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Gordon Iseminger: UND slates treasures for possible demolition

GRAND FORKS — What a remarkable juxtaposition of headlines, all examples of the artful way that UND administrators have of professing one thing while saying and intending another.

“UND architecture: The past informs the future” was the striking headline in the Fall 2013 issue of UND’s Alumni Review. For added emphasis, the headline was followed by a quote from architect Frank Gehry: “Architecture should speak of its time and place, but yearn for timelessness.”

Then, “Inspirational architecture,” another headline declared. “Goals established more than 125 years ago still guide the architectural aesthetic of UND,” the sub-headline proclaimed.

The story that followed said the university’s “personality” is reflected in the “character and appeal” of its buildings, so that people who come to the university are given a “sense of presence.”

Juxtapose those headlines and statements with these:

“Buildings face demolition” — The Dakota Student, front page, Feb. 21.

“Eight buildings to be taken ‘offline’ and potentially demolished” — Grand Forks Herald, Feb. 24.

The eight buildings that could be demolished include Chandler Hall and Babcock Hall, both of which, because they date from the university’s early years, are a part of “the past that informs the future.”

Both “speak of a time and place.” Both contribute to the university’s “personality,” and both have “character and appeal.” No matter: The buildings will be taken offline and perhaps torn down because, according to the university’s spokesman, old buildings “run their course,” and it becomes “counterproductive to keep putting dollars into them.”

University administrators use data conveniently supplied by the Office of Institutional Research to support their specious reasoning.

“Operation costs, which don’t include salaries” — why include salaries, if not to cloud the issue? — “are more than $961,000 since 2008” for four of the buildings that may be razed. Specious reasoning. Do not all buildings incur “operation costs”? Why not include the “operation costs” for the administration building, Twamley Hall, as a comparison?

The annual “operation costs” for the four buildings named are about $160,000 (an administrator’s salary). Surely the annual “operation costs” of many campus buildings exceed those of the buildings that are considered to have “run their course.”

If “operation costs” are the sole criterion influencing decisions on razing buildings, then surely Twamley and the Memorial Union should be the first to be leveled.

No. We cannot, we must not calculate a building’s value only by using “operation costs.” We cannot, we must not conclude that a building is to be “taken offline” and perhaps demolished because of the cost of heat, lights, floor wax and toilet tissue.

Remember? The university’s historic buildings “inform the future,” they “speak of a time and place” and they contribute to the university’s “character and appeal.”

For the sake of what it is that makes us human, we must not destroy what is in our past that has made us what we are.

No historic building can ever “run its course.” It can never outlive its usefulness. It has worth and meaning and purpose simply because it is.

Historic buildings speak to the past, to what once was, to what we once were and to what we may hope to become.

Once an historic building has been demolished, it is gone forever, and what it was and what it represented never can be recovered. What will replace an historic building when it is gone: An empty space? A patch of grass? A barren parking lot?

Can any of these ever have a “personality”? Ever have “character and appeal”?

Granted, they would “speak of a time and place.” They would speak of a time when the fate of the university’s historic buildings was, unfortunately, allowed to rest with administrators who have steadfastly demonstrated an antipathy to maintaining and preserving things historic on the university campus, administrators who over the years have developed benign neglect into an art form.

Iseminger is a Chester Fritz Distinguished Professor of History at UND.