By Andrew Alexis Varvel
“This stuff? Oh, okay, I see. You think this has nothing to do with you. You go to your closet and you select, I don't know, that lumpy blue sweater, for instance, because you're trying to tell the world you take yourself too seriously to care what you put on your back. But what you don't know is that that sweater is not just blue, it's not turquoise, it's not lapis, it's actually cerulean. And you're also blithely unaware of the fact that in 2002 Oscar de la Renta did a collection of cerulean gowns, and then I think it was Yves Saint-Laurent, wasn't it, who showed cerulean military jackets? (I think we need a jacket here.) And then cerulean then quickly showed up in the collections of eight different designers, from where it filtered down to the department stores, and finally trickled down to some tragic Casual Corner where you no doubt fished it out of a clearance bin. However, that blue represents millions of dollars and countless jobs. And it's sort of comical how you think you've made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry, when in fact you're wearing a sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room. From a pile of stuff.”
– Miranda Priestly, The Devil Wears Prada (2006)
The University of North Dakota is not exempt from the rules of architecture merely because UND's leadership takes itself too seriously to care about the message it is actually sending to the rest of the world.
Art, whether it is in the form of painting, music, architecture, or clothing, is a form of communication no less than the English language or accountancy figures. How we dress sends a message. How we keep and maintain buildings sends a message. When the University of North Dakota regards parking lot improvements to be more vital to its mission of developing tomorrow's leaders than ensuring that they will feel comfortable around Beaux Arts architecture, the university administration sends a clear message.
When our university's leader doesn't want to be here, that's his problem. When our university's leader seeks to destroy our state's cultural heritage, that's our problem. The buildings of Old Wesley College – Robertson Hall, Sayre Hall, Corwin Hall, and Larimore Hall – are cultural treasures that are architecturally significant, historically significant, and politically important. The affiliation agreement between the University of North Dakota and Wesley College was a pioneering achievement, a claim to fame for UND. Yet, President Mark Kennedy appears to be staking his presidency on destroying them.
With the exception of the rivalry between their music faculties during the 1920's, relations between the faculties at UND and Wesley College were warm and collegial. They had separate administrations, but together they were a community of scholars. The vast majority of faculty at both the University of North Dakota and Wesley College were opposed to the Ku Klux Klan.
The difference was that while President Kane of UND was a Klan ally, Wesley College acted on the courage of its convictions. Wesley College's stand provided backbone for people at UND to resist Klan power.
The buildings of Old Wesley College are architectural treasures, yet their beauty has been obscured since World War II by attempts to turn them into modern office space. This should be an opportunity for all of us to look around us and appreciate the treasures – often hidden treasures – within our midst. We can all overcome our own failures to appreciate our own cultural history, good and bad. As a matter of basic education, we all need to be literate in the languages of the fine arts, so we can communicate in those languages effectively.
When I was on a student exchange in Germany thirty years ago, I had intended to say, “I don't want to disturb the neighbors.” That would have been, “Ich moechte die Nachbarn nicht stoeren.” Instead, I said, “Ich moechte die Nachbarn nicht sterben.” That meant, “I don't want the neighbors to die.” My German friend asked in English, “Do you know what you have just said?” All of us laughed about that.
So, although UND's current leader may not intend to insult the people of western North Dakota by destroying the last vestige of a college that was President Merrifield's educational legacy, a college that Bismarck would have loved to have, a college whose loss has fostered resentment in Bismarck toward the Red River Valley for over a century; UND's current leader may not intend to destroy the cultural history of UND, an architectural treasure that belongs to all North Dakotans; UND's current leader may not intend to destroy the last vestige of a conservatory that had once hosted such musical talents as Nellie Melba, Maud Powell, and Teresa Carreno; UND's current leader may not intend to destroy the last vestige of a college that stood for interfaith dialogue; and UND's current leader may not intend to destroy the last vestige of a stronghold against the Ku Klux Klan. Yet, that is exactly the message he is sending.
