Monday, February 12, 2018

Student Life at Sayer Hall 1908

Sayre Hall of Mercer College (now University of North Dakota) was built in 1908, the first in a series of four buildings. We have an extraordinary document, a biography of a 1908 student who gives explicit details of student life in the Hall during its first year of occupation. (See previous post for details)

Roy Thompson of Cando, ND, enrolled at the Grand Forks Preparatory School for his high school senior year in preparation for enrollment at the University of North Dakota. He was the first group of students to be housed at Sayre Hall that had just been completed. I have pulled out some of the most interesting observations about the building.
  • The dormitory was managed by an amicable Mrs. Hoy, who lived with her daughter Grace in an apartment at the first floor of the building. 
  • Upon arrival to the still unfinished building, Thompson and his room-mate selected their room. They chose the southwest corner on the third floor. It had two rooms, a study, and a bedroom.
  • The dormitory was so new that they had to spend two hours unpacking and putting together the brand new beds, the dresser and chairs that had arrived in shipping craters.
  • Electricity had not yet been installed, so they used candles at night.
  • Mrs. Hoy warned to be careful, as the walls were not yet finished and asked them to step carefully over the floors that
    had not yet been finished.
  • The overall impression of a building was austerity. The young Thompson who had grown up in a Victorian house with wooden floors and carpets was struck by the austerity of the Beaux Arts artifice that he likened to a prison: "The thick walls, the deeply set in windows and doors somehow gave the impression of being in a penitentiary."
  • One of the most memorable visceral impressions was the sound of the hard floors: "We were much annoyed at first by the noise of the place. People waking on the terrazzo floors—that was before the day of rubber heels—could be heard distinctly on the two floors below us, and our floor like approaching horses on cement. The emptiness of the building contributed to this clatter, as well as the lack of curtains, carpets and wall decorations."
  • As the semester progressed, Thompson describes the development of a residential comradery. "Meanwhile, everybody in the new dormitory gradually became accustomed to living in close contact with others, and almost before we realized it, life had become a series of routines, repeated five days a week. As in most dormitories there was a strong tendency on the part of the students to regard all property as public. An example was Wiley’s electric flat iron, the only one on our floor. It was used by all and sundry not only for pressing trousers, but also to “cook cocoa,” and make fudge. Many a “feed” was held in the wee small hours after lights had been turned off, when the prevailing dress was not evening but night. During the first year in Sayre all such feeds were negotiated by candle light, and happily so." Another important event was the arrival of food baskets from home. "One of the great moments in the life of a Sayre Hall resident was the arrival from home of a basket of food; everyone on the floor dropped whatever he as doing, and went to the room of the recipient, and had a 'feed'."
  • The students ate at the University's Dining Hall, but Mrs. Hoy began to host small groups of students for Saturdays dinners. "It was during this pioneer year that Mrs. Hoy conceived the idea of treating the residents of Sayre, two or three at a time, to a tasty repast in the clubroom. Such 'feeds' were, of necessity, given on the installment plan and spread out very a long series of Saturday evenings. These 'feeds' were long remembered by the Hall’s residents, all of whom were far from home, and were remembered as a distinct achievement in the matron’s initial year."
  • There is one description of how the common room took over spiritual functions on Sundays. "Early in the year a Sunday evening Vesper Service was started by the management. At first the boys gathered around the piano informally and sang hymns; later there would be a speaker from Wesley College. Such meetings served as a substitute for church series, for those who were in the habit of going to church found in inconvenient to go to Grand Forks. But after a few months the attendance dropped off and the Sunday meetings abandoned."
  • There is one interesting note about Sayre Hall's artistic life. Although not frequented very much, the basement floor had a piano. It was here that one student with an intense passion for classical music practiced for hours.

These are a few highlights that can be intersected with our survey of the building. For me, one of the most interesting parts of the biography is the description of the intellectual conversations that took place within Sayre Hall. Living next door to Thompson was the student Garth Howland, with whom he became life-long friends. Howland was studying art and introduced Thompson to German Expressionism. Together they attended an exhibition of prints by Die Brucke, which shocked the viewers. It is amazing to think that Grand Forks was so connected to artistic fashions that one could see a Die Brucke exhibition. Garth Howland had a stellar career. He studied painting (at Harvard, in Paris, etc.) and in 1926 he founded Lehigh University's Art Department. While at Bethlehem, he became an expert on 18th-century Moravian architecture. William Murtagh, the world expert on Moravian architecture writes in his Moravian Architecture and Town Planning (1967) how Howland inspected Bethlehem's Gemeinhaus, one of the largest log buildings in the country. Howland surveyed the log structure in great detail before it was demolished, very much as we are doing with his beloved Sayre Hall, where he began his architectural studies.

Beyond learning about German Expressionism and classical music, Thompson also participated in a two-week archaeological expedition. In the summer of 1910, he joined History Professor Olin G. Libby in surveying Native American sites along the Missouri River. "We met at Bismarck. The party consisted of Dr. Libby, an Indian chief named Holding Eagle, his son Jim Holding Eagle, Francis Templeton, a U.N.D. student whose home was in Grand Forks, and myself. We were equipped with a farm wagon, two horses, two tents and camping equipment, feed for the horses, and food for ourselves. Jim Holding Eagle was driver and caretaker of the horses. When camping time came, we all pitched in and helped put up the tents."

It is exciting to have such granular information about the life of an academic building from its first occupant. I look forward to see how the biographical account intersects with the material survey. It is astounding to me that within those spaces of Sayre Hall, a young mid-western student could entertain German Expressionist colors and Native American sites under the same roof.
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Kostis Kourelis

Philadelphia, PA, United States