The information desk of the university

Graduation weekend is upon UNC’s class of 2015, and this year’s graduates will be walking the brick walkways on campus as students for their final times.  These times are special—they’ll look at the old buildings that until now were often taken for granted, but will now take on a new meaning.

Soon after returning to Wilmington from the South Pacific during World War II, Hugh Morton revisited the UNC campus and photographed many of the buildings he grew to know as a student during the autumn of 1939 and the early 1940s.  The November 1946 issue of The Alumni Review featured on its cover a Morton photograph of the Morehead-Patterson Bell Tower—his first credited post-war AR cover.  Its caption read, “The cover picture is another photograph by Hugh Morton ’43, the Wilmington realtor who continues to practice his college hobby of photography.  Recently, he presented to the Alumni Office a half dozen new pictures of familiar campus scenes. . . .”  The photograph of South Hall below appeared in the April 1947 issue of the magazine, and was likely one of those six photographs. Last August, Morton collection volunteer Jack Hilliard wrote a post titled The best of times: the “Golden Era” at UNC (1945-1950) where we featured those photographs.  The online collection of Morton photographs currently contains thirty-seven views of South Building.

In a few months, the incoming class of 2019 will stroll the brick pathways within the stone walls of Carolina, with their own discoveries awaiting them.  Today, Jack recalls his first introduction to South Building and one of its occupants when he was a freshman.

On a side note, if you attend this coming Saturday’s 2015 Spring Reunion Weekend activities, please stop by Wilson Library between 1:00 and 5:00 for our special open house.  Each year I scan approximately 100 negatives from the UNC “Photo Lab” collection made 50 years earlier.  The images run on continuous loop, so you may enter and leave as your schedule permits.  This year features the 1964–1965 academic year.  I will be there and would enjoy meeting readers of A View to Hugh.  During your trip to Wilson Library you will also be able to

This photograph of South Building appeared full-page in the April 1947 issue of The Alumni Review with a caption that noted that the building had been renovated in 1925. "Of the University's 40,000 matriculates and ex-matriculates" it continued, "three-fourths of them knew this view of South Building in their student days." The photograph as published is cropped significantly and rotated clockwise to make the columns more vertical.

This photograph of South Building appeared full-page in the April 1947 issue of The Alumni Review with a caption that noted that the building had been renovated in 1925. “Of the University’s 40,000 matriculates and ex-matriculates” it continued, “three-fourths of them knew this view of South Building in their student days.” The photograph as published is cropped significantly and rotated clockwise to make the columns more vertical.

Most Tar Heels, young and old, will recognize the campus building that stands at 200 East Cameron Avenue. It’s one of the oldest buildings on campus and sits atop Polk Place. Today it has huge columns that face south and frame the front door.  The building currently is used for administrative offices, such as the Office of Chancellor Carol Folt.  Of course, we’re talking about South Building, a true historic symbol of UNC life.

The original design for the building was based on Princeton’s Nassau Hall, and the cornerstone was laid on April 4, 1798. The building was to be the main structure of a proposed quad.  Construction began in 1799, but a shortage of funding and some political wrangling brought that progress to a halt in 1800 and nothing was accomplished for the next three years.  Construction was finally completed in 1814.  At the time of completion, there was a dire need for teaching and living space for the growing university population, so South Building began to fill some of those needs.  The third floor offered much needed dormitory space and future United States President James Knox Polk occupied a room at the southwest corner in 1818.  The second floor housed a “Library and Philosophical Chamber,” as well as the study for University President Joseph Caldwell. Other areas of the building contained classrooms, a chemistry lab, and space for the debating societies.

During the Civil War, South Building sheltered Union cavalry troops who were responsible for major damage to the building. Mrs. Cornelia Phillips Spencer described the destructive scene:

Gangs . . . spend the nights in the Old South Building, rioting, shouting, drinking.  You have no idea of the degradation.  The Halls and Libraries are broken into at all times, and I am told that the Phi Library . . . has its books scattered all over the building.  It makes me heartsick to write about it.

It’s not surprising that on March 20, 1875, upon hearing that the General Assembly had passed the bill for the financial reorganization and support to reopen the university, Mrs. Spencer, accompanied by friends and pupils, climbed to the attic of South Building and rang the bell signaling the glorious reopening.  She was also celebrating her birthday on that March day.

In the 1920s, following the relocation to South Building of the president’s office, the University administration decided the building needed a more authoritative design.

Architect Arthur Nash was brought in to establish the new look.  He enlarged the windows and substituted, in place of the small chimneys, four large ones.  His most important addition was the grand south portico with the four columns that I mentioned earlier.  These changes, completed in 1927, became South Building’s south face that we see today as we stand on the steps of Wilson Library and look across campus.

I recall my first days as an incoming freshman at UNC in the fall of 1958 with my orientation group.  We were taken to South Building and shown where our General College advisers had their offices, most of which were on the second floor.  We were also introduced to a very special lady who sat at a desk in the rotunda.  Her name was Mrs. Gustave Harrer, also known as “The Information Lady.”  During a 20 year period from 1943 until 1963, this gracious and kindly lady helped thousands of students who were worried, puzzled, angry, or lost. Her white hair, her ready-smile, and reassuring manner instantly inspired confidence . . . and she seemed to be able to solve the most difficult of problems. Having been on the Carolina campus since her arrival in Chapel Hill in 1915 when her husband became chairman of the Classics Department, Mrs. Harrer was the perfect choice to greet students and visitors to South Building, “the information desk of the University.”

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