Worse, when he consistently mispronounces “Wesley College” to make it sound as if it were Hillary Clinton's alma mater, he expresses his ignorance of and contempt toward North Dakota's heritage and by extension, toward the people of North Dakota. When I made a youthful mistake by choosing the wrong word in West Germany, it was comical. However, a university president is normally expected to have excellent communication skills, so a university president is normally held to a higher standard than high school students are.
We all need to understand that public architecture is inherently political in nature. Few people understand this better than President Donald Trump. Although I disagree with him on many issues, he deserves praise for his push to rebuild the World Trade Center using its original design, with one floor added. I still like that idea of his, and I still think America needs to build a full scale replica of the World Trade Center at a suitable location.
Space utilization numbers have their place, but they must never control building management to the exclusion of cultural, historical, and aesthetic factors. Should the Louvre throw out the Mona Lisa because “paint by numbers” is more efficient with paint supplies? Should the Chester Fritz Auditorium be considered to be a waste of space because we aren't carving it up into several stories of office space?
The mission statement of the University of North Dakota now says, “To provide transformative learning, discovery, and community engagement opportunities for developing tomorrow's leaders.”
That sounds like the Leader Principle. If UND were truly serious about developing tomorrow's leaders, it would provide students with cultural exposure to diversity, including architectural diversity, so tomorrow's leaders won't feel intimidated by unfamiliar situations. At UND, we have street names such as Columbia Road, Stanford Road, Harvard Street, Oxford Street, Cambridge Street, and Princeton Street. Those names are names of universities that are proud to keep their old buildings. UND's leader appears to regard parking lots as more important for developing tomorrow's leaders than cultural exposure to diverse architecture.
I don't want to believe that we have an administration at UND that feels intimidated by Beaux Arts architecture, intimidated by promoting religious tolerance and interfaith dialogue, intimidated by artistic brilliance, intimidated by cultural heritage, and intimidated by moral backbone. I don't want to believe that UND is run by artistic illiterates who feel casual contempt toward anything they don't understand.
We are talking about the cultural heritage of North Dakota here!
Ever since the founding of the State of North Dakota in 1889, our state has gotten pushed around and treated with contempt time and time again. It's time that we stood up for ourselves! In Louis Geiger's “University of the Northern Plains”, he describes President Homer Sprague (1887-1891) as a flighty dilettante whose arrogance, condescension, and propensity to make political enemies in Bismarck finally caught up with him. I hope that President Kennedy can learn from Homer Sprague's example.
Anybody who says that the University of North Dakota doesn't have the money to make needed repairs on Old Wesley College doesn't know what he is talking about. The UND Endowment has over 250 million dollars! In the very same Board meeting last Thursday on April 26, 2018, when President Kennedy threw the weight of his office behind keeping the destruction of Old Wesley College on schedule, the Board of Higher Education granted permission to UND to spend over $5.1 million on parking lot improvements. So, even if one were to take UND's given estimate from an outside contractor that $8.8 million would be needed to repair Old Wesley College at face value, UND could easily afford it.
The Taliban destroyed the Bamiyan Statues. Al-Qaeda destroyed the World Trade Center. Da'esh destroyed the Temple of Bel at Palmyra as well as dozens of medieval churches and mosques – all of them old buildings. The University of North Dakota's leadership ought to have higher cultural standards than a bunch of terrorists.
I call upon President Mark Kennedy to halt his planned demolition of the buildings of Old
Wesley College – Robertson Hall, Sayre Hall, Corwin Hall, and Larimore Hall. I call upon President Mark Kennedy to commit himself to restoring these architectural treasures to their former glory so that future generations – tomorrow's leaders – can feel comfortable around such architecture. These buildings can be saved. These buildings must be saved. And if the people of North Dakota work together to make this happen, these buildings will be saved.
University economics is not merely about dollars and cents. It is also about dreams, desires, and drama. It is about building and maintaining a university that the people of North Dakota can believe in. The University of North Dakota continues to have many great features and many great programs, but a university whose leadership regards parking lot improvements to be more important than maintaining our state's cultural heritage is a university that should no longer be regarded as great.
Let's make the University of North Dakota great again.
[Editor’s Note: Alexis Varvel is a UND graduate and a historian.]
March 6th 2019
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