Built in 1908, Sayre Hall provided Grand Forks, North Dakota with a beautiful example of Beaux-Arts architecture while serving as a cornerstone of campus life at Wesley College and the University of North Dakota. Designed by renowned New York architect A. Wallace McRae, the ornate building came into existence via a unique relationship between Edward Robertson, the president of Red River Valley University, a Methodist institution in Wahpeton, North Dakota and Webster Merrifield, the president of the University of North Dakota. The architectural gem stood on the University of North Dakota’s campus for over 100 years before demolition in June 2018.
Backstory and Context
Sayre Hall’s glazed brick and red Mediterranean-tiled roof transported students to a realm of elevated elegance. In its over 100 years of existence, it served primarily as the men’s dormitory of Wesley College. This unique institution was established in 1905 under a co-curricular relationship with the University of North Dakota. That year, the North Dakota Methodist Conference approved the relocation of Red River Valley University from Wahpeton to Grand Forks under the new name, Wesley College.1 This relationship uniquely positioned the University of North Dakota to allow its students to take courses in art, music, religion, and philosophy while staying true to its secular mission. Although the college was technically independent of UND, all Wesley College students’ degrees came via the larger institution. Wesley College was perhaps so remarkable as it was the very first instance of a religious college officially joining a state university in the history of the the United States. President Edward Roberton secured the funding for the building from successful land broker AJ Sayre. The donation of the California businessman, originally from Harvey North Dakota, brought forth the first of the four main buildings of the Wesley College campus when construction completed in 1908. In the years to follow, women’s dormitory, Larimore Hall (1909), instructional space, Corwin Hall (1910), administrative offices (Robertson Hall) and rounded out the facilities of the esteemed institution’s early years.
As one traveled inside the three story Sayre Hall, the majesty of the College’s vision became quite apparent. The main level housed a grand common room, with high ceilings and terrazzo flooring, in which residents, faculty and guests engaged in receptions, parties, and official Wesley College gatherings. A central fireplace marked both this space and a smaller basement lounge as the center for collegiate life within a unique subset of the University of North Dakota’s population. Sayre Hall served as the home of many of the most esteemed alumni of the university, including playwright Maxwell Anderson and aviator Carl Ben Eielson. The ground on which this building stood overflows with memories of a special time in Grand Forks.
Walking up the grand staircase in Sayre Hall brought visitors into the heart of the building, the dormitories. These suites, spacious for their era measured at approximately 200 square feet total. Entering the suite meant crossing over beautiful marble threshold at each door. The spaces, shared by two gentlemen each, contained a sleeping quarters along with an attached study. They housed built-in closets, shaving sinks, wrapping picture rails, and transom windows, examples of all of which survived through multiple rounds of repurposing and remained until the building’s until demolition in 2018. The modest rooms offered the gentlemen an escape from the busyness of campus life and a quiet retreat to relax and study.
Sayre Hall underwent two major changes early in its history, the first of which came as the result of loss. In December of 1917 Harold Sayre, the son of building namesake AJ Sayre, left Stanford University to enlist in the American Field Service in World War I and joined the 11th Aero Bombing Squadron as a flight lieutenant. Tragically, on September 14, 1918, Sayre died at the Battle Saint-Mihel while firing at German forces. After the horrific news reached the United States, Harold’s father asked President Robertson to rename the building after his fallen son. The president obliged, and the building was known for the rest of its existence as Harold Sayre Hall. In 1930, Wesley College finished construction Robertson Hall, attached to Sayre, which served the primary function of administrative space for Wesley College officials. Over time, the buildings assumed a singular identity as Robertson/Sayre Hall.
The University of North Dakota officially absorbed Wesley College in 1965, and Sayre Hall’s sale followed shortly after. In the decades to follow, UND converted Sayre Hall to meet a variety of institutional needs. Dormitory spaces found new life as offices for graduate students, research projects, and a variety of campus interests. In its waning years, Sayre Hall was most remembered as the home of the Honors Program, which was located in the basement. Offices, lounges, and classrooms with flexible seating facilitated the inquiry based learning of an engaged group of students. In one way then, the true spirit of Sayre Hall lived on and continues to do so through the work of engaged students in the Honors Program as well as Departments of Music, Philosophy and Religion, and Art, all of which started as units of Wesley College. The building is remembered for its special role in the history of the University of North Dakota, its memorial of a man who fought for American freedom, and its remarkable, elevated style. While Sayre Hall is now just a footprint, it continues to leave a mark in the memory of this community.