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“The grandmother is having surgery”: Dacie Moses House’s upcoming renovations, and the decades it took to get here

Among news of upcoming demolition and reconstruction planned for Carleton housing, the college’s efforts to preserve and modernize Dacie Moses House might seem like a given to students whose initial tours made special mention of the legendary “cookie house.”  However, Carleton’s decision to preserve the history of Dacie Moses’ original structure and invest in expanded space for students to live and cook in has been decades of struggle in the making. 

Born in 1883, Dacie Moses was a Northfield resident who opened her own home as a space for Carleton students to meet and, famously, bake cookies. Dacie Moses spent 75 years of her life involved with Carleton, contributed to making students feel at home while on campus, and originated traditions such as Sunday brunch that remain staples of the college’s culture. Dacie instructed Carleton that she would donate her home to the college after her passing, provided that it would be kept as an open and well-stocked place for students to bake cookies.  

Julia Uleberg Swanson, the current Dacie Moses program coordinator and a Dacie’s resident since 1990, spoke about her 30 years of maintaining the house, and what she hopes to see in the updated embodiment of Dacies’ mission. In true Dacie’s fashion, Uleberg Swanson also invited current house resident, Nancy, as well as other house advocates and board members, Tim Vick and Glenn Lee ‘78, to attend an interview with The Carletonian and chat over cookies.  

Together, the three of their stories became a powerful message of how the efforts of alumni and students have meant the difference between preservation and demolition.  

Dacie Moses “left the house to Carleton [in 1981]…but this was an 1870’s house, so this was not Facilities’ most joyous gift to Carleton,” Uleberg Swanson said, with a bit of a laugh.  

Uleberg Swanson, Vick, and Lee described a hodge-podge of compoundingly outdated modernity. Bathrooms were built into closet space once Dacie’s working-class residents could afford running water, parts of the basement floor are still dirt, the foundation consists of crumbling limestone, and the current kitchen occupies the house’s old coal shed.

​​“It has a lot of work that constantly needed to be done on it,” said Uleberg Swanson. “[Carleton] spent some and did a first renovation [back in the mid-80’s],” but Vick and Lee still adjusted the door knobs and maintained the property.  Unless it was plumbing or electrical, according to Uleberg Swanson, “we sort of took care of it…And then Carleton slowly got more and more involved.”

There has been a constant push and pull between advocates of the house and its mission and the college, which saw the old structure as a dauntingly expensive project. But whenever Carleton seemed to be sizing up the house, students and alumni alike rallied to its cause. Uleberg Swanson spoke of a student, Meghan Dolezal ‘13, who went to the archive and spent hundreds of hours before she wrote her graphic novel, The Cookie House, about Dacie Moses and her legacy — poring over handwritten letters from alumni advocating for the house each time it was threatened.  Even as recently as about a decade ago, Carleton deemed plans proposed by the Dacie Moses House Committee too expensive and considered demolishment as an alternative.  

Today, however, Uleberg Swanson is incredibly grateful to the current administration, and Dean Livingston in particular, for recognizing the Dacie Moses House as a part of Carleton culture worthy of protection and preservation. 

Dacie’s philosophy “was to have [the house] be an open space for community and students, alumni…the people who loved the house, the brunch people, the [Knights and the Nightingales],” Uleberg Swanson said. The need for a designated space fostering radical community rings truer than ever today—especially following the social isolation of Covid-19.  

Visions for the house involve critical updates to the structure to make Dacie’s more welcoming and accessible.  

“Even though we have loved the house as it is, and change always brings some grief,” Uleberg Swanson said, “I feel that it’s become clearer and clearer for the house to do what it needs to do…The feeling of the house will be a grandmother’s house, but it will be a more modern grandmother.”  

First, Dacie’s needs a bigger kitchen. The current “once-coal-shed” space is cozy to a fault, and the house needs a dishwasher to meet post-Covid campus safety needs. Uleberg Swanson also discussed a special idea to add a second, smaller kitchen in the basement, which she hopes international students will use as their own homey space to cook for friends, without the bustle of splitting a kitchen with the community at-large.  

Other plans involve the complete replacement of resident and guest rooms —which are not part of the “original” Dacie’s structure —with updated features such as closet space and proper insulation. 

Though these plans describe a Dacie Moses House updated with exciting modern possibilities, there will be plenty of Dacie’s advocates and Carls alike dealing with complicated interactions of progress and grief, questioning whether the Dacie’s spirit will remain without the familiar structure. They can take some comfort in the historically tenacious, devoted strength of the Carleton community.  

In the house’s temporary absence due to construction, there are plans to have a “Dacie’s On The Move” program, serving Carleton students with “cookies and a story.”  Another idea includes a Dacie Moses radio show, bringing in alumni Carls involved with the house to share their stories.   

As the home to a one-of-a-kind community, it’s easy to make a case for why Dacie Moses House deserves investment for upgrades, but it also spurs on other difficult questions — such as ‘why not Farm House’, or ‘why not Culinary’?

This Monday’s CSA meeting revealed plans as to what will be demolished, renovated, and replaced on campus—in which many other Carleton interest houses will be torn down because of how old they are. And yet, Dacie’s—for once—appears to be the one receiving a premier level of care from the institution.  

Dean Carolyn Livingston echoed Uleberg Swanson’s claim that, when it came to Dacie’s, an architect, “would have said to level the whole thing.” There is spectacular success in the college’s backing to renovate the house into a “blended Dacie’s” as Uleberg Swanson calls it, but students of other houses—those either sentenced to demolition or aren’t undergoing similar preservation efforts—have started to voice concerns.

Troubled residents from Farm and Culinary houses spoke at CSA and argued that their houses contain meaningful memories of their alumni communities. For example, senior alumni come back to their college home to sing for the residents of Culinary House, and along with murals, Farm House still contains decades of students’ heights etched in the doorway.  

In the current period of planning what stays and what goes at Carleton, the task of striking a balance between modernizing historic Carleton buildings and preserving the history that provides connective belonging is not an easy problem to solve. Administrative confirmation of the Dacie Moses House’s preservation and renovation is an enormous victory for decades of Carleton loyalty; the plan’s model of retaining elements of the original, most “historic” structure serves as an example for how to preserve history on campus.  

For Dacie Moses House and Uleberg Swanson, this history is a true blessing.  

“The grandmother is having surgery,” said Uleberg Swanson, who reflected on the fact that Dacies has “always had friends along the way,” who throughout the years have put in time and effort to volunteer out of their own kindness to preserve Dacie Moses’s legacy. Uleberg Swanson also recognized an anonymous donor who left a large sum of money to the renovation project, whom she refers to as “Dacie’s spirit.”

When the new Dacie Moses House is complete, Uleberg Swanson trusts that students will once again play their role in manifesting Dacie Moses’ passion and care, and that plenty of new memories will be made in the upgraded space. The renovations are planned to be completed during the summer of 2023, with a tentative reopening scheduled sometime during the following fall term. 

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