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.
We received the following email and song lyrics, which were too cool to pass up.
Dearest Bill Caraher,
Word on campus has it that you are the man to talk to about having
entries posted to the “Chester Fritz at 50” blog. CFL means quite a
lot to me, as I have both worked and studied there, not only as a
student, but also as a budding library information professional.
I had composed the following stanzas (sung to that great old Fred
Astaire jazzy black cane and top-hat tap-dancing hit “Puttin’ on the
Ritz” a few years back when I was working at CFL as a Government
Document Copy Cataloger. Yesterday evening, I had emailed them to
Wilbur Stolt who has been cursing my name ever since as I got this
tenacious little tune stuck in his head all morning. It is my dearest
wish to bequeath upon you these lyrics in honor of Chester Fritz
Library’s 50 birthday bash. Attached is a word file with the original
lyrics and the new (parodied) version. It should be noted that I have
not received any copyright permissions from any authoritative persons
to re-print said original lyrics. I just thought it would be a gas.
A very happy birthday to you, Chester Fritz Library.
Thanks Kalan for your contribution. I provided a video of Fred Astaire dancing to the original “Puttin’ on the Ritz” as a frame of reference.
Working at the Fritz
Have you seen the library?
The one on University.
On that famous thoroughfare
Piles of books in the air!
Ideas grow into research kernels
Spine labels and magazine journals
Crowds of patrons all the time
We answer questions on a dime
Now, if you’re blue
Have more inquiries than you knew?
Why don’t you go where librarians sit?
Working at the Fritz.
In circ, there is a dude named Stanley
Downstairs, a binding guy named Randy
(how Super Dandy)
Workin at the Fritz
Acquisitions, and Bibliographic Control,
Aren’t in the public eye at all
But they are (in truth) the library’s heart & soul
Let’s get our fix, Working at the Fritz
Come lets mix where Bygdeboker inflicts
American-Norwegian heritage sticks
Let’s all get our kicks
Working at the Fritz
Patrons study, but it makes them happy
Ace on the test, makes another library groupie
How very snappy.
Working at the Fritz
You’ll declare its simply show stopping
Talking in whispers, but how very alluring
Can you resist?
Working at the Fritz.
As we work towards celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Chester Fritz Library (CFL), I would like to reflect upon what the library means to me as a young scholar and its importance to the institution. The library is more than a building to house books, it is a social place, as well as a gateway. While the word library conveys a silent place, colleagues and friends can often be observed quietly conversing on a variety of subjects at many different times of day. Further, it is where academic creativity begins, as patrons scan the shelves, or browse the various databases provided by the CFL, to complete various research projects, both professional and personal. The library is the heart of a university and the Chester Fritz has enlarged UND’s heart over the last fifty years through various changes.
This project causes me to reflect on the changes in the library since its opening. Where students relied on books and bound periodicals in the early days, much more research is done online through the many academic databases the CFL has acquired in recent years. These databases not only change how we engage the library, but are advantageous to the institution, as they allow patrons to access materials from virtually anywhere, while remaining in Grand Forks. I enjoy the ability to access scholarly journal articles in PDF form from the comfort of my home or office through the library’s website.
The other special part of our library is the Department of Special Collections, which not only house much of the material that we rely on for this project, but also three special collections that set the CFL apart from other institutions in the state and nation. The first collection is the genealogy reading room, which houses a significant amount of research material related to Scandinavian immigration to the region. It is one of the major draws for the public to the library, and provides patrons with valuable tools for learning more about their ancestry.
The second important collection are the papers related to the Nuremberg War Crimes Trial at the conclusion of World War II. Our collection is one of 22 in the nation and is one of the most complete, thanks to the efforts of Dr. Howard Russell, who was a professor of English Language and Literature at UND before entering government service. Dr. Russell served as the Secretary General of the American Military Tribunals from May 1948 until the conclusion in December 1949. It is a massive collection of over 450 boxes, totaling 600 feet in size. This collection truly sets our library apart as one of a handful of centers in the country for researching one of the most important trials in world history.
The last major important collection is one that is still processing in the department. Earlier this year, former Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-ND) donated his papers dealing with his lengthy public service career to North Dakota and the United States. This collection is still in the works, but will enhance the CFL as a center for research on a variety of subjects.
While the library is not perfect, it is a wonderful part of our campus and is the heart of UND. It is more than bricks, mortar, and books. It is working to improve its technological capabilities every year and engaging in digital humanities in a number of ways. It also houses collections for research that are unique to North Dakota and afford students and the general public countless opportunities to satisfy their intellectual curiosity. To me, the Chester Fritz Library is an important place that has changed in several ways over fifty years and will continue to improve in the next fifty.