time, and the considerations of how we experience the recent past especially after it has been radically altered.

1. How Buildings Sound. Over the past few years, my friend Amy Papalexandrou and I have been talking about the acoustics of Byzantine churches (and she’s published on this here and Sharon Gerstel here). As Amy makes clear, sound plays a key role in how we experience our environment and it was particularly significant in the context of monumental ritual spaces in the Byzantine and post-Byzantine worlds. The location of particular features in Byzantine churches, the movement of individuals in the spaces, and the intentional and unintentional effects on the sound of ritual in these buildings contributed to how individuals experienced the rituals there.

For Corwin Hall, like the nave of a Byzantine, this has particular significance because the room where we performed the recording was a recital hall for the music department of Wesley College. The space featured a deliberate design with a proscenium arch, acoustic shell, and vaulted ceilings which gave the room particularly desirable acoustic characteristics. By arranging eight microphones throughout the building, including in key spaces in the recital hall, we were able to capture the sound of Mike Wittgraf’s performance of a series of hymns from the Weslyean hymnal as well as the ambient sounds of a group of people moving throughout the space. It makes sense to document the space a recital hall with sensitivity toward its acoustics just as archaeologists have long studied lines of sight in ancient buildings or traces of movement between rooms.

2. Time. Our work to document the sound of Corwin Hall, however, was an effort to capture the original sound of the room or the building. The room itself endured a series of significant modifications that included a solid wall with a single door along its north side that separated the recital hall’s acoustic shell from the rest of the room at the proscenium arch. Moreover, air-conditioning ducts were installed around the room’s perimeter and covered in acoustic tile. The windows lacked curtains when we recorded and the room was filled with discarded desks and other furniture removed from the rest of the building. In other words, the room as it was preserved was rather different from its original design. That being said, the original design persisted, even in its compromised state, and, as a result, our recording was a kind of state plan which showed the existing state of the space while also indicating its original arrangement.

Full set pdf 2018 03 13 07 04 56

 E103 pdf 2018 03 13 07 04 05

Archaeologists regularly use photography and illustration to accomplish this kind of time shifting. We indicate earlier phases of a building through the visual inspection of existing structures and combine the past and present states of a building or object in a plan. To accomplish this kind of acoustic time bending we also placed microphones (some of which seem to have worked… ) in both Corwin Hall and Larimore Hall to which the former recital hall was attached through the doorway in its northern wall. This door merged the spaces of the recital hall with the offices carved out of rooms in the former women’s dormitory and transformed its acoustic signature. This created new spaces to record and hear the sound of the recital hall and allowed us to record the sounds of the recital hall in a way consistent with its later use as a classroom and offices. Individuals were encouraged to move and interact with the microphones so that we could record the sound of people through the space from various locations. In effect, we were able to create an acoustic phase plan that, however imperfectly, captures both the original plan and the state plan. 

I’ve recent come to appreciate how our time in Corwin Hall both during the recording and during the larger research project served as what Sara Perry has called “bodystorming” as we discussed with Mike, the research team, and members of the public the history, space, and sound of the building. Our microphones captured our movement through this space and superimposed our research project, public engagement, and performance. 

3. Presenting Corwin Hall. Mike’s performance of “Hearing Corwin Hall,” however, was not a literal presentation of the sound of the space neatly arranged for the audience’s consideration. Mike’s piece sought to bring the audience not only into Corwin Hall as a space but into the experience of Corwin Hall as the site of a research project, as an example of change on campus, and in the process of being transformed from a standing building to well manicured lawn that preserves beneath the surface archaeological remains of the former college. To do this, Mike integrated sound, video, and performance(s) in “Hearing Corwin Hall” in distinctly evocative ways.   

Last week, I heard an interesting paper by Ruth Tringham (the first paper here) on the use of sound to evoke emotional (and intellectual) responses from archaeological sites and objects. A key point that Tringham makes is that archaeologists have been too dependent on texts (both written and spoken) to communicate the past. She considers the work of the composer György Ligeti who has used singers to create emotional states without the use of text and calls attention to Alice Waterson’s work “Digital Dwelling” (or here) on the Neolithic village of Skara Brea in Scotland which similarly uses video and audio, but not text, to communicate the experience of both the space and the past.

