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Time running out for historic halls

RBB electrician Christian Ebertowski disconnects power to main switches in the ground level of Robertson-Sayre Hall on Monday, May 14, 2018. Nick Nelson / Grand Forks Herald1 / 7
An office in the ground level of Robertson-Sayre Hall is stripped bare on Monday, May 14, 2018. Nick Nelson / Grand Forks Herald2 / 7
Brian Larson, associate director of facilities management at UND, stands on the second level of Robertson-Sayre Hall on Monday, May 14, 2018. Nick Nelson / Grand Forks Herald3 / 7
Robertson-Sayre Hall is one of the few remaining buildings on the UND campus from the defunct Wesley College. Nick Nelson / Grand Forks Herald4 / 7
Doodles and writing shine in the afternoon sunlight on a chalkboard at UND's Robertson-Sayre Hall on Monday, May 14, 2018. Nick Nelson / Grand Forks Herald5 / 7
Once part of the private Methodist school, Wesley College, Robertson-Sayre Hall on the UND campus is slated for demolition by the end of May. Nick Nelson / Grand Forks Herald6 / 7
Bare ceiling is exposed after crews stripped ceiling tiles and lighting fixtures from a ground level office in Robertson-Sayre Hall on the UND campus Monday, May 14, 2018. Nick Nelson / Grand Forks Herald7 / 7

A campaign to save historic buildings on the UND campus could end with demolitions by the close of this month.

UND graduate and amateur historian Alexis Varvel has been on a mission to save Corwin/Larimore and Robertson/Sayre halls, which are the last physical remnants of Wesley College. The private Methodist school, founded in Grand Forks in 1905 in partnership with UND to provide religious and music education, operated independently until it was bought out by UND in 1965.

UND leaders announced last fall the planned demolition of the buildings as part of an ongoing effort to reduce the facilities footprint of campus. The university has since taken steps to mitigate the loss of the buildings and, though facilities chief Mike Pieper says they might be torn down by the end of May, architectural salvage and careful documentation should preserve at least part of their historic value.

For Varvel, that's likely not enough.

The historian-turned-activist attended the April meeting of the State Board of Higher Education to ask the governing body to rescind its permission granted to UND to demolish the buildings or, at the very least, to postpone the tear-downs until May 1, 2019.

"Wesley College is significant—architecturally significant, culturally significant, historically significant, politically significant," Varvel told the board late last month.

In the weeks leading up to the meeting and since, Varvel had steadily published a digital history of Wesley, outlining its long presence in the state's music scene, its opposition in the 1920s to local political organizing of the Ku Klux Klan and its innovative partnership with a public institution.

He hasn't been the only one to record this history.

Bill Caraher, a UND history professor, has led a course for students to delve into the history of Wesley, both in the buildings that remain and in the documents saved by UND that outline the college's work.

Caraher said he and his students worked closely with Brian Larson, an associate director in UND facilities, to tap into the bones of the historic structures.

With the considerable help of facilities staff, the researchers peeled back decades of renovation to uncover as much as they could of the original halls. Caraher even made audio recordings in a Wesley performing space to capture its acoustics.

The professor said he and some of the students had a personal connection to Sayre Hall.

"I think they're cool buildings," Caraher said, "so when I heard they were being torn down, I thought 'Oh man—I haven't thought about these buildings enough. Plus, (UND honors program) used to be in basement of Sayre, so they were kind of sentimentally attached."

The building itself was named after young soldier Harold Holden Sayre, raised in Harvey, N.D. and killed in action in World War I.

About a century after Sayre's death, students about his age were pulling down acoustic tiling in Corwin/Larimore, tearing up carpeting to reveal mosaic floors and demolishing drop ceilings to find their original coffering and creative moldings.

"We stood there for like an hour looking at it all," Caraher said, of the uncovered ceilings.

Bit by bit, the secrets of the buildings—designed by New York architect A. Wallace McRae in the Beaux Arts style—revealed themselves in what Caraher described "probably the most fun class I've ever taught at UND."

One last attempt

Still, the preservation efforts might not give Varvel the outcome he's looking for.

Though leaders of the SBHE were interested in what he had to say, they declined to take up his request, deferring to UND President Mark Kennedy to make the call on the former Wesley properties. The president in turn called upon Pieper to describe why the university wants to tear down the buildings and how it's handled the mitigation process.

Pieper said an outside assessment conducted a few years ago finished with the buildings "very poorly rated" in terms of current condition. He stated the amount of deferred maintenance costs on the halls to be about $8.8 million, a sum that includes costs of addressing foundation damage in at least one of the structures.

The facilities head also pointed to the low usage of the buildings in recent years—both are now empty, their functions distributed elsewhere on campus.

"Taking buildings offline allows us to direct money into other buildings that meet our academic mission better with more compactness," he told the board. To capture the feel of the buildings, he added, the university has conducted 3-D scans of its space to make a virtual blueprint.

In a Monday interview, Pieper said construction crews will likely be at work through this week salvaging architectural pieces that can be reused elsewhere on campus, specifically listing the halls' ornate entryways and other exterior details.

Varvel told the board he appreciated what UND had done thus far to keep pieces of the halls, saying he'd be "very glad" to see salvaged elements applied to existing buildings.

"I realize that UND is doing what it can and is acting in good faith," he said. But even with that, he'd clearly like to see the buildings remain standing as is. He asked the board to consider turning over the properties to an entity outside UND, perhaps a nonprofit, to be maintained for their historic value.

Varvel also wrote a Monday email to the Herald to reiterate his desire to see "an offer on the table this week from a nonprofit to accept the Wesley College property as a donation" from UND for the purpose of refitting the space for a community arts center. He added that, if such an arrangement couldn't be worked out with Kennedy by the end of Thursday, "contingency plans will spring into effect."

He didn't elaborate on those plans and could not be reached for comment.

Representatives from UND hadn't heard of any plans for an agreement like the one described by Varvel. Neither had Jeff Wencl, coordinator of the city Historic Preservation Commission.

Pieper seemed committed to the university's existing timeline for summer demolitions, an effort that could begin in the next few weeks with Chandler Hall and end sometime in June with the demolition of several residential structures in a small campus neighborhood of duplexes and row apartments off University Avenue.

Pieper said UND intends to have all the buildings torn down, their foundations filled in and their covering dirt reseeded with grass by the start of the next academic year.

Transferring the Wesley buildings, Pieper added, could be done through a lease agreement or by a change in ownership made through legislative action. However, though the first option might be more likely, Pieper said he wasn't aware of the university ever writing such an agreement for existing property, only when someone wanted to build a new structure on university land.


In the meantime, others in the community have accepted the coming demise of the Wesley structures with an air of symbolism. On May 4, Wencl and campus leaders arranged a memorial service outside Sayre Hall. The event was partly a commemoration of Sayre and his service—marked with somber songs, played on bagpipe—and partly a sending-off affair for the building that carries the young soldier's name.

The lead-up to the event left Caraher feeling positive about the future of campus. Despite the loss of a physical reminder of the past, he said the process of retiring the halls "demonstrates that the university takes these buildings seriously."

"It's all been part of this minute documentation that, frankly, they didn't have to do," he said. "They could have kept everything quiet and torn these down, but they went out of their way to do things right."

Andrew Haffner

Andrew Haffner covers higher education and general assignment stories for the Grand Forks Herald. He attended the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where he studied journalism, political science and international studies. He previously worked at the Dickinson Press.

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