Commemorating WWI in Minnesota: The Brickhouse

The largest memorial to those Minnesotans who died in World War I no longer exists, except for a preserved fragment and an impressive website that thoroughly documents its nearly ninety-year history.

Memorial Stadium Arch
The original entry arch for Memorial Stadium, now the entry to the Heritage Gallery in the McNamara Alumni Center – Creative Commons (Bobak Ha’Eri)

Opened in 1924, the University of Minnesota’s Memorial Stadium hosted six national championship-winning football teams before the Gophers  moved off-campus to the Metrodome in 1982. Ten years later the stadium was demolished. (The stadium’s original entry survives, having been relocated within the university’s McNamara Alumni Center, which has its own “Memorial Hall.”) Known as the “Brick House,” Memorial Stadium took the place of old Northrop Field. (Never fear, fans of the university’s second president, Northrop Auditorium was built not long after the football stadium; more on that momentarily….)

Less than a month after Armistice, Minnesota governor Joseph Burnquist established a commission to recommend a

State Memorial in honor of those who have struggled so courageously to prevent the military aggression of the Central Powers of Europe and to maintain and extend freedom among all nations of the earth…

…to commemorate the great victory of justice and liberty for which our soldiers and sailors have patriotically striven and the heroic sacrifices which so many of Minnesota’s sons and daughters have unselfishly made in behalf of humanity.

In the commission report (provided for full viewing as part of the fantastic Memorial Stadium site produced by the University Libraries), two key differences of opinion were recorded. I’ll came back to the first — about the style and purpose of the memorial — in the second half of this post. The other had to do with location. A monument on the grounds of the state capitol in St. Paul was rejected (see my previous post in this series for pictures of the very small WWI memorial that now exists there), but a “memorial auditorium” on the grounds of the university was approved.

Why would the state’s land-grant university (some of whose faculty had come under the relentlessly suspicious gaze of the state’s wartime public safety commission) be a more fitting memorial host than the center of the state’s government? First, many associated with the school had taken part in the war: 125 faculty, 1350 undergraduates, and 2177 alumni entered the military in 1917-1918, with ninety-eight dying (fifty-three in combat). (These statistics from the program for the 1924 dedication of the stadium.) But there was an even grander argument to be made, one redolent of the common progressive notion that education and democracy were intimately connected to each other. One of the witnesses quoted in the memorial commission’s report was the Episcopal bishop of South Dakota, William P. Remington, a former Olympic athlete-turned-clergyman who had spent the war as chaplain for a military hospital unit organized by the U of M medical school and the Mayo Clinic. Bishop Remington argued:

I want to tell you that it was not so much our government that was put to the test in this war, as it was our educational institutions—our distinctive contribution to western civilization is our public school system, at the top of which stands our State University. Our men fought and died so well because of what the United States has contributed to them through our universities. Put your Memorials in the place where democracy is born and bred—in the schools and universities.

Lest anyone feel too good about the university’s contributions to the triumph of democracy, the report concluded with a letter from the university’s president, Marion Burton, who made clear that he had nothing to do with these plans, which would require extensive fundraising (since budgets were tight — some things never changing).

Here’s where things get interesting, the U of M “Brickhouse” website lets us down a bit, and my research is incomplete. The commission found an auditorium ideally suited to commemoration: “There is nothing in the use of such a building for educational and patriotic purposes that could mar its sanctity as a Memorial to those who served in our country’s war.” But in a May 1921 letter to the alumni committee charged with raising $2 million, the new university president, L.D. Coffmann, referred to “the erection of a stadium and a memorial auditorium.” By the time the 1924 edition of the Gopher yearbook was released, things had flipped: the stadium was “Dedicated to the soldiers of Minnesota, who by their sacrifice in the World War made ever bright the glory of their native state,” while the auditorium was to honor President Northrop.

Memorial Stadium, 1924
Minnesota’s Memorial Stadium during a 1924 game – Hennepin County Library

Where did the stadium come from, and when did it become the memorial rather than the auditorium? Unfortunately, several documents on this section of the U’s admirable Brickhouse website had streaming errors when I tried to view them. Perhaps a reader can enlighten me, but in any event, the horseshoe-shaped, brick stadium (capacity: 50,200) was dedicated on November 15, 1924, with a ceremony at the halftime of that year’s Minnesota-Illinois game. The Gophers handed Red Grange and his teammates their only loss of the year, winning 20-7. Just four weeks earlier, Grange played his greatest game as a collegian, scoring four touchdowns in the first quarter alone to beat Michigan — in the game that opened the University of Illinois’ own Memorial Stadium. (Some other 1920s-era memorial stadiums still in use include those at the University of Texas, University of California, and University of Nebraska.)