Mike’s piece integrates both the acoustic space of Corwin Hall with its final months and a number of related performances designed to recognize the importance of these places on UND’s campus and in the community. For example, both the video, the sounds, and Mike’s performance communicate the violence of the building’s demolition both physically and emotionally. The destruction of these buildings embody an ongoing conflict on campus between an administration who is eager for rapid economic, cultural, and physical transformation across campus and faculty and community members who remain committed to established practices and priorities. The violence of the piece (and its performance) captures how the destruction of these buildings – their transformation from classrooms and offices into archaeological remains – generated significant emotion across campus and in the community. 

What makes this piece even more unique is that Mike integrates our efforts to document and commemorate the building into his performance. My voice, for example, is merged with the acoustic signature of Corwin Hall and looped over and over so that the words have become unintelligible, but it nevertheless evokes the sound of a bustling campus building. Sheila Liming’s bagpipes, played during a campus ceremony to honor Harold Holden Sayre after whom one of the Wesley College buildings was named, likewise loop through the performance as the tension and anxiety builds. My voice reflects the campus din as well as the work of documenting the Wesley College. Sheila’s bagpipes communicates both the death of these buildings as visible monument as well as how we commemorated their memory. The blurring our experience of the buildings between their lives as active campus structures and as objects of abandonment, study, and commemoration.  

More importantly, “Hearing Corwin Hall” communicated the violent tension between destruction and commemoration, between standing buildings and archaeological remains, between tradition and progress,  through the linearity of texts, but through sound. This does not make the piece any less archaeological, however. It remains dense, nuanced, complex, rhythmic, and multivocal.  

I can’t wait to share it with a wider audience. 

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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Letter to the Editor: Wesley College Buildings at UND

I don’t usually write letters to the editor, but I do appreciate the venerable format, and often find myself reading through the letters in my hometown broadsheet, the Grand Forks Herald.

This past week the Herald has produced two pieces on the destruction of the Wesley College buildings on UND’s campus. One was a news article by Andrew Hafner and the other an op-ed by Mike Jacobs. Just to add to the din, I penned a quick letter to the editor this morning. I’m never convinced that my letters will appear (my letter demanding that North Dakotan be made the official language of the state was never run), so I’ll post it here too:

Dear Editors,

I appreciate the recent coverage of the demolition of the Wesley College buildings on UND’s Campus.

University campuses are strange and often magical places. On the one hand, their traditions and monumentality represent a sense of place, scale, and history. On the other hand, the modern university is a progressive, forward-looking institution that look to the future of their students, communities, and society. At its best, the experience of a university campus embodies the former, and the research and teaching missions of the university embodies the latter.

This past spring ten students and friends helped me start to document the four buildings on UND’s campus associated with Wesley College. We learned about folks like Harold Holden Sayre, Frank Lynch, John Milton Hancock, and Edward Robertson who sought to create a transformative college in Grand Forks that partnered with UND to offer instruction in religion, music, and expression. In their day, the Wesley College buildings were eminently modern, using the novel Beaux Arts style with its modular dimensions and sophisticated material. They also drew upon Classical influences with their Greek key strong courses and striking Mediterranean rooflines rendered in red ceramic roof tile.

Today the manifest a failed dream. After the war, Wesley College faltered and UND, the College’s longtime partner and neighbor purchased the campus and eclipsed the College’s mission. This month UND will raze the last physical reminders of this experiment. Without a doubt, this is a sad thing, but like every college campus, UND’s campus is always undergoing renewal and transformation. The tension between the pull of tradition and the push of progress is what gives each campus their unique feeling and character.

In some ways, President Mark Kennedy’s vision for UND is no different that Edward Robertson’s vision for Wesley College over 100 years ago. Both looked to create a modern campus that embodies certain values, priorities, and a sense of place. For Robertson, the demolition of the buildings that bear his name and marks the end of his vision and dream. For Kennedy, this is just the beginning of his efforts to transform the campus. It will be left to future generations to judge whether Kennedy’s efforts will contribute to UND tradition or represent another failed vision for the North Dakota prairie. Either way, it’s unnerving and exciting to watch it play out. After all, we can always reclaim traditions, but the future will be forever beyond our grasp.