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.
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.
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.
Tonight: Dan Rylance will discuss the life and legacy of Chester Fritz as part of the Library’s 50th anniversary
**Media release from President Robert Kelley’s Office**
Dan Rylance, coauthor of the biography on the UND benefactor Chester Fritz, will discuss “Reflections on the Life and Legacies of Chester Fritz” Wednesday, Oct. 19, at 7 p.m. in the Chester Fritz Library’s Reading Room.
The thrust of his address is to discuss the “Fritz challenge.” According to Rylance, the term “Fritz challenge” comes from Fritz’s Oct. 13, 1961, library dedication speech, which said: “But now that we have this building, I am trusting that from time to time, alumni and other friends of the University will augment with private funds the regular legislative appropriations to the University for the growth of the library, so that this library will always be well-stocked with the type of books, magazines, and other materials needed for scholarly work in every department of the University.”
Rylance came to UND in 1964 as a graduate student in history and left in 1989 to become the editorial page editor of the Grand Forks Herald, a position he held until 1993. While at UND, he was coordinator of the Elwyn B. Robinson Department of Special Collections at the Chester Fritz Library and an associate professor of history. Largely elected by UND’s students, Rylance served two terms in the North Dakota House of Representatives from 1975-1979. He co-authored Ever Westward to the Far East with Chester Fritz in 1982 and Quentin Burdick: The Gentle Warrior in 2007.
Dan Rylance’s presentation is part of the 50th anniversary celebration of the Chester Fritz Library.
Our local paper, The Grand Forks Herald provided a well-written article sharing with the public what we are working to commemorate, the fiftieth anniversary of the Chester Fritz Library. Their linking to our site is quite appreciated.
Today marks the fiftieth anniversary of the dedication of the library. The University sent out many invitations to library staffs across the country inviting them to Grand Forks to share in our happiness and celebration of a new library facility. While most were unable to attend due to the distance to get to Grand Forks, they sent well wishes and some shared similar experiences of recent library constructions on their own campuses, which reflected the major changes coming to college and university campuses as they adjusted to different and expanding student populations both from veterans on the GI Bill to baby boomers entering adulthood.
Our library has changed much over the last fifty years. It has expanded in size, grown its collection, and incorporated new technologies to increase its accessibility to patrons, while changing how those patrons use it. It is the largest library in the state and is the heart of the UND campus. Chester Fritz’s donation of $1 million has certainly returned well in the thousands of students who have gained knowledge and their education through the library. Congratulations to the staff of the Chester Fritz Library on fifty wonderful years.
Check out the Fritz at 50 celebration at http://library.und.edu/fritz-at-50/
And our Omeka page http://fritzat50.omeka.net/
Elwyn B. Robinson, does that name sound familiar? Ask most students on the University of North Dakota campus and they will tell you it does, but most of them cannot place the name specifically. The reason the name should sound familiar to UND students is because the Department of Special Collections, on the fourth floor of the Chester Fritz Library, was renamed for Robinson in 1986.
Elwyn Burns Robinson was born on October 13, 1905, on a farm in Ohio. He earned a B.A. in English at Oberlin College and at Western Reserve University he earned both his M.A. in 1932 and Ph.D in 1936. In 1935 he moved to Grand Forks, ND with his new wife Eva Foster to take a teaching position at the University of North Dakota. After he began teaching at UND, he contributed many works to North Dakota History, most prominent among these was his book “History of North Dakota.” Other important works of his were his radio broadcasts “Hero’s of North Dakota” and his essay “The Themes of North Dakota History.”
Sure, Elwyn Robinson was a great history professor and scholar, but why did the university decide to name the North Dakota Archive after him? The answer lies with his work outside the classroom at UND. During his tenure at UND, Robinson fought continuously for more research material and collections on North Dakota history. In 1961 the Chester Fritz Library was built and there would be from then on a permanent department in which to store collections on North Dakota history.
After his death in 1985, the University, along with Robinson’s two sons, Stephen and Gordon, set up an endowment fund to honor Elwyn Robinson. The fund was to be used to acquire collection material for the Special Collections Archive. A decision was made by the University to rename the archive The Elwyn B. Robinson Department of Special Collections. The dedication ceremony included beautiful programs, a portrait of Elwyn Robinson just outside of the department, and many attendees (also, a letter from Governor Sinner congratulating the Chester Fritz Library and apologizing for missing the event). Before the event there was also an invitation sent out to all history department alums inviting them to attend the dedication and partake in a historic reunion.
Elwyn Robinson’s donations to the discourse of North Dakota history along with his determination to contribute anything and everything he could find on the history of North Dakota earned him the honor of having the very department he worked so hard to expand and nurture renamed for him. I would urge anyone interested in North Dakota history to refer to Robinson’s works on the subject.
In our previous blogs we have discussed how to upload documents, digitize photographs, and how we have used those sources to explore the history of the Chester Fritz library. More recently one of our colleagues conducted an interview with Wilbur Stolt, the Director of Libraries for the University of North Dakota, which provided an opportunity to illustrate the role of oral interviews in public history.
Oral history of course has been around a long time. Many societies have relied on oral tradition as a means of recording and preserving the past, particularly in the absence of written histories. The use of oral history developed in the United States in the nineteenth-century when anthropologists began collecting recordings on phonograph cylinders. Later, in the 1930s the Federal government paid interviewers through the Works Progress Administration (WPA) to collect oral accounts from various groups, particularly Civil War survivors and former slaves. Today, oral history has developed into an accepted and useful discipline that provides information from different perspectives, especially when they cannot be found in written sources.
In our particular case, the interviewer was able to explore the changing role of the Chester Fritz library from the perspective of the person responsible for the overall operations of the library. Mr. Stolt’s perspective is one of management and general operations. He provides an overview of the major changes he has witnessed during his tenure. Here’s our video. Later we hope to provide different perspectives as we interview others of the library staff. .
Of course one of the advantages of conducting oral interviews today is the way we incorporate various media formats into a single presentation. The interviewer may take notes of comments of interest for future reference, or for follow-up questions. However, at the same time the answers provided by the subject can be digitally recorded in both audio and video formats. There are several software applications for capturing, editing, and burning videos or slide shows. In our case we have elected to use Nero Vision, from Nero Multimedia Suite 10 Platinum HD. With this software we were able to overlay music in the introduction, insert titles, still photos, and edit separately the video and audio from the interview.
This raises an important issue regarding oral history. Because what you see is an edited video, it reflects the emphasis that we wished to portray. When conducting research it is always important to check the unedited primary source, rather than rely on secondary sources.