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The History of Pauli Murray Hall

Pauli Murray Hall’s low profile in this book published by the Chapel Hill Historical Society speaks to its position as outlier on a campus dominated by more traditional architecture.
Pauli Murray Hall has never been a prominent stop on any campus tours. It is dated, not historic. The Campus at Chapel Hill: Two Hundred Years of Architecture, a recently reissued 1986 book written by art history professor John V. Allcott, barely mentions it. Its poured concrete, narrow windows, and dim corridors have the charm of a municipal government center. On one side of campus, venerable old nineteenth-century edifices provide a sanitized image of the university’s past and its place in a local history of slavery, racial hierarchy, and exploitation. On the other, new buildings with bright, open spaces and mechanisms for rainwater collection evoke a 21st-century ideal of borderlessness, synergy, and sustainability. And in the middle is our building, a typically uninspired product of mid-20th-century bureaucratic modernism, designed only to suit the needs of thrifty administrators with an authoritarian streak. Is there any other way to look at it?

UNC-Chapel Hill administrators first applied for funding to establish a new building for departments in the Social Sciences Division — including History, Political Science, Anthropology, and Philosophy — in 1966. These disciplines, they wrote, were growing especially quickly. The four departments required a large building with the capacity to expand in future decades. This new Social Sciences Building was one of the most important parts of an ambitious project of construction and renovation. Having not received all the funds that they requested, architects and administrators reshuffled the departments to be housed in the new building and decreased the amount of space provided for classrooms and offices. In 1969, the History, Sociology, and Political Science chairs wrote a letter to protest the new plan, which they argued left their departments with less room than others enjoyed. Furthermore, the university had failed to include them in the planning process, disregarding the needs of their faculty, students, and staff.

Despite the chairs’ objections, work began on the new Social Sciences Building in 1971, continuing throughout the following semesters. Planners and construction workers took care not to disturb an old oak tree growing behind the building when installing pipes and electrical wires. Residents of a nearby dorm, however, complained that the noise prevented them from studying. Two attempted unsuccessfully to have their dorm fees partially refunded after moving off campus. The construction site also drew Jesse Jackson’s attention when visiting UNC-Chapel Hill in the spring of 1972. He pointed to it when calling for measures to ensure that Black companies and workers could benefit from state contracts, declaring that the university had both an economic and an educational responsibility to Black North Carolinians.

According to an article in the Daily Tar Heel, the new building was not quite complete when the three departments moved in at the beginning of fall 1972. Classrooms lacked tables and chairs, and offices were not equipped with telephones or bookshelves. The elevators proved to be an enduring problem. In 1975, History Department chair George Taylor placed a sign on the fifth floor urging students to consider taking the stairs. While each individual was “at liberty to choose his own mode of vertical movement,” the elevators had an alarming tendency to drop without warning. Other history professors complained that they took too long to arrive. Some years later, a student saw a conspiracy behind the building’s elevator delays, suspecting that they were programmed to return to the top floors for the convenience of the faculty. The elevators’ renovation in 1990 is commemorated by a small gold plaque dedicated to Samuel Williamson — a decades-old inside joke. As Professor Harry Watson explained, the building’s faculty used to say that Williamson, the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and university provost during the 1970s and 1980s, had bought their support with promises for new elevators. Malfunctioning elevators remain among the chief complaints of members of the History Department, nearly all of whom have stories about peering into empty elevator shafts or informing the uninitiated, day after day, that the light behind the fifth-floor button does not work.

Conservative traditionalists among the university’s leaders had always been suspicious of modern architecture, despite Director of Planning Arthur Tuttle’s insistence that new elements be designed to fit harmoniously with existing structures and environments. The Social Sciences Building was designed by Cameron, Lee, and Associates (later Little, Lee, and Associates), a Charlotte firm also responsible for the Student Union, Student Stores, Undergraduate Library, and Greenlaw Hall, as well as a number of other concrete landmarks around North Carolina. These structures share a bold, unpretentious, unadorned style typical of public institutions built during the decades after the Second World War — high modernist faith in rational planning to improve mass society, rendered in concrete. Modern architecture, one student declared in 1957, “symbolizes the philosophy and the needs of today.” By the 1970s, however, the public was becoming far more skeptical of this philosophy. Although architects attempted to adapt modernist forms to the campus’s aesthetic and practical requirements, it did not take long for the student body to come to a clear consensus: the new building was “just plain ugly.” It was a short step from ugly to oppressive. Despite the rumors, there is no evidence that modernist buildings at UNC-Chapel Hill — or anywhere else in the country — were built with campus unrest in mind. Modernist architects’ utopian plans to make education accessible to ordinary citizens had been reinterpreted as dystopian schemes to control them.

During the late 1960s and early 1970s, the university turned its attention to the needs of disabled students for the first time, spurred by federal and state legislation as well as by campus organizing and advocacy. The Social Sciences Building was one of the first buildings at UNC-Chapel Hill to be planned with ramps for wheelchair access, as one activist noted shortly after it was built. University planners modified buildings for increased accessibility throughout the 1970s, adding curb cuts, elevators, ramps, and handrails. As current history graduate student Dalvin Tsay explained, however, accessibility has come to mean more than simply the ability to get in the door: “You can tell that the architects in a newer building like FedEx considered the entire experience, while in the 1970s, it was just a matter of putting in a ramp or an automatic door.” As a manual wheelchair user, he finds it particularly frustrating to scale the steep ramps to the entrance, especially when hauling a backpack full of books.

The Social Sciences Building received the name Hamilton Hall without input from the broader public. In a satirical article, a writer for the Daily Tar Heel lampooned the bureaucratic process, describing an imaginary professor’s objections at a meeting of the equally imaginary Faculty Committee for Imposing Edifices: “A member of the History Department pointed out that James G. de Roulhac Hamilton was a follower of William A. Dunning and that the Dunning School was best known for its anti-Negro view of Reconstruction. He claimed that the theories of Dunning and Hamilton had been discredited . . . Everyone agreed that Hamilton Hall was the best name for the new building.” The chairs of the History, Sociology, Political Science, and PWAD departments cited this article in their July 2020 letter to the Chancellor calling for the building to be renamed, pointing out that Hamilton’s interpretation of history was already widely challenged on campus at the time the building was finished. Renaming the building after Pauli Murray, as Professor William Sturkey said, honors a scholar whose work in the service of justice has stood the test of time. It also asserts the rights of students, faculty, and staff to define and shape their physical environment.

The story of Pauli Murray Hall as a physical space has often been one of bureaucratic disregard. But the building is also the product of an era of optimism, confidence, and change in our field and at the university. Considering the legacy of Pauli Murray herself, as well as the history of the building now named after her, provide an opportunity to imagine what should be changed and what preserved to make the department more responsive to the aspirations and needs of those who work and study there.

Thanks to Jason Tomberlin and Matthew Turi from University Libraries for their assistance in locating and scanning documents and other resources.

Lyric Grimes provided invaluable assistance and information for this article.

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