It’s the time of year where I’m desperately trying to wrap up writing projects, grade papers, and get ready to decamp to Cyprus and Greece for the summer. It also tends to be the most social time of the academic year with friends and colleagues getting together in the milder weather excited about the our long emergence from the harsh winter. (And it’s time to spread mulch.)
As part of this wrap up, I’ve started to think about what’s next for the Wesley College Documentation Project. On a practical level, I know that I have some more “data collecting” to do in the form of oral histories with folks who worked and lived in these buildings. I also look forward to the official HABS Level II report on the buildings as well as the results of drone photographs and laser scans of the buildings’ exteriors. On an intellectual level, however, I’m worried that as my attention shifts to other projects, the ideas that I’ve developed while hanging around these buildings regularly will wane. So my goal to day is to provide a quick sketch of a book that could come from the Wesley College Documentation Project. This doesn’t mean that I’m going to write the book, but these are what I’d write about if I decided to do that. This post is largely a more organized expansion of my “Five Fragments” post from a few weeks ago.
Chapter 1: The History of Wesley College
This chapter would outline the basic history of the college and its innovative approach to higher education. The main characters in this chapter would be Edward Robertson, Frank Lynch, A.J. Sayre, and John Hancock, whose support, funds, and vision built and sustained the college.
In many ways, these men embodied the national reach of Wesley College which drew on resources from the plains of Alberta to the lumber yards of California, the brokerages of Wall Street, and the farms of the North Dakota prairie. In many ways, the funding sources and personal relationships at the core of Wesley College’s growth and success tells the story of the development of institutions in the American west and how, despite the peripheral status of North Dakota, it was able to consume a range of resources in the first decades of the 20th century that demonstrated deeply reciprocal ties between members of the North Dakota diaspora and their former home.
The chapter would also document the decline of the Wesley College experiment over the middle years of the 20th century as the Great Depression, World War Two, and the changing landscape of higher education in the post-war period marginalized Wesley College and ultimately led to its complete absorption by its next door neighbor the University of North Dakota.
Chapter 2: The Fabric of Wesley College: Sayre, Larimore, Corwin, and Robertson Halls
This would be the most empirical part of the project which would include publishing our granular documentation of all four Wesley College buildings and demonstrating how that the far-ranging ties between Wesley College, its donors, and its visionary leader, Edward Robertson, produced remarkably cosmopolitan buildings. The Beaux Art style provided a modern, modular, and sophisticated architectural form for the early 20th-century college campus. The master plans for Wesley College embodied the ambitions of Robertson and his donors and, while this ambition was unrealized, in the end, the buildings stood for over 100 years as reminders of his vision.
The second part of this chapter would involve publishing the room-by-room documentation of the architecture of the Wesley College buildings that considered each room as a archaeological and architectural story. The sequences of walls, doors, remodeling, and renovation demonstrates both the powerful persistence of the original plan as well as the changing function and needs of these buildings as they become part of the UND campus. Of particular interest will be how the modularity and regularity of the Beaux Arts design facilitated the later trajectory of these spaces from functionally distinctive and even prestigious rooms on campus to spaces that could serve multiple, changing purposes. As the rooms became more anonymous, they became more easy to exchange for other rooms across campus and the buildings, for all their sophisticated modern form, became obsolete.
Chapter 3: Assemblages of Abandonment
In Chapter 3, the book would transition from historical narrative and architectural description to more complex analysis. The main part of this considers the assemblages associated with the abandonment of these buildings in the months prior to their demolition. The Wesley College Documentation Project considers the assemblages present in three spaces: a group of faculty offices, faculty research spaces, and the teaching space of a university honors program. Each of these spaces reveals different attitudes toward discard and curation and speaks to the uneven but clearly quickening pace of change during the late-20th and early 21st century.
In particular, the assemblages present in these rooms reveal what some archaeologists of the American West have called “boomsurfing,” which are the irregular patterns of curation, recycling, and discard that characterize the irregular pattern of booms and busts present both in higher education and, more specifically, in the economy of North Dakota and the Northern Plains. The will be a section on our inventory of desks from Larimore Hall and a catalogue of objects from the building as well.
Chapter 4: Mediating Memory
The final chapter will reflect on the strategies that we’ve used to mediate the memory of the these buildings, their occupants, their history, and our archaeological work. It will consider three examples of memories inscribed in the fabric of the buildings themselves: the changing of the name of Sayre Hall from commemorating its donor to commemorating the donor’s late son, Harold Sayre in 1918, a series of inscription on a glass window in Sayre Hall which names three residents in the early 20th century, and the inscriptions on a series of bricks at the southeast corner of Sayre Hall. These inscriptions reflect formal and informal traditions of memory and movement in the building and across the landscape.
Second, this chapter will describe two rituals organized by the Wesley College Documentation Project to commemorate these buildings. The first was a concert of funeral hymns by Mike Wittgraf of the UND Department of Music. He performed the hymns in the Corwin Hall recital room and we recorded them on a series of microphones throughout Corwin-Larimore Hall. The music itself and the use of the Corwin Hall recital room evoked the memory of the pipe organ installed in that space and the acoustics of that room. The arrangement of the microphones both in the recital hall and in Larimore, however, brought the commemorative concert to the last phase of the building by recording the music as it flowed between spaces that would have been quite separate in the building’s original plan. This diachronic concern sought to embrace the performance of change through time by both recognizing the past and mediating it in the present (and has obvious parallels with, for example, the performance of Mozart’s piano sonatas on modern pianos in ways that acknowledge the sound and limits of their earlier instruments). This section will also describe the memorial service for Harold Sayre which we will hold tomorrow outside Robertson Hall to recognize that Sayre Hall was a memorial and that while the building will disappear, its memory should not. There is a natural parallel between this event and the dedication of Robertson Hall that took place in 1930 in a similar location.
Finally, we will discuss how our own work in and around the buildings and the Wesley College archives served to create, cultivate, and preserve the memory of these buildings and their institutions. Archaeology can bridge the gap between informal commemorative practices and formal rituals, and the work of the Wesley College Documentation Project (and indeed any publications from this project) serves this purpose.
5. Modernity and Memory on a College Campus. The conclusion to the book would return to the history of Wesley College, the various campus plans, and the construction of memory at UND (and on college campuses in general). It would emphasize how college campuses – like certain cities – construct their identity at the intersection of their historical architecture and rituals and progressive reputation. Universities have always served to move society forward through reflection on the past and cutting-edge technology. Campus have served as laboratories where faculty and students take risks in the name of significant rewards, but also liminal places where students experience formative rites of passage as they transition into adulthood. The maintenance of college campuses as mnemonic landscapes ensures that universities can continue to attract donors, celebrate past accomplishments, and position their missions as outside of the pressures of the contemporary world. At the same time, campus are dynamic and vibrant places in a constant state of renewal. The balance between these two trends frequently parallels the tensions between faculty and administrators, faculty and students, and alumni and the university community.
By recognizing this, we can locate our own efforts to create formal memories through rituals and archaeological practices as both an efforts to inscribe campus with our own view of its past as well as to frame the future of university.