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Guest opinion: BYU is working against its heritage

Brigham Young University Campus
Brigham Young University Campus
Jaren Wilkey, BYU

This summer, Brigham Young University announced the demolition of Allen Hall (built in 1938) and Amanda Knight Hall (1939). Allen Hall is currently being leveled and replaced with a grass field. Amanda Knight Hall will soon be demolished and replaced with a “replica” of the original building.

BYU asserts that Allen and Amanda Knight Halls are “not suitable for renovation,” but before these buildings disappear it is important to stress the central role they have played in the university’s history. Indeed, when one fully considers the architectural and historic value of Allen and Amanda Knight Halls, the tragedy of losing these buildings becomes evident.

The construction of Allen and Amanda Knight Halls marked a key moment in BYU’s fortunes. Built at the end of the Great Depression, these buildings signaled the university had simultaneously weathered severe financial hardships and grown to serve students from across America — students now badly in need of school-sponsored housing. Provo-based architect Joseph Nelson designed the halls in the aspirational collegiate gothic style, which asserted confidence in BYU’s future while claiming the history and tradition of “Oxbridge” and well-established East-Coast schools. On the practical level, Allen and Amanda Knight Halls linked BYU’s original campus at Academy Square (now the Provo Public Library) with the less-expensive land atop “Temple Hill” where BYU began to expand at the onset of the 20th century.

What is little known is that Jesse and Amanda Knight provided the vision and financing for much of BYU’s 20th-century expansion. Despite the presence of a Jesse Knight Building on BYU’s campus and the existence a BYU Knight Society, few current BYU administrators, faculty members or students can recite the Knights' story. After amassing a large mining fortune, Jessie and Amanda Knight stayed in Provo — then a small and rough Western town — as they were intensely committed to Provo and BYU. If not for Jesse and Amanda Knight’s constant largess, BYU would have folded multiple times during the early 20th century. For this reason, Jessie Knight became known to BYU students as “Uncle Jessie” and the Knight family as BYU’s “patron saints.”

In 1910, an apostle of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Orson Whitney, said, “The future of BYU is assured as long as Jesse Knight survives.” Even in death, however, Jesse and Amanda Knight continued their support of BYU. The couple’s belief in BYU’s future inspired them to leave what remained of their fortune to the university. When the university needed to construct dorms and academic buildings, the Jesse and Amanda Knight Endowment made this building possible. In the late 20th century, these halls fostered growth of a different sort; in the 1960s when the church needed space to incubate its fledgling Language Training Center for missionaries, it utilized buildings in Salt Lake City and Provo, including Allen and Amanda Knight Hall. Of these buildings, only Allen and Amanda Knight Halls stand today to document the birth of the church’s now-global Missionary Training Center system and the rapid growth of the church over the 20th century.

An exhibition on BYU’s campus treating the university’s history begins with an idea: “We move forward faithfully into the future only by understanding our past. Our founding stories reveal to us the higher purposes for which our forebears strove and help us know the path that we should follow.” For an institution that claims its history to be an important component of its identity, Brigham Young University’s decision to demolish historically important buildings is misguided.

We ask BYU to reconsider its decision to demolish Allen and Amanda Knight Halls. This request stems out of respect for places such as Allen and Amanda Knight Halls where one experiences the very sort of “founding stories” that illuminate future paths.