A Dream Come True
AT LONG LAST! A new dormitory for women! Only a few years after the erection of Mohn Hall in 1912, a photograph of all the women students crowded on the front porch and leaning out windows, labeled "Mohn Hall Overflowing," dramatized to the Board of Trustees the obvious need of additional campus housing for the women students.
Time and again during the next eighteen years dormitory needs were urged; plans were worked on only to be laid aside for one reason or another --- among them the Chapel fire giving priority to a new classroom building, a desperately needed music hall, a Church-wide campaign for special synodical funds, the Luther-St. Olaf Endowment drive, a depression. But at length, in August 1937, twenty-five years after the completion of Mohn Hall, ground was broken for Agnes Mellby Hall, named in honor of St. Olaf's first woman college graduate.
There had been many difficult decisions to make before the contracts for the building were finally let. Until the new power plant was built following the fire which destroyed the old plant, all the buildings had been constructed of brick. But the architects, Coolidge and Hodgdon of Chicago, suggested stone native to this area for the plant and for the new buildings being planned. There was a question whether skilled stone masons were available and what would be the cost of such construction.
The new power plant became the guinea pig to determine the desirability and practicality of using stone for projected buildings. The workmen who placed a flag on top of the smoke stack to indicate the completion of the building declared that this was the most beautiful power plant they knew of. The erection of the combined Science Hall and Administration building and the Music Hall, later named Holland Hall, and Christiansen Hall, respectively, followed shortly, both of limestone.
When the time came to build Agnes Mellby Hall, there were those who felt that future residence halls should be of brick since this type of construction was less expensive and that the use of stone should be limited to buildings serving a strictly academic purpose. I remember Mr. Holland wrestling with this problem and saying that whatever was done with Agnes Mellby Hall would determine the pattern for the future. Sentiment among faculty, students, alumni, and friends was strongly in favor of stone. And this has been the material used in all subsequent buildings.
Then came the day for opening contractors' bids. They were higher than anticipated. Some cutting had to be done, but where? One feature of the building about which we had been especially thrilled was the paneled walls in the large foyer and the living room. We felt that although in a sense it was a luxury feature, it was most appropriate for the public rooms in a stone structure and would make foyer and lounge rooms of distinction, rather than just nice rooms with plastered walls. Because we felt that this was an extra feature beyond the demands of pure necessity I had solicited from the alumnae one dollar contributions toward the paneling and had received approximately $2,000.
One of the committee's first suggestions for cutting was to eliminate the paneling from these rooms. President Boe very reluctantly came to my office to tell me of it and other changes suggested. The change from oak to painted pine for built-in chests of drawers and closet shelves in the students' rooms I agreed with unhesitatingly. But when it came to eliminating the paneling in the foyer and lounge I would not consent. I said that I would refund to the donors the money so far received if it were not used for the purpose requested and given. The total amount that would have been saved by this elimination was $6,000.
When President Boe reported to the committee, he urged that every effort be made to secure the necessary wood paneling at a lower cost. This proved successful. When the building was completed, some of the most frequent comments made by students and visitors were on the beauty of the red oak paneling and the distinction it gave to the rooms.
The day in May 1938 when the women members of the class of 1939 came en masse to the new hall to select their rooms for the coming year was a most exciting one. Except for the few who had been counselors in Mohn, none of them had lived on the campus since their freshman year and half of them had never lived in a college dormitory. Their oh's and ah's resounded through the building as they made their tour of exploration. Third and fourth floors were to be their domain. The rest of the building was to be occupied by underclass women and junior counselors.
The evening before Memorial Day, Agnes Mellby opened its doors for a housewarming celebration. A delightful program had been planned by a committee of the Women's Student Government Association. It included music by a women's trio, a male quartette, a flute solo, and a violin solo. Ruth Borge, the newly elected president of the W.S.G.A. gave a welcome talk, "Our Pleasure." Mr. Arthur Solum of the faculty spoke on "The Builders," I on "Hopes, Trials, and Success." Lorraine Oppegaard, the newly elected first president of Agnes Mellby, closed with a gracious "Come Again."
