SECRETS OF OLD MAIN
Published: Monday, September 23, 2013
Updated: Monday, September 23, 2013 14:09
It may be hard to believe that a quaint log cabin is tucked away above our heads as we pass by Old Main on the way to our respective destinations during everyday campus life. Most people never know of its existence or importance, and many never will.
For the few who are savvy on the Lincoln Log Cabin room, they know it as a direct link to the past of the campus theatre program, as well as a quirky little site that is hidden away at the top of NDSU’s oldest building.
A little history
Dating back over 90 years, the cabin room’s history begins with an enthusiastic theatre professor named Alfred Arvold, who wanted the attic space at the top of Old Main to serve a more useful purpose.
“Indeed, it would seem that this must have been the idea of the originator, Professor A. G. Arvold, when he planned the cabin, a room that would reproduce the plain [and] comfortable surroundings that could bring forth a character like Lincoln,” The Spectrum editor wrote in an article on the cabin that stole the headline of the Oct. 31, 1923 edition.
In the article, the editor described the intrigue surrounding the new addition to the campus, the ruggedness and craftsmanship of its interior and the role that this hideaway would play with the Little Country Theatre and community.
Founded in 1914, the Little Country Theatre was based out of Old Main’s second floor for decades. The Lincoln Log Cabin room served as an entertainment facility for not just the Little Country Theatre, but for Masonic and faculty events, among others.
In the 1923 article, The Spectrum editor described the recent use of the new room: “The log cabin new as it is has some history. Last week, nearly 300 Masons enjoyed a duck dinner in the cabin. Before that, the State Librarians met and lunched there. Just to one side of the cabin is a small kitchen and the place is ideal for gatherings and feeds. Many of the students are making use of it at present.”
Several notable names even visited the cabin room in its early years. Knute Rockne, Notre Dame football player and coach; actress Agnes Moorehead; and writer Carl Sandburg (who penned a biography on Abraham Lincoln) all visited the room during its glorious youth.
When Dr. Frederick Walsh overtook the theatre department 60 years ago, the Lincoln Log Cabin room’s social use began to diminish. It became a set designing studio, a costuming space and graduate offices. By the early 1970s, it was a shadow of its former self.
Restoration to the rescue
In the late 1960s, major renovation took place in Old Main, and the Little Country Theatre was moved to Askanase Hall, where it still resides. The space it had previously inhabited was then turned into the office spaces where the graduate school is today. Afterward, the only access to the room was from a rickety wooden fire escape on the outside of the building, which no doubt turned away some. Without the theatre department, the heart of its being, the log cabin room fell into disuse and was eventually sealed away and forgotten up in the attic of Old Main. So how did the room come to look like it does today?
“As far as I know, it was a group of donors that raised the money to have the log cabin done; I believe it’s a tribute to the Little Country Theatre that used to be here,” Stephanie Wawers, associate executive assistant to the president, said. Wawers currently takes care of reservations for the room.
Efforts to renovate the room started in 1985 when alumna June Dobervich and other Little Country Theatre alumni banded together and urged President Laurel Loftsgard to support a cleanup project to bring new life to the log cabin. They arranged a committee and together fundraised over $80,000 for the restoration.
In order to do this, Dobervich created a list of over 1,200 people who had been involved with the theater during its 30-year period of use. Letters were mailed to everyone on it, encouraging them to donate. Many of them did.
By the early 1990s, the room was finished and dedicated in spring 1993 at a 50-year club reunion, no doubt a joyous event. Though the room was now restored to its former splendor, fire marshal code placed strict limitations on how many people could be in the room at a time.
With only one way in and out, only eight people are now allowed in the room simultaneously. For this reason, it is mainly used for small group meetings nowadays. “It can be used for small-group meetings, we get a couple a month,” she said. “The building is only open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and then locked, so no meetings can be held outside hours.”
Wawers said they do not get many student organizations inquiring about renting the space, probably due to the above facts. But technically, as long as there are eight or less people and the meeting takes place during regular hours, anyone can contact her to hold meetings there.