Friday, February 09, 2018

College and University 1908 North Dakota

Bill Caraher, my partner in many writing crimes (Punk Archaeology, Man Camps, Refugee Archaeology), began a salvage archaeology project on his campus and kindly invited me to collaborate. The issue is this handsome 1908 Beaux Arts building that will be torn down this June. Our task is to archaeologically document as much as we can before demolition. Bill has set up a one-credit class for his students to carry out the documentation. What I hope to contribute is the architectural context. Research began this morning, and I will share some preliminary thoughts.

In 1905, Red River Valley University, a Methodist College in Wahpeton, North Dakota, moved to Grand Forks in an interesting arrangement of auxiliary co-existence with the public University of North Dakota. Red River Valley University was at the verge of economic collapse so the merger with UND was partly financial. It was also motivated by the demographic strength of Methodists among a predominant Lutheran landscape. 
More interesting is the desire for a science-driven public university to bring to its campus a liberal arts college and create a dependency of arts and sciences. As Louis Menand has argued in The Marketplace of Ideas (2010), liberal arts education in America was invented in order to directly serve the needs of a professionalizing higher education. The liberal arts became the filtering mechanism for professionalization. There was no binary choice between the arts and the sciences; the arts were created as a prerequisite (and albeit inferior) filter for technical specialization. Changing its identity on the new campus, the old Methodist college became an autonomous Wesley College within UND. The coexistence survived until 1963 when it was fully incorporated into the university. 

The two buildings that made up Wesley College were constructed in 1908, with expansions in 1930. Robertson-Sayre Hall and Corwin-Larimore Hall are Beaux Arts buildings in yellow brick and pronounced roof lines. Hundreds of colleges in the U.S. employed this style, following the success of the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, the establishment of a Beaux Arts curriculum, and the City Beautiful movement. More locally, however, the 1908 buildings represent a break from the 1891 identity of a Methodist college, represented by the architecture of the abandoned Old Main in Wahpeton (photo below). They are also distinct from the Collegiate Gothic identity embraced by UND in the 1920s. After leaving Wahpeton, Red River University sold its grounds to the State School of Sciences in 1905, so Old Main turned from a Methodist college to a technical university, as it survives to this day (in 2015 the ND State School of Sciences renovated Old Main).
My first reading of the architecture of Robertson-Sayre and Corwin-Larimore is twofold. On the one hand, they embrace the general fashion of campus architecture, the period between 1893 and 1924 when the Beaux Arts reigned supreme. On the other hand, they assert a liberal arts collegiate identity in contrast to the technical university. It will be important to explore the Methodist connection, since Methodist colleges were pioneers in educational reform. After all, Oberlin College was radical in its admissions of African Americans and women based on its Methodist mission. If we were to point to the premier flagship of Methodist collegiate architecture, it would be Cass Gilbert's transformation of Oberlin College from a stone campus into a neoclassical campus. 

Cass Gilbert's Cox Building above (1915) or the Allen Museum (1917) are arguably more refined versions of a Beaux Arts (with Romanesque flourishes to bridge with the older campus identity). 

The architect of the two North Dakota buildings was a New Yorker. A. Wallace McRae in only known for his house designs that were published in contemporary journals like American Architect and Architectural Record around 1923-1925. Why would Grand Forks reach so far beyond its typical source of architects (either local or from Minneapolis)? My suspicion is a common arrangement for the period, where a metropolitan architect submitted designs that were carried out by a local firm. Built on codified architectural modules, the Beaux Arts style lend itself to mass production. It was during this time that large firms build national practices with the help of a newly professionalized staff of draftsmen. The comparison with Cass Gilbert will be interesting here, since he began his practice in Minneapolis before going to New York.

To simply talk about style, however, is just scratching the surface. UND's archives contains building specs that address the material source of construction. It is amazing, for instance, that Mercer Moravian Tiles were brought all the way from Doyleston, Pennsylvania for the floors. The granular study of the building will allow interesting insights on the East Coast-North Dakota emerging interdependencies. 

What I hope to do in the architectural analysis is to establish the norms for campus architecture in 1908 with a special focus on Methodist institutions. As Michael Lewis has shown in his survey of The Gothic Revival (2002), the Methodists quickly abandoned their anti-formal sensibilities of tent retreats and communitarian architecture. By the 1880s, they had fully embraced the formalistic Gothic style that was once unique to their counterparts, the Episcopalians. The sectarian distinctiveness of the Methodists (and their Second Great Awakening legacy) had architecturally disappeared by 1908. 

I hope we find some material articulation of the dominant conflicts in American education ca. 1900. These conflicts have not gone away. After all, the UND Buildings will be torn down to construct a newer vision of the curriculum. I hope we will address three conflicts: public university v. private college, science-technology v. liberal arts curricula, and secular v. religious values. 

I end with the very mission statement of the merger between Wesley College and UND presented by the President of UND in his address of the annual conference in Grand Forks.  In his March 1900 speech, Webster Merrifield laid out the intellectual and practical benefits of the merger:

“Whereas. The state university is in theory the university of all the people of the state, and is supported by the taxes of the members of the several denominations, as well as by the other citizens of the state, it would seem to be appropriate and fitting that the churches of the several denomination in the state should avail themselves of the privileges which belong to their members as citizens of the state, and should use, to whatever extent may seem desirable in the conduct of their education work, the facilities afforded by the state university. It is recognized that the state university is a civic institution and has for its mission the training of the youth of the state for efficient service as its citizens. It is recognized, also, that the distinctive object of the church is maintaining schools of its own is to secure trained leadership in religious and denominational work. There is, therefore, logically, no conflict between their respective missions, for the same young people are to serve in both these capacities. These two missions being in no sense antagonistic, but supplementary, it would seem the part of wise economy that these two education agencies should avail themselves, so far as possible, of the facilities and appliances of each other in the working out of their respective missions, keeping always in view the principle of separation of the church and state in so far as regards the control and expenditure of the financial resources of each." 

Quoted in Wallace N. Stearns, “History of the Red River Valley University,” State of North Dakota Collections of the State Historical Society of North Dakota 2 (1908), pp. 171-178.

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Kostis Kourelis

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