The Winter of Mayville's Discontent

Why beloved historic buildings on this North Dakota campus are falling fast


Midwestern hometowns are like the children in Lake Wobegon; they're all above average. Ask folks from any one of the small farm communities that dot eastern North Dakota, where I grew up, and they can give you a reason why theirs is special. But in truth, the overwhelming impression is one of utilitarian uniformity: towering grain elevators, aging brick storefronts, Victorian-era farmhouses, 1960s ranch homes, and prefab metal structures on the highway out of town.

My hometown of Mayville, population 2,000 or so, is like that. Should you pass through on North Dakota Highway 200 (a two-minute journey), you'll be hard-pressed to note anything different—that is, until you get to the northern edge of town, where you might find yourself taken aback.

There sits the small but beautiful campus of Mayville State University. The three imposing brick-and-stone buildings that long gave the campus its character were built around the turn of the last century, at a time when their grandeur and significance proclaimed the confidence and cultural aspirations of a state that had only recently joined the union.

Old Main, East Hall, and West Hall formed three sides of a traditional college quadrangle, with the street and the campus gate on the fourth side. The trees on the lawn have grown broad and tall over the last century, giving the campus the feeling of a timeless retreat, as if it has been transported from some older, longer-settled part of the country. It's always been the reason why my Midwestern hometown really, truly is above average.

Now, one of the three historic buildings—East Hall—has been demolished, and West Hall is scheduled to come down in two years or less. Nobody in Mayville seems very happy about this. Many residents are dismayed. But nobody has been able to figure out how to stop it, either.

What do you do when you care about a threatened historic structure, but you can't find a way to protect it? How do you weigh the value of memories, historical connections, and aesthetic sensibilities when the costs on the other side are clearly written on a balance sheet? I went back home last fall—when East Hall still stood—to ask these questions and to visit a place still dear to me, before it changed forever.


Mayville State began as a "normal school" in 1890, only a year after North Dakota attained statehood, with the goal of educating teachers for the public schools. The campus took shape slowly, but by 1918, Old Main and East and West halls, the latter two originally built as dorms, were all in place. Vintage photographs show these three buildings looming over flat grain fields that stretch endlessly toward the horizon.

The school began awarding a B.A. in education in 1925, and it became a state university in 1987, though its mission remained largely the same. Enrollment, currently 887, has never been much more than a thousand. In fact, Mayville State probably owes its continued existence to a political quirk: To emphasize the value of education, the first citizens of North Dakota protected institutions of higher learning in the state constitution.

Still, lawmakers have long treated the school like a poor stepsister to the much larger state universities in Fargo and Grand Forks. And over time, East and West halls deteriorated. In 2006, Gary Hagen, Mayville State's president, commissioned a study of the school's facilities and future needs. The study concluded that decades of deferred maintenance meant that an estimated $9 million would be needed to bring East and West halls in line with code and modern expectations. If funding couldn't be secured to restore the structures, demolition would be the only option.

When Hagen appealed to the North Dakota State Board of Higher Education and state lawmakers for funding, he received a crash course in political reality. "It got shot down pretty fast," he says. Lee Kaldor, a state House member who attended and taught at Mayville State, says the local delegation then tried to get money allocated for just one building. "We went to the legislature with the intention of trying to find four and a half million for West Hall," he says, "and we were just flat-out told there was no way."

The fact that East and West halls were both listed on the National Register of Historic Places, as part of the Mayville historic district, did not appear to impress either the state board of higher education or legislators. And yet, the decision to deny the funds probably had as much to do with the state's character—its fundamental frugality—as any disregard for the architectural and historical significance of the buildings. Officials from the university's chancellor's office declined to comment, and Debra Anderson, director of public affairs for the state university system, would not answer questions about the denial of funds to restore the buildings. Instead, she provided the following statement: "While we appreciate the historical significance of East and West halls, restoration would have been cost-prohibitive, and removing these buildings significantly reduces the university's deferred maintenance inventory."

After being rebuffed by the state, Hagen sought another route to preserve East and West halls. "I asked the state chancellor, 'Do we have permission to privatize them?'" he says. He put together a task force of residents and university officials to come up with alternative uses, and recruit investors or buyers. Deb Kyllo, a retired local businesswoman, helped lead the effort. Hagen held two public meetings, attended by about 100 people, and also met with Mike Marcil, head of the Marcil Group in Fargo, a real estate developer who has worked on historic restoration projects around the state. "He was very nice to deal with," Kyllo says, "and he gave us some advice, but he said he –couldn't take it on."

Marcil was blunter when I spoke to him, ticking off the reasons why the project was infeasible. "It's a town of about 2,000 people, perceived as being in decline," he said. "You just don't have the population to support buildings of that size." Banks aren't going to lend the money, he added, because there's no secondary market for the buildings; low-income or senior housing could provide access to federal funds, but the city or county would still have to come up with "the kind of money they don't have." Even taking advantage of historic tax credits, Marcil said, there's simply no way to make sense of the investment.

Hard demographic truths lie beneath this picture. North Dakota had more residents in 1930 than it does today. The remaining population is aging, and, as retail and industry concentrate around the larger population centers, many of the smaller towns resemble retirement villages with snowmobiles in place of golf carts.

A certain weary resignation also seems to have set in. Brad Tastad, an old classmate of mine, worked at the local Traill County Tribune for years and knows Mayville State as well as anyone. "There are a lot of people in this town who went there as students or taught or worked there," Tastad said when we sat down at a local café. "I think pretty much everybody is against tearing the buildings down. But, of course, that's different from actually doing something about it."

