Fifty years ago the National Historic Preservation Act was created to help preserve the diverse archaeological and architectural treasures of America. Often it takes the efforts of dedicated preservationists to wrest a structure from the wrecking ball. Such was the case with the Oxford House on the University of North Dakota campus. Designed by Joseph Bell DeRemer and built in 1902, it originally served as the home for the university’s fourth president, Dr. and Mrs. Webster Merrifield. DeRemer was noted for many other buildings on campus including the Administration Building and Merrifield Hall. Thirty years after the Oxford House was built, he took on his biggest challenge, the art deco design of the North Dakota State Capitol Building.
When the forty by fifty-foot, two-story Oxford House was built, it was considered one of the most fashionable, modern homes in the Northwest. Although of colonial design, it featured most of the modern conveniences of the time and cost approximately $25,000. Built with granite and granite pressed brick, its exterior woodwork was painted gloss white to give the impression of marble. Two large columns extending above the second floor suspended the portico containing a balcony surrounded by a wrought iron fence. An unusual feature in its design, the attic was also used for entertainment and contained a large ballroom.
A full basement held the servant’s quarters, and the main floor housed a large parlor for entertaining, a living room, dining room, study, kitchen, and pantry. The upper floor was divided into five bedrooms. Bathrooms were located on each floor, and it was one of the first houses in Grand Forks to boast of electricity. There were three fireplaces, a dumbwaiter and a telephone.
Oxford House served as a home for four University presidents, until in 1954 when a new house was constructed on the banks of the English Coulee. For the next ten years it served as a men’s dorm, and then as the Art Department until 1971. At seventy years of age, many believed it usefulness was over and it was destined for the wrecking ball. At this point the Oxford House Restoration Committee was formed and approximately $447,000 was raised for restoration. After a stint as the alumni center, it is currently used as a social center for campus receptions. Although universally recognized as the Oxford House, it should be noted that as academically fitting and formal as the name sounds, it was not called that until the 1950s, a reference that simply referred to its location on the corner of Oxford Street and University Avenue.
Dakota Datebook by Jim Davis
National Register of Historic Places Registration Form-Oxford House, Approved May 2, 1973
Oxford House Records, Collection Overview; Elwyn B. Robinson Department of Special Collections, University of North Dakota