RIP Myron Denbrook

While listening to the local 10:00 PM news, I learned that one of the architects that designed the Chester Fritz Library, along with dozens of other buildings, died Monday night. Myron Denbrook, who worked for years along with Theodore Wells (who died in 1976), was 89 years old. The Wells & Denbrook firm, as reported in an earlier post, was well known in the area and had a hand in several buildings around the UND campus, with the library being the most well-known. As reported on the WDAZ website, a memorial service will be held on April 28 at the Grand Forks United Church of Christ at 2:00 PM. Rest in peace, Mr. Denbrook.

Who Built the Fritz?: the Architects Behind the Building

While the library has been around for fifty years and has had an addition built onto it, as well as cosmetic changes on the inside, the firm that designed the building has a history reflected in numerous projects around the Red River Valley. By the construction of the Chester Fritz Library, the architectural firm Wells & Denbrook had an established reputation. Who were the men and what is the history of the firm?

According to their Architects’ Roster submitted to the American Institute of Architects (AIA) in February 1953, the firm was a partnership between architects Theodore B. Wells and Myron Denbrook, Jr., with Wells being in sole proprietorship as an architect prior to entering into partnership in 1948. They were located at the Northern Hotel in Grand Forks, ND, which no longer exists, but was located in downtown at Fifth Avenue South and Kittson Avenue. Based upon a post on the Grand Forks Tornado of 1887, it appears that Wells’ father, Hugh N. Wells owned the Northern at one time.

The two men had interesting backgrounds, with Wells being the older of the pair, born in Grand Forks on September 8, 1889 and Denbrook was born on June 22, 1922 in Wayne County, Ohio. Wells attended school in town (though not specific, it is likely that he attended Grand Forks Central High School), then attended the University of North Dakota, and furthered his education in Paris. In contrast, Denbrook attended Ohio State University and earned his Bachelor of Architecture from the University of Washington in 1945. Based on both their educational backgrounds, they were experienced in their field and Denbrook working with Wells was potentially an early opportunity for him to gain experience and success.

Based upon years in practice and professional affiliation, Wells was likely the senior partner in the firm, as he had been a practicing architect since 1923 in Nebraska and had served as past president of the North Dakota Association of Architects. Denbrook commenced his practice in 1948 and both men were pending members in the AIA. Both men were active in the community, with Wells being involved in the Kiwanis Club, Chamber of Commerce, and the YMCA, while Denbrook was in the Lions Club. Wells also served in World War I with the 307th Engineers, attached to the 82nd Division, serving 22 months, with 13 in France.

In the section of the roster dedicated to the qualifications of the firm for membership in AIA, the men noted their firm’s “reputation for careful design.” They also noted the large volume of business in the region, with many jobs being for the same client. Further, their goal was “not to build monuments to ourselves, but to design functional, economical, yet beautiful buildings that represent the best buy for the money.” Based on the projects they listed up to 1953, they demonstrated working on several projects for one client, with several buildings on the University of North Dakota campus to their credit, including the Medical Science building (O’Kelly Hall), Education building, and the Engineering building. In addition, they worked on several public building projects throughout North Dakota and northern Minnesota, mostly schools, courthouses, and a few churches.

While they also have the Chester Fritz to their credit, they did face a few problems after building the CFL. The firm was involved in a legal dispute resulting from exterior problems relating to construction of the Kittson County (MN) court house in 1966, where exterior finish of Granolux began cracking. Details about this case can be found here

The style of the CFL did reflect some of the aims of the firm as it reflects an element of simplicity, yet strength. The building is not very ornate, excluding the tower, which has scholarly images carved into the concrete. It matches many of the buildings surrounding it, several which were designed or worked on by the firm. Based upon AIA directory records, Wells died in 1976 and Denbrook became the principal architect in the firm by the construction of the CFL.

When reflecting on the CFL and many other buildings on campus, it is clear that Wells & Denbrook were good at their craft and that this area was fortunate to have these architects working in Grand Forks.

Grand Forks City Hall celebrating an anniversary

While we celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the Chester Fritz Library last month and are continuing to work towards commemorating the library through digital collections and exhibits, it would be unfair to not congratulate the City of Grand Forks for the centennial of the opening of the city hall on November 15, 1911. I stumbled across this fun fact in a Grand Forks Herald article published online just after 10:00pm.