Deb Kyllo followed up the public meetings with calls to people she thought might be able to help, but received little support. The size of the project simply exceeded the capacity of the community, Tastad suggested. Mike Marcil has a harsher assessment: "Nobody believes less in these small towns than the people who live there. You're much more likely to get help from someone outside or who once lived there."

Alumni might have seemed a logical target, but as a school that primarily educates teachers or small-town businesspeople, Mayville State has few high-tech millionaires among its graduates. Indeed, a much smaller fundraising campaign to preserve the old president's house is proceeding, but slowly.

So what's the answer? When I talked to Deputy State Historic Preservation Officer Fern Swenson, she noted that Hagen and the university had taken the proper steps in seeking public input and alternative uses. Swenson said officials at her office planned to make a final visit to inventory and record the buildings, but she sounded resigned to their destruction.

In Mayville, the rescue effort seemed to be reduced to hoping that a providential angel would appear. "I need to find some rich farmer," Kyllo said, "one who needs a tax deduction, except I don't think there are any of those anymore. But you keep hoping … You never know."

Talking to university president Hagen, I had the feeling that even if someone handed him the money to repair the buildings, he'd still face a dilemma. East and West halls together had 60,000 square feet of space—far more than the school needed. Before its demolition, East Hall sat deserted. The college's education department still uses the bottom two floors of West Hall, but many offices upstairs are empty. Instead of investing in the restoration of these buildings, last year the state gave Mayville State money to construct an addition to an existing structure that will be much more energy efficient and cheaper to operate. That was the fiscally responsible choice, Hagen said.

Still, he couldn't help but sound a note of regret. "What you don't get is buildings like these," he said. "There will never be buildings built like these again in North Dakota."

Some time after my visit to Mayville, I learned that the demolition of East Hall had begun.

The wrecking ball wasn't supposed to arrive until the snow had melted, but the city asked the college to act before the ground thawed, to minimize the damage heavy machinery might inflict on the surrounding streets. Demolition was expected to take only a couple of days.

This last, small detail unsettled me. The idea that something that loomed so large in my memory could disappear so quickly was hard to grasp. Here is a short story that explains why.

In 1954 my mother was a freshman, sunbathing in front of East Hall, when my father introduced himself. He told her he'd been trying to reach a girl in the dorm to ask her out, but no one was answering the phone (there was, at the time, exactly one public phone in a four-story dorm), and he wondered if she could go inside and pick up the call for him. My mother did and, of course, my father asked her out.

She turned him down. But her curiosity must have been piqued because about a year later they eloped to California. A year after that they returned to the college and got their degrees. They would end up teaching at Mayville State for more than 30 years. I grew up with the campus as a second home, learning to type in my father's office and falling deeply in love with the written word in the library, where my mother worked.

My experience as a faculty brat may have been out of the ordinary, but it was hardly unique. The college never stood apart from Mayville, but was always part of it and the surrounding area. During my visit I bumped into several old friends, and there wasn't one who didn't express some level of bewildered dismay that the campus could be about to lose such an essential part of its character.

When we are asked what matters most to us, we are likely to think of people—children, brothers or sisters, parents, friends—and this is right. But we also have places at the center of our lives. This is both obvious and often discounted, as if valuing these physical touchstones too heavily is a sign of misguided values. That's only true, however, if they are exalted over the living, not if they are valued as companions to the people who gave them meaning. In the 15-plus years I've written for this magazine, preservation has too often been viewed simply as a civic act: We must preserve this building because it is an important artifact of this era, this style, this famous architect or resident. But it's just as valid to view preservation in more intimate terms, as a desire to maintain a link to that which has become meaningful to us, which still stirs our memories, which helps explain who we are. This isn't sentimentality. It's reverence.

Of course, $9 million is a lot of reverence, particularly on a campus that has a lot of immediate needs, in an aging town of limited resources, in a sparsely populated state that isn't growing. I found myself frustrated with the quiet resignation with which most everyone I spoke to in North Dakota viewed the impending demolition of the two halls. But I never came up with a plan to save them, either.

Near the end of my trip to Mayville, I toured East Hall with Hagen, Thomas Moen, the building's maintenance supervisor, and one other person—my mother, who retired from the faculty 10 years ago. The interior was in rough shape, with gaps in the maple floors of the basement revealing earth below and buckling wainscoting along unlit hallways. The rooms were cold, and trash was scattered here and there. Plumbing, heating, and wiring were all badly outdated.

Yet the halls were wide; the wainscoting, flooring, trim, old wood doors, and windows epitomized the kind of details you don't see anymore. The rooms were more spacious than I remembered, most with airy views of the campus or the town. Even in its dilapidated state, East Hall felt the way we want a college building to feel, as if the people who built it understood the significance of a school's mission, and strove in their modest way to build something that captured both the dignity and timelessness of the pursuit of knowledge.

My mother found both her old dorm rooms as we wandered about, standing inside each one for the first time in decades. She shared memories of climbing out of a window to sit on top of the portico in the evening with friends. When we were on the bottom floor, she pointed to a secondary exit on the side of the building. "That's the door I snuck out of when your dad and I eloped." She said it not with sadness or even wistfulness, but just a kind of quiet wonder at the role this place once played in her past.

Not long after that, we left, and Thomas Moen locked the doors behind us.

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