Nostalgia, Family Pride Open Doors to Rebuilding of Historic Swenson House
In this photo taken in the 1940s, Poet May Swenson rests on the broad and inviting front steps of her childhood home at the base of Old Main Hill. The home is now gone. A proposal to rebuild the structure to serve as a memorial and writers' gathering spot is gaining momentum and funding.
May Swenson graduated from Utah State University in 1934; the daughter of first generation Swedish immigrants, Dan (a faculty member of USU) and Margaret Swenson, she is one of ten children who grew up at the base of Old Main Hill in Logan, Utah. She is a renowned poet who wrote a number of poems about growing up in Logan and has been the subject of conferences and symposia at Utah State University. This article tells the story of efforts to rebuild the historic home by Utah State University and the Swenson family.
By Janelle Hyatt, College of Humanities and Social Sciences
For generations, Swenson kids and grandkids played games, sipped cocoa and picked raspberries at their family home just a few steps away from the base of Old Main Hill.
The home, with its cozy bungalow warmth, was to return as memories and illusions in the poems of May Swenson. This great American poet traveled the world, but her childhood home was her axis and her anchor. The wide porch and lush gardens remained so compelling in her memory that in one of her most famous poems she asks, “Can it be there was only one summer that I was ten?”
The house left its imprint not only on May but on all of the posterity of Dan Swenson, who came to Utah State University in 1914 to teach wood working, and his wife Margaret. The Swedish immigrants raised nine children in the house at 669 East. 500 N. in Logan.
The half-century-old home was razed sometime in the 1970s, leaving an empty parking lot next to its neighbor, the USU-owned Caine Home. Recently, Dan and Margaret’s descendants gathered to pay respects to the house of their memories — and to kick off a plan to rebuild it.
“It’s where the whole roots of our family came from,” said Chris Eyre, a venture capitalist in San Francisco. He grew up in Logan, two blocks from his grandparents, Dan and Margaret. But his most vivid memories are of the “scores of cousins” who gathered for Easter egg hunts and raucous board games in the family room. The free-thinking and worldly May, born in 1913, was the oldest of Dan and Margaret’s children; Eyre’s own mother was Ruth Swenson Eyre.
A reconstructed Swenson Home remains in the early planning stage, but its potential is attractive and intriguing to the university as well as the family, said David Christensen, senior director of development for the College of Humanities and Social Sciences.
Placed right at the west entrance to USU, the house would be a center and a “gathering place” for poets and other creative writers, said Christensen.
“This home really provided so much inspiration for May Swenson,” he said, “so to capture that for future writers is something very appealing to the university.”
The proposed Swenson House would be next door to the Caine House, used for receptions and other gatherings by the university. George and Marie Eccles Caine were Swenson neighbors and namesakes of the Caine College of the Arts.
“It’s a win-win situation,” said Craig Jessop, dean of the Caine College of the Arts. “With the Swenson House next to the Caine Home, the area could become quite the vital artists’ corner,” he said.
The structure won’t be a “brick-for-brick” recreation of the original house, said Christensen. Plans call for the Swenson House to include lodging suites for visiting scholars as well as Greta’s Café — to be named in honor of Dan Swenson’s loving nickname for his wife.
The Swenson House would serve as a repository for May Swenson’s papers and family heirlooms, such as the desk made for May by her craftsman father.
Projections place the cost of the endeavor at about $1 million, with a significant amount of that donated by members of the Swenson family, said Christensen. The timeline will be determined as funding is secured. No tax money will be used, he added.
For his part, Chris Eyre sees the Swenson House as a focal point for Dan and Margaret’s descendants, who now number 340-plus, allowing them “to rekindle the relationships and enjoyment we had growing up here.”
It will also recapture a bit of historical Logan, he said.
“As people walk up 5th North to the university, it will be wonderful,” he said. “There’ll be little cafe they can go in, books they can wander in and read, a peaceful place to gather.”
Eyre considers his Swenson kin, who among them boast plenty of Aggie graduates.
“If you were looking for a turn-of-the-century Cache Valley family, you probably couldn’t find a better example of an immigrant family that moved to Cache Valley, established themselves and raised a family that contributed in amazing ways to the community,” he said. “It’s a marvelous story.”