The building, located at the corner of N 4th Street and 2nd Avenue North in Grand Forks will be having a small celebration, beginning at 3:30pm Wednesday, November 15 at its original entrance at 402 2nd Ave. N in downtown Grand Forks. Grand Forks Mayor Michael Brown will blow out candles on a birthday cake at 4:00pm.

This building is interesting not only for its architectural style, which is, according to the article, a classical revival style, but for a small plaque commemorating the explosion of the USS Maine in Havana, Cuba in February 1898. It is believed to be the only monument to that event in North Dakota and is made from metal from the ship. This is important, as the North Dakota militia served in the ensuing Spanish-American War, but in the Philippines, instead of Cuba, where they hoped to serve.

It has served numerous functions over the years, including a jail, and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1982. The building was added onto in 1993. This is one of several other prominent buildings in Grand Forks that will soon celebrate that mark, including the Masonic Temple and Grand Forks County Court House (2013) and Central High School (2017). Interestingly enough, Grand Forks’ other high school Red River High School will celebrate fifty years in 2017.

Having commemorated the fiftieth anniversary of an important building in Grand Forks, hearty congratulations are extended to the City of Grand Forks for the centennial anniversary of the city hall.

The building is viewable through Google Street View on Google Maps and is below:

Stuart McDonald in the Chester Fritz

Libraries all over the country are going though a process of change right now.  The evolution of technology has pushed them to digitize their collections.  Of course, digitization is a slow, time consuming and expensive process that most libraries can only devote a small amount of time to.  The Elwyn B. Robinson Department of Special Collections in the Chester Fritz Library has started digitizing its collections and have chosen a few specific collections to display on their website.

I would like to take a moment and focus on one specific collection, the Stuart McDonald Papers.  Stuart McDonald was a cartoonist who wrote for the Grand Forks Herald and the North Dakotan.  He attended the University of North Dakota from 1949-1951.  He became the vice-president of the McDonald Clothing Company in 1952, which was located at 311 Demers Ave.  Today we would recognize the building as Subway and Olivieri’s Hair Salon; if you look on the side of the building though, it still has the McDonalds logo on the side in the alley.

The collection is dedicated to the political cartoons he drew.  Some of my favorites are his cartoon “He Who Lives by the Sword…” which comments on the impact of the Vietnam on the federal budget and “It Went That-a-Way” which satirizes the cold North Dakota endures every winter.

McDonald’s work is very funny, if you understand the events of the time in which he wrote them.  I invite all who read this to browse through the digital collection on your computer, just imagine if you could access an entire library that way.

Harry Potter’s Photographs

Ok I’ll admit it…I’m fifty-five years old and I like the Harry Potter movies that are based on J. K. Rowling’s characters in her books. I cannot say that I’ve read a single book that she has written, but I do like the movies and the special effects that create the illusions of magic. One of the magical accoutrements that the inhabitants of Hogwarts have at their disposal are magically animated photographs that when viewed, seem to come alive and convey to the viewer something much more expressive than any flat two dimensional photograph in a frame ever could. It is in this area that the History Department has added our own “semi-magical photos” to the body of historical artifacts housed in the archives of the Chester Fritz Library.
During the preparation for the Fritz at 50 celebration the History Department has worked not only to preserve the existing historical documents and photographic artifacts relating to the Chester Fritz Library, but we have also incorporated current technologies—technologies that while not unheard of when the library was built in 1961were still not suited for use by local historians of the day. While the use of a digital “cam-corder” to capture a new era in the history of the library may not seem profound, the recordings made in reference to the Fritz at 50 commemoration stand in stark contrast to the “non-magical” black and white photos that constituted the bulk of the visual historical record of our library. In lieu of simply creating more photographs of the library and its inhabitants we have captured the clear images and voices of some of the people whose personal histories are intertwined with the history of the Chester Fritz Library. Filmed interviews conducted with members of the library staff, former University President Charles Kupchella, and others who have either been impacted directly or indirectly by the library or those who have had an influence on the shape of the institution today have now been added to a growing archive of historical artifacts. These “film clips” have been digitally recorded for posterity and will be available in the archives of the Special Collections of the Chester Fritz Library.
So instead of looking at a photo on the mantle that represents a frozen image in time, or even Harry Potter’s magically enhanced pictures that seem to slightly extend that brief moment, we can watch the people and listen to their unique voices recorded just days ago in a future that will undoubtedly include some new incarnation of the Chester Fritz Library. Perhaps the students at the university today will be on hand for the Fritz at 75, or 100 celebrations where they will have an opportunity to add their images and voices to the pool of the library’s history.