The program for the dedication of the Brickhouse opens with a brief introduction from President Coffmann, “The New Stadium—What and Why.” To be sure, Coffmann first emphasized that the stadium “commemorates the unstinted service and sacrifice of Minnesotans who have given their lives for their country” (from fairly early on in the process, the memorial was meant for those who fought and died in the Civil War and Spanish-American War as well), but he added:

To be wholly adequate as a memorial, the Stadium must serve living generations effectively, besides preserving a realization of the gallantry of those who fell. It must contribute to the maintenance of moral and physical standards in keeping with the code of those it symbolizes. Their influence will be continued in the benefits this structure brings to succeeding generations, just as their sacrifices have assured for the time being the safety of those who remain.

Here let me return to the first difference of opinion reported in the 1919 commission’s report: “Whether the structure to be erected should serve a purely ornamental and aesthetic purpose or should, in addition serve a useful function as well.” This was a small version of a much bigger debate that happened after both world wars.

Inscription on the Memorial Stadium arch
Inscription on the Memorial Stadium arch – Creative Commons (Bobak Ha’Eri)

Coffman’s utilitarian understanding of this particular memorial (“must serve living generations effectively”) would come to dominate American military commemoration after the next world war. Historian Barry Schwartz observes that the techniques of WWI commemoration (so influenced — as in the case of Duluth’s monument — by the neo-classical grandeur of the “City Beautiful” movement) “did not all transfer to World War II; in fact, World War II was undramatically commemorated” (at least in this country; overseas was a different story). While the Iwo Jima Memorial in Arlington, Virginia is well-known, Schwartz points out that another kind of post-1945 commemoration was far more typical:

The typical monument is utilitarian, created by attaching the adjective “memorial” to the names of auditoriums, schools, hospitals, community centers, sports arenas, highways, and other public places. The concept of the “living memorial” proved compatible with the muted idealism and restrained nationalism of the late 1940s and 1950s. [My Cold War students might question those adjectives after a month of the class next spring, but anyway…] Living memorials, indeed, desanctify war by melding memory of the hallowed dead with secular pursuits of everyday life. (The Oxford Companion to American Military History, p. 430)

Architectural historian Andrew Shanken elaborates on the theme of “living memorials,” but does even more to illustrate how they marked a break with the statues, obelisks, arches, columns, and other monuments I featured so often in my earlier series on WWI commemoration in western Europe. Indeed, after both world wars a debate took place between the traditionalist proponents of “memorials whose sole purpose is to serve as a memorial” and the advocates of the “living memorial”:

While some living memorial advocates fluidly incorporated traditional memorial strategies, many starkly polarized the difference between traditional and living memorials, couching it in terms of national identity. Choosing a form of memorial was tantamount to choose a form of society. Critics condemned traditional memorials as “tawdry ‘monumental’ monstrosities.” Building a victory column or a triumphal arch was anathema at a moment when many Americans experienced a compelling drive to move on and to forget war and the society that had fought two of them in quick succession. To its sponsors, living memorials presented a way out of this dilemma, a means of folding the sacrifices of the war into the pattern of democratic community life, gently kneading the past into the present, in the process altering the relation between public space and memory. (Shanken, “Planning Memory: Living Memorials in the United States during World War II,” The Art Bulletin, vol. 84 (2002), p. 130)

Unlike after World War II, after 1918 the traditionalists still won the day more often than not. But it’s worth noting that the two largest WWI memorials in Minnesota were of the “living” variety: Victory Memorial Drive — the Minneapolis parkway whose commemorative elm trees joining military commemoration to the city parks movement — and the now-vanished Brickhouse. (See this 2009 article by ESPN’s Ivan Maisel for more on the college football stadium-as-living memorial around the United States.)

<<Read the previous entry in this series               Read the next entry in this series>>

5 thoughts on “Commemorating WWI in Minnesota: The Brickhouse

  1. Chris, let me know what documents you had trouble accessing and I’ll see what I can do on my end. Also–and I haven’t checked this out yet–there may be more stadium material on the U’s digital conservancy site: I’m finding the conservancy to be a gold mine for an article I’m working on so would be surprised if you didn’t find stadium material there.

    1. Thanks, Tim! The four I couldn’t get to were all on the “Inspiration” page : a 1919 letter from Gov. Burnquist to Pres. Burton; minutes of a 1921 meeting of the alumni committee; the 1923 fundraising brochure; and a 1923 letter from Wallace to Coffman. In any event, it’s a really well-designed site, and I like how the Scribd player works! Looking forward to checking out the conservancy site…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.