On the first floor of Agnes Mellby Hall there is a little chapel. The inclusion of such a room of quiet had been suggested when the plans for the building were being drawn, but the idea was dismissed in view of the desperate need for rooms for students. However, it turned out that to conform with the architectural features of the ground floor entrance on the west, one room in the central corridor was larger than and differently shaped from the other student rooms. Almost invariably on seeing it people inspecting the building under construction would exclaim, "Why this looks just like a little chapel." And so it became.
In the spring when the building was completed, one of the seniors, Edna Hatlestad, asked me if there were any special plans for dedicating this little chapel. I replied, "No, none other than the dedication of the entire building at commencement."
Looking up smilingly and half shyly she said, "Do you suppose Howie and I could dedicate it in a special way on June 8th?" This was arranged. At most the little chapel could seat forty people. But Edna as she met one friend after the other, teacher or schoolmate, on the campus blithely invited them to the wedding and at last discovered that invited guests far outnumbered the capacity of the chapel. The wedding service was therefore performed in front of the flower-bedecked fireplace in the commodious living room. None of the furniture for the dormitory had arrived. But a piano had been brought in on which a classmate, Sylvia Fritz (Mrs. Albert Frerichs) played the nuptial music. The requisites for serving the wedding cake and coffee had also been provided. During the years there have been many small weddings in the little chapel, but the Edna and Howard Hong marriage service was the first to be conducted in Agnes Mellby Hall. The wedding on January 1, 1940, of Anna Tonette Hegland and Joseph Jauch was the first one to be performed in the little chapel.
In a modern dormitory one is conscious of the efforts made to provide for the physical, intellectual, and social needs of its residents. The inclusion of the little chapel in Agnes Mellby Hall is a visible evidence of the necessity for recognizing their spiritual needs, a place where one can for a few moments be apart from the crowd. It serves also for corporate devotions as the different corridors make arrangements to meet in their turn in this room.
Immediately upon entering the little chapel one senses an atmosphere of worship. Voices instinctively become hushed. The colorful stained-glass windows depicting scenes from the 23rd Psalm is the gift of the Women's League at St. Olaf College and the daughters of Mr. and Mrs. H. S. Hilleboe, the latter in memory of their mother, who had been a student at St. Olaf in its early days. The altar and benches were made by Mr. John Berntsen of walnut trees planted by Dr. Nils Flaten. The carvings on altar and benches were done by Dr. Flaten's son, Mr. Arnold Flaten, head of the art department. They bear careful study. On one side of the backrest of the benches are sacred symbols, on the reverse side of each a scripture passage of a meditative nature illuminated in gold. The cross on the altar, the gift of Dr. Oscar Mellby, was designed by Mr. John L. Ellingboe. He did the painting depicting the St. Olaf woman guided by the spirit of Christ, that hangs in this room, a gift of the men of Ytterboe Hall.
With the building completed, furnishings were necessary. President L. W. Boe, Mr. P. O. Holland and I served as a committee to select and purchase the furnishings for both the students' rooms and the social rooms. The year previous I had visited a dormitory in another college when they were having the chairs in the students' rooms recovered for the third time in ten years. I mentioned this on our way to Chicago where we had made arrangements to look at furniture at Marshall Field's. I recall Mr. Holland's quick reply, "We can't afford to re-cover. Well have to get good stuff to begin with." It was interesting to observe how minutely he examined the construction of each chair and other pieces of furniture we looked at, and at the quality of fabrics for upholstering and rugs. In this purchasing venture we had the splendid assistance of a Mr. Red of the interior decorating department, who had previously been sent floor plans of the building and had suggestions ready for us. It became evident to him before long that we wanted good quality which could promise long and hard usage. We felt well satisfied at the end of a couple of arduous days with our selections of furniture and rugs.
But securing draperies for the foyer and living room almost became our Waterloo. Nothing shown us was suitable for mullioned stone windows and red oak paneled walls. Fabrics that "might do" were prohibitive in price. After an exhausting day both Dr. Boe and Mr. Holland, thoroughly discouraged, said they guessed that for the time being we would have to get along without draperies in these rooms.