Beginnings of a Journey for Chester Fritz

Last evening we had a presentation by Dan Rylance discussing Chester Fritz. This seemed like an appropriate time to blog about the early years of the man as well. Born in 1892, in Buxton, North Dakota, his family moved to Fargo, North Dakota, in 1898. Always living in poverty, his situation was exacerbated in 1902 when his father, Charles, was seriously injured in a threshing accident.

With the injury to his father, the family lost their main source of income. However, his mother was able to find work as a clerk and bookkeeper. As a result Chester Fritz was able to remain in school, and attended public school in Fargo from 1898 until 1905. It was during this time, in 1903, that the Fargo Carnegie Public Library opened and the young Fritz made daily visits, and consumed volumes of books. He was particularly enamored with Horatio Alger novels that gave the young man of no means hope for the future.

In 1905, when Chester Fritz was twelve years old, his mother apparently could no longer cope with the burdens of caring for a permanently handicapped husband and a young son. Anne Fritz disappeared in Februrary, 1905, and Chester Fritz never saw his mother again. As a result, he went to live in Lidgerwood, North Dakota, with his aunt and uncle, Katherine and Neil Macdonald. The change in his family status would change his life. The young Fritz excelled in Lidgerwood. He grew to become the high school football quarterback, and valedictorian of his graduating class.

Chester Fritz would go on to complete two years of higher education at the University of North Dakota, but he grew restless. Wanting to see more of the world he went west to Seattle, Washington. There he completed his baccalaureate degree in Commerce at the University of Washington. Shortly after he became employed by Fisher Flouring Mills, and it was while employed by that company that he began his journey to China. Selling flour in Hong Kong.

Want to hear Chester Fritz? Listen to a portion of his speech at our Omeka site from the original dedication ceremony in 1961:  Chester Fritz Library Dedication Speech Recording

To learn more about Chester Fritz, check out this video with Wilbur Stolt, Director of Libraries at the University of North Dakota:

The Secret Beginning of “The Fritz”

As many of us know the Chester Fritz Library first opened its doors in the fall of 1961. What many of us do not know is that before the dedication and the official opening of the library, many secrets were kept and packs made.  Chester Fritz did not simply donate his money to the school, he made sure the school, in particular the library system, was in need of his generosity.

In 1957 Chester Fritz first had the idea to donate his money to UND for a library, but he did not immediately send a letter to the University President or even the Head of Libraries on campus.  He instead contacted his aunt living in Illinois at the time, who would become an essential player in the final result of the donation money being given to UND, Kathrine Tiffany.  Tiffany’s role as the intermediary initially between Fritz and the head of libraries on campus, Jon R. Ashton, and then between Fritz and President Starcher, cannot be overstated in its importance.  Fritz’s initial letter to Tiffany outlined his ideas about the donation.

When Tiffany first contacted the university on Fritz’s behalf, she contacted only Jon Ashton. Fritz wanted an opinion on the condition of the current library from the head of libraries only, his unbridled opinion, Tiffany actually swore Ashton to secrecy so that only he was aware of the plot.  About one month after Tiffany contacted Ashton, she, on Fritz’s behalf, sent a letter to President Starcher regarding the possibility of a sizable donation from a former alum.  She did not tell Starcher who the donation would come from, but needless to say, Starcher was on the edge of seat for more information.

It would take a much closer inspection of President Starcher’s personal papers to gage his mood on being left out of the loop and strung along for those first months of communication between Fritz, Tiffany, and Ashton, but it would more than likely make for an interesting blog post, if such papers exist.

Chester Fritz sent Starcher the official donation letter from his villa in Rome on February 8, 1958, which finally named him as the donor and outlined the terms of his donation.  It is evident that Fritz had been planning the donation for a long while because only a little more than a week after he had mailed his donation letter to Starcher, most likely before Starcher even received the letter, he mailed a letter to Tiffany regarding a room in the Fritz that could be dedicated to some of his artifacts he had accumulated on his travels in Asia.

There were a few different ideas about where to place the library initially, here is one of the ideas that was not chosen, see if you can spot the library. Tiffany periodically checked in on the construction of the library to be able to send correspondence back to Fritz about the progress, an activity President Starcher regularly engaged in as well.  Finally on October 18, 1961, the library was dedicated with President Starcher’s speech.

For those of you who read this post, what would you like to see on the blog next?

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Also, our official website for the Fritz at 50.