Down with the round building on NCSU’s campus?

jprice@newsobserver.comApril 23, 2014 

— The pie of a building that has bedeviled hundreds of thousands of N.C. State University students with its endless quirks and infuriating layout finally, it appears, will die.

N.C. State University is pulling together a detailed plan for tearing down Harrelson Hall, the endlessly flawed cylindrical building that has visually dominated the university’s outdoor social hub, the Brickyard, for more than half a century. The demolition likely would happen in the summer of 2016.

Use of Harrelson has tapered as university officials prepare for its demise, but for decades about 85 percent of NCSU’s student body was tortured by its wedge-shaped classrooms, original curved blackboards, fixed uncomfortable seats, poor heating and cooling, lack of natural light and surreal bathrooms with tiny, pie-slice stalls.

And that’s before people start complaining about the only realistic options for going up or down: a central spiral walkway that makes it seem like you’re in slow motion, or stairs that are so steep some students have regarded it as sport to watch freshmen encounter them for the first time.

“The steps are just so steep, it’s really no fun to use them,” said Steven Muma, a freelance writer who graduated in 2005 and had several classes in the building. “But the only alternative is the ramp, and once you get halfway up you’re just going around and around, and you start wondering, ‘Why did I do this?’ 

It took a semester or two just to learn how not to get stuck endlessly circling the halls, he said.

One of a kind

When it was built, Harrelson was proclaimed the first cylindrical classroom building on a university campus. There are good reasons no one else had built one, said John Morris, an NCSU alumnus who started the blog Goodnight, Raleigh!, which often focuses on the charms of Raleigh’s many midcentury modern structures.

“Rooms are square, and you can’t put square rooms in a round building,” said Morris. “Maybe you think you’re solving some problems by designing a round building, but the end result is you’re going to have rooms shaped oddly and not what people are used to.”

The building was dedicated in 1962, and seated 2,900 students. It has always been used for classes in several disciplines, and was once home to departments including history and mathematics. These days, it houses some smaller university offices, and just six of the 59 classrooms are still used.

Harrelson is a little more than 200 feet in diameter and has three floors. If you could slice off a layer – and many would call that a good start – you would see an outer ring of offices. Inside that is a ring of hallway, then a ring of classrooms, another ring-shaped hallway, then a broad spiral ramp. The ramp circles a central core that contains the bathrooms. Those are shaped like pies, with one small slice missing for entrances.

The inner and outer circular hallways on each floor are connected by spoke-like halls that slope down toward the center of the building. Only a small lounge up top and the offices along the outside wall have windows. The halls and classrooms where most people experience Harrelson are lighted by harsh fluorescent tubes, a recipe for unhappiness, Morris said.

Harrelson’s weirdness has made it a target of – and inspiration for – odd behavior. There was the professor who arrived at the bottom of the ramp each day, then leaned against the inner wall to guide him as he walked upward, reading a book. Students seeking gravity-fueled thrills have descended the spiral on skateboards and in shopping carts.

On a recent day, in an office a few leisurely laps up the spiral ramp, Mark Tulbert, associate director of the university’s Center Stage program, sat with his door closed. That reduced the distractions of the noisy ventilation and seemingly endless supply of lost students.

“Sometimes you look out and there’s the same student going past a second or third time,” Tulbert said.

The distortions forced by the shape of the building get more extreme the closer you move to the center. By the time you find the bathrooms – something that is notoriously difficult – the oddity level becomes disturbing. In the men’s rooms, the stalls fan out from the very center of the building. So the back wall in each, where the toilet is mounted, is only 2 feet wide.

In the women’s bathrooms, the stalls face the opposite way, and the wall for each stall door is smaller than the back of the stall. Tulbert said one friend who was pregnant actually got stuck trying to get out of one.

Haunted rumors

The weird rooms, halls and layout, along with the antiseptic fluorescent lighting and noisy humming, roaring, clanking ventilation, heating and cooling system add up to a whole that strikes some as vaguely malevolent. That has led to everything from vague quips about it being haunted, to some elaborate and persistent rumors.

One rumor has it that Harrelson was built on a creek bed and is moving sideways at a glacial pace. The most common, though, is that it’s slowly sinking into the ground.

Morris thinks that one has been so persistent because the building seems distorted.

“Things aren’t flat, and people expect rooms in a building to have flat surfaces, and because they aren’t, people probably just felt like it was on unstable ground and it was sinking,” he said. “The curved blackboards and the sloping floors and angled walls just got into people’s minds.”

The main architect was Edward Walter Waugh, who was for a while the university planner and taught at NCSU’s design school. It’s unclear what led him to draw the round building. There is little in his work to suggest an interest in such a radical approach, and no real explanation in a book that he wrote about his various projects, Morris said.

“I think the main reason probably was that was there was an air of experimentation, and people wanted to use completely radical ideas on how to create buildings,” he said. “And at that time people were allowed to get away with it.”

There had been plans to renovate it, but an NCSU study concluded in 2003 that its litany of problems meant that would take $13 million. It made more sense to build a more conventional structure with more usable space and lower operating costs.

Tulbert said he has no serious problems with the building, but that a friend has offered to press the plunger on the demolition explosives.

According to alumni postings on various online forums, longtime history professor Joseph Hobbs was so exasperated with having to teach in Harrelson that he routinely begged his students to each take a piece of the building as they left each day, with the goal of demolishing it slowly.

Haters’ Fair

A 2008 editorial in the student newspaper, The Technician, even called for a “Harrelson Hall Haters’ Fair.” Of course, when the building was new that newspaper had described it as “not only strikingly attractive; but it is also extremely functional.”

Even those who would seem natural supporters just can’t muster much enthusiasm for trying to save Harrelson. Morris, who has campaigned to preserve several buildings from the same era – buildings that in some cases offered only modest charms – said that he’ll miss Harrelson for its distinctive exterior but that it’s hard to defend a building that’s so unpleasant for those who must use it.

“It is thought-provoking and unique, it definitely adds a lot of character to N.C. State, and especially to the Brickyard,” he said. “But it just doesn’t do its job very well, and it’s really hard to argue in favor of preserving a structure that just completely and utterly fails on all fronts, other than the exterior appearance.”

The demolition plan should be ready by June. University architect Lisa Johnson said that taking Harrelson down is complicated by its central location, which makes the operation disruptive for students. Also, there is research equipment nearby that precludes using explosives.

The site is one of NCSU’s most important. Given the tight budgets that public universities face, it may remain an open space for a few years. But NCSU’s long-range plans, Johnson said, include replacing it with another building further from the current edge of the Brickyard, perhaps adding some landscaping and expanding the iconic Brickyard.

Given the importance of the location, the new building may well offer some eye-catching aesthetic elements, she said.

Any hints about the design?

“Hopefully,” Johnson said, “something rectangular.”

Researcher David Raynor contributed to this report.

Price: 919-829-4526

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