A legacy for artists and the region

Not many North Dakotans live life as Margery McCanna Jennison did. Born and raised in McCanna, N.D., she spent 20 years in Europe, living in hotels, following the bullfights in the summer and skiing in Austria in the winter.

McCanna house

Not many North Dakotans live life as Margery McCanna Jennison did. Born and raised in McCanna, N.D., she spent 20 years in Europe, living in hotels, following the bullfights in the summer and skiing in Austria in the winter.

She had a profound interest in travel, classical music and museums, and a gift for friendship that brought visitors from all over the world to her house in McCanna, said her friend, Laurel Reuter, director of the North Dakota Museum of Art in Grand Forks.

"She wasn't rich, but she probably had just enough money so she didn't have to work," Reuter said.

When Jennison died April 22 at age 82, she left a rich legacy. She gave her ancestral home in the village of McCanna -- where her grandfather, Simon Alexander McCanna, homesteaded 120 years ago -- to the North Dakota Museum of Art to be the home of what Reuter says will be the state's first full-fledged artist-in-residence program.

"Artists are always looking for ways to concentrate on their work for a period of time," Reuter said. A residency like the one planned for the two-story French country style home in McCanna will give artists, writers and composers a place to focus on special projects without a lot of outside distraction. McCanna, 35 miles west of Grand Forks, has 22 residents and three businesses, a body shop, a bean company and an elevator.


For McCanna and the region, the residency will mean sharing space and inspiration with artists, as well as learning from and enjoying their work, creativity and cachet, she said.

Plans for the residency are beginning to unfold, and NDMOA hopes to have its first McCanna House artist in residence, if not by summer 2011, then by 2012, she said.

The house Jennison gave to NDMOA was built by her grandmother, Katherine O'Gorman McCanna, who was Simon McCanna's widow. Like her granddaughter, Katherine had traveled in Europe, and she hired Joseph Bell DeRemer, one of North Dakota's first and finest architects, to design a French country home for her in McCanna

Along with the house, McCanna also donated surrounding acreage; a Quonset, a steel building NDMOA hopes to convert to studio space; and $100,000 to start an endowment to support the artist-in-residence program and preserve and maintain the property. The museum plans to build this endowment, Reuter said.

"If we are successful, McCanna House will enrich the artistic life of North Dakota and enliven the cultural and economic life of the Larimore and McCanna region," Reuter said. And it will honor Jennison as well as her McCanna and O'Gorman ancestors who homesteaded in Grand Forks County and founded the town of McCanna.

Initially, and in addition to common dining and social spaces, the main house will be used for studios, Reuter said. A library will be developed in a downstairs room off the screened porch, a space that initially could serve as studio space. As funds allow, several small studios with upstairs living quarters will be built to blend into the wooded acres surrounding the main house.

Margery McCanna Jennison was born in 1927 and spent much of her childhood on the farm with her grandmother, Katherine, and her uncle, Charles McCanna. (Her parents, Reuben McCanna and Minerva King McCanna, were married in 1925. After her father died in 1947, her mother lived in Europe. Minerva died in 1989.) Margery attended private boarding schools in the East and Smith College before graduating from UND. Her early life was spent in Europe and Mexico, but she frequently returned to McCanna.

In 1973, she inherited the family home built by her grandmother and returned to North Dakota. Jennison lived in the house for one year but found winters there too cold, Reuter said. The old house probably wasn't insulated very well, she said. Jennison bought a home in Mexico and began wintering there.


When she was about 50, Margery married Lathrop King Jennison, who was her cousin through the King family from Lakota, N.D. King Jennison, as he was called, grew up in Florida and traveled extensively with his parents in China and the Philippines. He was studying architecture at Georgia Tech before World War II, when he joined the Army Corps of Engineers and built landing strips in New Guinea and the Philippines.

King Jennison re-enlisted in the Army during the Korean War, and afterwards founded a company that built houses in the Atlanta area. He died in 2001. During their marriage, Margery lived between residences in Atlanta, McCanna and Mexico.

Reuter said she met Margery Jennison in 1990, when she took a visiting friend to dinner at the Palace Restaurant at the Westward Ho. At one point, her friend looked across the room and exclaimed: "My God, there's Margery McCanna! I met her in Turkey 15 years ago."

Over the years, Jennison and Reuter became good friends, traveling and working on museum projects together. Jennison served on the museum's foundation board.

When she and Jennison talked about what would happen to the house in McCanna after Jennison's passing, Reuter suggested making it an artist's residence.

The museum staff will institute a selection process and solicit applicants, and a panel will evaluate and select them. Residencies will be from May through late September or early October, varying in length from one to three months. The number of artists at each session would depend upon available accommodations and studio space. In time, the house will be winterized to accommodate year-around residencies, Reuter said.

Artists would be asked to give one public presentation of their work at North Dakota Museum of Art or in nearby Larimore, N.D., during their residency, and, when appropriate, the museum staff would arrange for a studio open house at McCanna House.

North Dakota Museum of Art will manage the residency and hire people for housekeeping, building and grounds maintenance, year-round security oversight and other duties, Reuter said.


The house seems modest today, Reuter said, but for the 1920s, it was quite luxurious, with a kitchen, dining room, bath and more downstairs, and three bedrooms and two baths upstairs.

DeRemer, the home's architect (1871-1944), worked for two periods in Grand Forks. From 1902 to 1912, he designed many classical and Renaissance revival style buildings. Then, beginning in 1919, he designed buildings in the art deco and art moderne styles, buildings such as the Grand Forks Masonic Temple, United Lutheran Church, Whitey's Wonder Bar, and, in collaboration with other architects, the North Dakota State Capitol in Bismarck.

In 1920, he drew up house plans for Katherine McCanna. Two years later, the light-filled house on the northern edge of McCanna was finished. The McCanna house was an aberration (given its French influences) but the architect's sensitivity to light echoed his public buildings, Reuter said.

What To Read Next
Get Local