The very foundation of UND
Excavation reveals part of Old Main, University’s first building constructed in 1883
For Darin Buri, the opportunity to see the foundation of UND’s very first building – Old Main – and to collect, analyze and save brick samples from it was an experience he wasn’t sure he’d ever get.
The building’s foundation had a history all its own, proving incapable of supporting the structure’s weight and ultimately leading to Old Main’s demolition in 1963. Buri, facility and geology library manager at the College of Engineering & Mines, has made it his mission to preserve remnants of UND’s past that lie just below the surface.
“My dream was to be able to see, photograph and maybe even collect samples and touch the footings that failed under Old Main,” he said. “These footings were inadequate. It was one of the reasons the building didn’t last as long as hoped. It started to settle almost immediately, and by the 1920s, they had to remove the top two floors to reduce the weight
“This is where UND all started, and it’s part of the story,” he continued. “It’s a human story, and it’s not always a success. Sometimes there are failures, but it’s where we are today.”
Old Main, as it became known, was built in 1883 along the banks of the English Coulee, located between what are now Merrifield and Twamley halls. It was demolished in 1963 with its location on campus marked by the Eternal Flame sculpture and Memorial Plaza.
Last month, the dream finally came true for Buri. There, at the bottom of a trench dug to install a new water main to Merrifield Hall, sections of the brick foundation that hadn’t been seen for more than a century lay exposed. The backhoe used to dig the trench also had brought bricks and small sections of the foundation’s brick walls to the surface.
The grin on Buri’s face said it all as he picked up bricks, studied the excavated remnants and chatted with construction workers about the building’s history, making sure they understood the significance of what they’d uncovered.
Among them was Derrick Deering, project manager for PCL/Community, a joint venture, the construction manager for the Merrifield Hall renovation project. He holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in civil engineering from UND.
“Being an alum and knowing this was the original building on campus, it was really neat to uncover it,” Deering noted. “Darin came out and told us more about the history of the building. It was really fun to hear.”
Matt Fohr, senior project manager with UND Facilities Management, compared uncovering the brick foundation from Old Main to discovering a hidden treasure.
“It’s well known that the Memorial Plaza was constructed over the Old Main site, but to see the bricks in the ground was awe-inspiring,” he said. “They were placed there 140 years ago, before North Dakota was even a state, and no one has seen a part of this building since it was razed 60 years ago.”
Buri spotted some of the same characteristics he’d seen in the bricks and mortar used on other University facilities built in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The mortar contained tiny shells from freshwater mollusks in the Red River. The bricks made from local clay showed the finger and thumbprint indentations of the workers who made them.
“That’s another part of this whole thing that puts a human face on it,” Buri said. “In 1883, somebody in the Grand Forks area made and handled that brick. Now we’re looking at an imprint that’s survived all these years. It’s a connection to the humanity that was in this building.”
In less than a day, the line for the new water main had been installed and the exposed foundation on the west side of Old Main had been reburied. But it may not be the last time part of the foundation is uncovered. Deering said in the fall, work is expected to begin on a skyway connecting Merrifield and Twamley halls.
“We anticipate exposing more of the Old Main foundation when we put in the skyway because we think that footing and foundation goes back between Merrifield and Twamley,” he explained.
The skyway and the Merrifield renovation project are scheduled to be finished in the fall of 2024, according to Deering.
Although Old Main was in use for the first 80 years of UND’s history, the building had its troubles, first being heavily damaged by a tornado in 1887 and then falling victim to the sometimes unpredictable and problematic glacially formed geology of the Red River Valley. One geologist went so far as to suggest that building cities in the Red River Valley was a “mistake” because the terrain is “friendly to agriculture but highly unfriendly to human settlement.”
Originally, Old Main was simply called the Main Building. For a time, it was called Merrifield Hall after Webster Merrifield, UND’s third president (1891-1909). The name Old Main came into use during the 1930s after the present-day Merrifield Hall was built in 1928.
A 2010 publication in UND’s Scholarly Commons titled “UND Housing: Serving You for 125 Years” noted that when Old Main was built in 1883, it was the largest structure in the northern part of Dakota Territory.
The publication said in its early years, the Main Building was used for classrooms, laboratories, offices, library, museum, gymnasium, chapel and for faculty, staff and student housing. The president and his family lived in the west side of Old Main until 1887, the year a tornado destroyed that side of the building and took off part of its roof.
Update: On July 14, Prairie Public interviewed Darin Buri and Patrick Miller about the recent discovery on campus. You can listen to the segment on Prairie Public’s website.