In the fall of 2021, Amanda Knight Hall—a historic women’s dormitory on the Brigham Young University campus—opened its doors to the public for the first time since it underwent an intensive renovation. The main hall, now wired with modern lighting that casts a warm glow on original wooden beams, arches and fireplace, represents the tenuous balance between preserving our collective history and building something new to meet modern needs.
Photography by Welch Studio
David Amott with Preservation Utah was one of the driving forces behind the effort to restore Amanda Knight Hall. He attended the grand opening and was amazed at how many people turned out. “The night of the grand opening, it belonged to the community. There were people who had made their memories of Amanda Knight Hall decades before but still had ties to that space.” Some were students that lived there when it was a dorm, others had learned a language there when it was a Missionary Training Center for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and others had older connections still. The grandson of the building’s architect attended and thanked everyone for saving and refurbishing the building. “He’s connected to his grandfather’s legacy, and he’s proud to see it still standing and part of so many lives,” says Amott.
As pleased as the community was with the renovation of the hall, the grand opening almost didn’t happen because, originally, Amanda Knight Hall was slated for demolition—a common fate for historic buildings. BYU planned to tear it down and build anew as it did with its sister building, Allen Hall. “Amanda Knight Hall is a particularly Utah building with a unique local story rusbank.net. If it were lost, it would have been hard to replicate,” says Amott. Instead, a private real estate firm got involved and started renovations, but the challenges of saving Amanda Knight Hall from demolition and its eventual renovation are exemplary of the challenges in restoring many historic buildings.
The designer of the updated Amanda Knight Hall, Melody Welch of Welch Studio, recalls the building before they got to work: “It was a mess,” she says. Welch tried to retain and save every part of the original structure that she could, but not everything was salvageable. “Some of the flooring was covered in carpet. We knew there was hardwood underneath, but we couldn’t salvage it because carpet glue was so strong. It was kind of heartbreaking,” she recalls. There were some antique gems she was able to save, such as the crystal doorknobs, fireplaces and some original tile. “They had this pink tile in the bathrooms,” says Welch. “There was a lot of back and forth between contractor and partners about what to do with the pink tile. I absolutely loved it and fought to keep it.”
Retaining and salvaging is just one part of the puzzle for a designer handling a historical renovation. Another is finding the space and comforts for modern inhabitants in a dated footprint. “We squeezed every inch of space out of that space,” Welch explains.
“There was an old maintenance shaft that we used as a shower in one of the units. I think we did a pretty good job with the puzzle of the building.” In the end, they created 13 units in the building, including single rooms and shared rooms, for a total of about 57 beds. For the first time in decades, students attending BYU returned to live in Amanda Knight Hall and make their own memories of the place. “It’s fun to see it not dead anymore,” says Welch. “It’s all lit up inside.”
Despite the challenges, Welch welcomes the opportunity to preserve and renovate more historical buildings. “We want to save these buildings as pieces of history when we can because they get torn down every day,” she says. Amott explains that historic preservation is about more than saving old architecture and attractive buildings. “The goal should be to save buildings who tell us who we are, that speak to our identity and trace our past as individuals and as a society, no matter what they look like or what the architectural value might be,” he explains. His belief and the story of Amanda Knight Hall bring to mind the words of architect and preservationist William Murtagh: “At its best, preservation engages the past in a conversation with the present over a mutual concern for the future.”
Call it a Knight: Architecture that Defines an Era
Amanda Knight Hall, built in 1939 as BYU’s first all-woman dormitory, was designed by architect Joseph Nelson and made to emulate the Gothic style of Ivy League universities. It was named after Amanda Knight, the wife of university benefactor Jesse Knight, who was responsible for many of the turn-of-the-century buildings we think of today as Provo’s historic heart. After making his fortune with mining ventures in Eureka, Knight moved to Provo, where he built his own home (the neoclassical style mansion set the trend for homes in Utah County at the turn of the century), the homes of family and friends and civic projects like the eponymous and distinctive Knight Block Building.
Head turned by turn-of-the-century renovations? See more here.