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University Gazette

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Two exhibits reveal campus buildings as an integral part of the Carolina story

Above, a lottery ticket from the 1802–03 campaign to help finance the construction of South Building. Below, Alexander Jackson Davis, one of the most influential architects in America and the most famous to serve the University, designed Smith Hall, which opened in 1851 as a ballroom and library.

People assume that North Carolina was late to the game when it started the state education lottery in 2005.

Not Bob Schreiner – and he has a couple of winning lottery tickets, vintage 1802 and 1803, to explain why.

Actually, the tickets belong to the North Carolina Collection and are on display in Wilson Library as part of the exhibit “A Dialogue Between Old and New: Notable Buildings on the UNC Campus.” A related exhibit, “Knowledge Building(s): The Libraries at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill,” is on display in the gallery of Davis Library.

For a numismatist like Schreiner, a retired University employee who compiled the lottery section of the exhibit, the real jackpot was the untold story behind the tickets.

Without those lottery tickets, South Building might never have been built, Schreiner said.

When construction on South Building began in 1798, one newspaper editorial derided it as a “Temple of Folly” for its extravagance. Construction ceased in 1801 when funds ran out, and the project might have been abandoned had University officials not launched a plan in 1802–03 to sell $5 lottery tickets to raise money to continue construction.

The short-lived lottery raised $5,080, but it wasn’t until 1814 that enough money had been raised to complete South Building.

FUNCTION OVER FORM

During the decade the unfinished building lay dormant, students who were crowded four to a room in Old East sought relief by setting up temporary huts in the roofless South Building.

The crowding at Old East was exacerbated by the fact that some of its 16 dormitory rooms were used as classrooms, a practice that continued for years.

This early convention of buildings serving a shifting array of needs was common throughout the rest of the 19th century, said Linda Jacobson, the keeper of the North Carolina Collection.

“We started out thinking this would be an exhibit about the campus as an ‘architectural laboratory’ because there are so many building styles on campus that represent the various periods over its 219-year history,” she said.

“But the more we dug into the materials, the more we realized that what is most surprising and remarkable about these buildings is not how they were designed, but how they were actually used, and how those uses continued to change over time.”

THE SAGA OF SMITH HALL

The Greek Revival style dominated American architecture in the early 19th century and was widely used on college campuses. It was the first truly national style in the United States, popular because of its association with classical tradition and democracy.

If one building stood out for having almost as many uses as a Swiss Army knife, it was Smith Hall (the current Playmakers Theatre). Unlike other buildings, though, it was actually designed with these multiple uses in mind, Jacobson said.

As the story goes, plans for the building emerged after President James K. Polk, an 1818 Carolina graduate who once had a dorm room on the third floor of South Building, visited campus in spring 1847 (see go.unc.edu/Sc36D).

The visit marked the first time a sitting president set foot on campus, but the lack of a building grand enough to receive such a dignitary so embarrassed University leaders that they began considering constructing one, Jacobson said.

Students seized the opportunity by petitioning the Board of Trustees for a building that could serve as a ballroom. In 1833, trustees had rejected an earlier petition for such a building, but approved the new building on the condition that it would also serve as a library, Jacobson said.

MODERNITY’S ARRIVAL

As the 20th century approached, the campus ushered in changes its founders could not have imagined, said University archivist Jay Gaidmore. Among these modern contrivances were running water, electricity and steam heat.

For a century after the first students arrived on campus, the only light in Old East came from kerosene lamps and tallow candles. As for sanitation, students once hung tin cup urinals outside windows, which were later replaced by “all-purpose” buckets kept inside.

It was not until 1893, after three students died of typhoid fever, that University President George Taylor Winston declared, “We must have sanitary conveniences … essential to health and decency.” Soon after, urinals were built in South Building, and the multi-purpose Smith Hall added baths and toilets to its repertoire of functions.

Electricity arrived in 1895, when electrical lights were added to Person Hall.

Six years later, central heated air was provided to 14 campus buildings, but it was not until a new campus steam and electric plant began operating in 1913 that the University could generate electricity 24 hours a day.

That same year, Edward Kidder Graham took over as president. During World War I, Graham established a building and grounds committee, still in existence today, and hired noted city planner and landscape architect John Nolen to map a vision for campus expansion, Gaidmore said.

Graham died in the influenza epidemic of 1918, but under new president Henry Woodburn Chase, the University enacted Graham’s vision to expand the campus south of South Building.

The 1920s witnessed a doubling of buildings that led to the creation of the southern part of campus and the rise of a modern university. The decade also ushered in the era of Colonial Revival architecture.

Over the next four decades, more than 100 buildings on campus were designed in this style, including Edward Kidder Graham Memorial Hall, which opened in 1931.

THE RISE OF LIBRARIES

Perhaps the most enduring symbol of the march of progress is the plethora of world-class libraries that fill the campus landscape.

While Nolen envisioned a gymnasium at the end of Polk Place opposite South Building, the Louis Round Wilson Library opened there in 1929, replacing Carnegie Library, now Hill Hall. When Carnegie opened in 1907, it became the first building on campus used exclusively as a library, said graduate student Jennie Rose Halperin.

Wilson served as the central campus library until the Walter Royal Davis Library opened in 1984.

And Smith Hall continued its odyssey.

Halperin included in the exhibit a picture of Smith Hall taken in the 1890s, which captured the building’s versatility with these words scribbled below the image: “Library … Ballroom … Little Theatre … with supper room in basement.”

By then, some of those descriptions no longer fit, Halperin said. In the 1880s, Smith became a full-time library stocked with book collections donated by the Dialectic and Philanthropic societies.

And according to Kemp P. Battle’s “History of the University of North Carolina,” trustees banned all dances in Smith Hall in 1884 in response to complaints that “modern dance” was “injurious to morals.”

Legend says that the building faced its most ignoble treatment at the end of the Civil War when 4,000 Michigan cavalry rode into town and stabled horses there.

Smith Hall later housed the law school from 1907 to 1924, when it was remodeled as Playmakers Theatre.

In 1974, the building was designated a National Historic Landmark. Within the last decade, its exterior has undergone a facelift and the interior has been renovated so historic Playmakers Theatre could once again house performances.