In Memoriam: Harrelson Hall


For over fifty years, Harrelson Hall stood on the NC State University campus like a tacky alien mothership hovering over the brickyard (with apologies to the late Douglas Adams) in much the same way that bricks do.

Image of Harrelson Hall
Harrelson Hall, on the NC State University brickyard. By Cgb628 (Own work) CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

After five decades, the much-hated building is well into the process of demolition. Most articles will tell you (using as many circle puns as possible) that Harrelson Hall was the first circular building built on a college campus, and has been roundly criticized (sorry) for most of its existence.

Harrelson Hall

Named after Col. John Harrelson, first NC State alum to become chancellor of the school, the building opened in 1961. One article claims the building was once “hailed as ‘strikingly attractive’ and ‘extremely functional’.” To this, I can add only that the 60s was also the heyday of psychadelic drug culture, and Harrelson seems to fit right in with the radical architecture of the time.

Harrelson was home to the math department, which meant that virtually every NC State student had to set foot in its halls regularly, from day one of freshman year. I personally suffered through statistics, three calculus courses, differential equations, and a few humanities courses in this building.

For an unofficial guided tour of Harrelson Hall (including the “spaceship” lounge around the 7-minute mark), see the YouTube video below. (Not mine.)

Size Comparison

I would be remiss in my duties as a sci-fi blogger if I failed to provide a size comparison for Harrelson Hall. At 206 feet in diameter, Harrelson is:

  • Almost twice the length of the Millennium Falcon (114 ft)
  • Slightly less than the length of the Firefly transport Serenity (269 ft)
  • Half the diameter of the USS Enterprise saucer section.
  • Much less than 0.0000000000000000000001% the interior volume of the TARDIS.

Why the hatred?

For me, it was the awkward classrooms. Many of them were short and fat, like Harrelson itself. In some classrooms, there was only a small “sweet spot” from which the entire whiteboard could be seen. Sit anywhere else, and you would miss some of the notes the instructor wrote on the board. (Did I mention I had multiple advanced math classes in this building?)

Others had problems with its lack of accessibility. The stairs were a little too steep. The central ramp that wound its way around (and around and around) was an impractical way of getting to your floor, but was a popular hangout anyway.

Then there was the inadequate air conditioning and constant leaks. One steamy August day, I sat down for the first day of class in what was affectionately known as the dungeon. The professor walked in, looked at the impractically proportioned classroom, felt the lack of air conditioning, and effectively went “Nope. Class dismissed.” By the time I got back to my dorm, he had cancelled that class section — the only time I’ve ever seen a professor cancel a class.

Legends

Every campus has local legends, passed down from generation to generation of incoming freshmen.

Most campuses I’ve visited claim to have a building that’s sinking into the ground. Usually it’s the library: the legend goes that the designer of the library building forgot to account for the weight of the books.

On NC State, that building is Harrelson Hall. In truth, the building stood for fifty years, and is clearly not sinking… but looking at this alien structure, so unlike anything else on campus, it’s easy to believe that it descended out of the sky, landed on the brickyard, and is slowly sinking into it.

Others claim that the plans for Harrelson were drawn up by an architecture student as a senior project. He failed the project, but many years later had the opportunity to spite his professor by building it anyway. I’ve heard stories of drunken parties on the rooftop, and everything from skateboards to bouncy balls going down the central ramp. (And don’t even ask about the bathrooms.)

The End

I myself considered the neverending rumors of Harrelson’s demolition (which were going around even when I was a student) to be a legend of sorts. When the time came, I figured there would be no need to hire a demolition company: just allow every alumnus to have one whack at the building with a sledgehammer.

Today the demolition process is well underway. It isn’t alumni with sledgehammers, but D.H. Griffin has made quick work of sending the building off to the recyclers. I visited the old building this past week. The construction fences are up, and the central ramp is down, along with half the building closest to Dabney/Cox Hall.

By the time the ’16 fall semester starts, Harrelson Hall will be no more than a memory. As much as I hated the building, I must admit that it was a landmark on campus: a big white bullseye on the brickyard known to everyone.

Farewell, Harrelson Hall. You were a stark contrast to the rectilinear red brick world of my college years, and NC State will never have another building quite like you.

(Whether that’s a positive or a negative, the jury’s still out.)

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