Then all at once Mr. Red exclaimed, "I have an idea. There is a velvet piece left after we decorated the Edgewater Beach Hotel two years ago. I think there are about eighty yards. If you'll take the whole piece, well give it to you for $2 a yard." When he brought out the piece from storage, we said, "'This is it." There proved to be a couple of yards more than were needed for the draperies and these were made into table protectors to be placed under lamps, vases, etc. And that's the story behind the red velvet hangings in Agnes Mellby Hall.
During the summer busy campus crews got everything in readiness for the opening of college in September. The one hundred eighty Agnes Mellby residents were delighted with everything in their new home. But there developed some problems. Every weekend there were throngs of visitors who wanted to see the building, even the rooms with the beamed ceilings on fourth floor. A plan of rotation of student hostesses and student rooms to be shown had to be worked out so that a measure of Sunday privacy could be assured, especially for the first floor residents.
Homecoming that fall, however, proved almost too much for us. Of course all the visitors wanted to see the new building with its special features, and it was the natural place for them to gather before and after the various homecoming events. The wide stretch of new road between Agnes Mellby Hall and the Gymnasium had not yet been surfaced. It poured heavily intermittently all Saturday and Sunday. Some people wore rubbers, most of them didn't. When we surveyed the living room after the last guest had left, the lovely new rugs looked hopelessly ruined. Large portions were solid with mud down to the very warp. But Mrs. G. T. Rygh, the housemother, and Mrs. Erik Wing, the housekeeper, went to work alternately vacuuming and letting dry for several days, and finally scrubbing with ivory soap; forty work-hours later the rugs had been restored to their original beauty. They are the same rugs that are on the floor today as this is written twenty-nine years later. Good quality proved itself.
Because of its location and facilities Agnes Mellby Hall not only provides housing for women students, but has throughout its years served as a gracious social center for the entire college. It has provided a place for visitors to gather on festive days, Homecoming, Christmas festivals, Commencement, etc. The living room has proved ideal for the many receptions and teas given by different student and faculty groups and for honoring college guests, artists, speakers, et al. The recreation room has been available for gatherings of organizations of both faculty and students and even for dinners and small banquets before the present Center was built. During the summers the building serves as headquarters for many of the institutes, conferences, conventions, and retreats that are held on the campus and the place hums with activity.
Quarters were originally provided in Agnes Mellby Hall for the Dean of Women as well as for a housemother. For the first thirteen years Mrs. G. T. Rygh, whose sister, Marie Aaker, was a member of St. Olaf's first student body, served as housemother. She was assisted during the last few years, first by Mrs. Olivia Peterson, then by Mrs. Alice Weinhardt. In the fall of 1951 when Gertrude Hilleboe Hall was completed, Mrs. Rygh and I moved over to the new dormitory for a year. Mrs. Alice Weinhardt was then made resident head of Agnes Mellby Hall, a position which she filled with exceptional skill and dedication until her retirement in the summer of 1967 after nineteen years of devoted and almost round-the-clock service to St. Olaf and its students. The quarters first occupied by the Dean of Women are now those of the resident head and her previous quarters in turn now serve as a much-needed guest room.
The new St. Olaf Center has taken some of the heavy college community services off Agnes Mellby Hall, but she still remains a center for gracious hospitality on the campus.
Incidentally it is interesting to observe with what accelerated pace succeeding dormitories for women were built to overcome the gap between the number of women students and campus housing facilities for them. As indicated, twenty-six years elapsed between the erection of Mohn Hall and Agnes Mellby Hall, while the number of women students in that same period quadrupled. Then, just thirteen years later came Gertrude Hilleboe Hall followed in six years by Agnes Kittelsby Hall. In another three years Hoyme Memorial Hall was built and four years after that Agnes Larson Hall. Finally the long-time dream of campus housing for all women students was realized.
The erection of men's dormitories followed much the same pattern. Ytterboe Hall had been erected in 1900. With the great influx of men students following the close of World War II, the need for additional campus housing became desperate. In 1948, almost fifty years after the erection of Ytterboe Hall, Thorson Hall was completed. Then followed in succession Kildahl Hall, Emil Ellingson Hall, and the Men's Tower Dormitory (re-named Mohn Hall), all contributing towards the realization of the goal of making St. Olaf truly a residential college for both men and women.