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Harrelson’s Final Stand

The interior of Harrelson Hall.

Former classmates Adam Garrett and Josh Griffin might have the most coveted jobs in the history of NC State alumni: The two civil engineering and master’s degree graduates work for the companies that are deconstructing Harrelson Hall.

The walls are closing in on Harrelson's lecture-style lecture rooms.
The walls are closing in on Harrelson’s lecture-style classrooms.

“I don’t know any students we were in school with who wouldn’t be envious of what we are doing, taking this building down,” said Griffin, a project manager for Kimley-Horn and Associates.

“There certainly wouldn’t be any of them chained out front trying to save it,” added Garrett, a division manager for D.H. Griffin Wrecking.

That is a consensus opinion of generations of NC State students who took classes in the iconic monstrosity that opened to much acclaim in the fall of 1961, the first circular building ever constructed on a college campus.

Griffin and Garrett took differential equations together and a few other classes in the longtime home of the mathematics department. They are now turning toward home on the removal project that was first approved by the Board of Trustees in 2002 and begun in earnest last summer after the University Bookstores returned to the Talley Student Union.

When students come back for the fall semester in August, the most-used, least-loved building in the UNC system will be gone, returned to the muddy terrain from which it famously sprung in the early 1960s.

Harrelson embed desksGarrett believes that the goal of reclaiming 90 percent of the salvageable material in the building will be met. Much has already been salvaged behind the green chain-link fence just off the Brickyard.

The industrial-strength furniture has been removed, given mostly to the Habitat for Humanity of Wake County to be sold in its ReStore outlets. The fluorescent lights were recycled. The doors and hinges were given to local fire and police departments, to be used for training drills. The whiteboards went to a local charter school. The ceiling tiles have been stacked on pallets, ready to be picked up by a local company and recycled into new drywall.

Liz Bowen, a program coordinator for the University Sustainability Office, has played matchmaker for local companies and organizations who might be able to use the recycled goods.

“We have found lots of places that could re-use pieces of Harrelson,” Bowen said.

Before long, the pine trees planted in 1983 will come down. They were hastily installed as saplings just after the men’s basketball team won the NCAA championship, an event that forever changed the landscape of central campus. Every unbolted stick of furniture was used for bonfire kindling following four successive weekends of winning and every shrub was trampled during postgame celebrations.

A shaft of light illuminates ceiling ties stacked in the center of Harrelson Hall.
A shaft of light illuminates ceiling ties stacked in the center of Harrelson Hall.

The vertical panels of Indiana limestone and black slate will be removed from the building’s exterior. Some will find new homes in the landscape garden that will be built in Harrelson’s footprint, stacked to resemble the books in the adjacent D.H. Hill Library. They will also be used as pavers around campus.

D.H. Griffin will bring in a four-story excavator in coming weeks. The demolition dinosaur will chomp all the concrete and cinder blocks from the building’s outer ring, then mix it with similar material removed from Reynolds Coliseum last summer. It will all be finely crushed into coarse material that can be used as roadbed or fill material. The concentric inner ring will suffer the same fate.

Something will be lost, however, when Harrelson is finally returned to dust–the namesake of perhaps NC State College’s most devoted alumnus, administrator and advocate.

Col. John Harrelson, a country boy from the cotton fields of Cleveland County, worked his way through the North Carolina School for Agriculture and Mechanic Arts ironing shirts of his fellow cadets and serving as the weekend night manager of the campus power plant. In the latter job, he earned 12 ½ cents an hour and his main responsibility was turning out the campus lights at 11 p.m.

Col. John W. Harrelson
Col. John W. Harrelson

He earned both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in engineering from the college and became a professor of mathematics before taking a leave of absence to serve in the U.S. Army in the Great War.

After serving in Gov. O. Max Gardner’s administration, “The Colonel” returned to NC State as the head of the mathematics department in 1933 and the following year became Dean of Administration. He took another leave of absence during World War II. Following his return, his title was changed to chancellor in 1945.

He was the first alumnus to hold the school’s top position and was named the school’s first chancellor in 1945. After retiring in 1953, he became the college’s archivist.

On March 12, 1955, Harrelson suffered a stroke mid-sentence during his dedication speech for a new wing of the D.H. Hill Library and died shortly afterwards, years before funding or construction was begun on the classroom building that bore his name. His obituary described him simply as “an Episcopalian, a Democrat and a 32nd degree Mason.”

He married the daughter of former Supreme Court Justice George W. Connor, but they had no children. The couple left their entire estate to NC State College—and endowment of more than $100,000—for the purchase of art for the student center and library and to fund an annual lecture series.

“He has given himself wholly to State College, as faculty member and as administrator for more years than he would care to remember,” UNC Consolidated System President Gordon Gray once said of Harrelson. “He has had a love for the college, a devotion to its purposes, and an ambition for its future, which have been as constant as they were deep.”

Last Friday, someone cut the power and all other utility services for good in the building that stood in his memory for more than a half century.

And soon it will be all gone.

Harrelson Hall on main campus. PHOTO BY ROGER WINSTEADHarrelson Hall

  • Named for Col. John William Harrelson (1885-1955), a 1909 graduate who became NC State’s fifth executive officer, first chancellor and first alumnus to lead the school. When he died, Harrelson left his entire estate of more than $100,000 to the school.
  • Designed by Raleigh architecture firm Holloway, Reeves and Associates, with assistance from NC State architect and director of facilities Edward W. “Terry” Waugh.
  • The first cylindrical building ever built on a college campus.
  • Funded by a $34 million 1959 educational bond that allocated $4.9 million for NC State College improvements, including $1 million earmarked for a general purpose educational building in the center of campus.
  • The final cost of the building when it opened in November 1962 was $2.25 million. Deconstruction cost in 2016 will be $3,508,000.
  • NC State’s first air-conditioned building. Immediately after it opened, enrollment in the school’s two sessions of summer school doubled because of climate-controlled classrooms.
  • However, heating and cooling systems only re-circulated ambient air on each of the three floors, causing students and faculty to complain of stale air, hot classrooms in the winter and cold classrooms in the summer. In 1978, a $533,000 renovation fixed the constantly recurring fresh-air issues. Loud screeching circulation fans kept students alert at all times.
  • With 109,000 square feet of academic space, it could house as many as 4,500 students in its 88 windowless classrooms, which was two-thirds of NC State’s student population when it opened in 1962.
  • Housed 167 faculty and staff in 112 offices.
  • Faculty offices are on the outer rim; lecture halls are in the inner core.
  • Until the University Plaza (a.k.a. the Brickyard) opened in 1968, Harrelson was surrounded by muddy fields.
  • For decades, it was the most used building in the UNC system.
  • Geometrically speaking, the building’s diameter is 206 feet.
  • It is not now, nor has it ever been, sinking.
  • When it opened, it was home of social studies, economics, mathematics, history and political science, philosophy and religion, sociology and anthropology and modern languages. Mathematics remained housed in Harrelson throughout its lifespan.
  • No classes in the College of Design were ever taught in Harrelson, an architecturally brilliant design with a flawed execution.
  • After two feasibility reports concluded the building could not be successfully renovated and updated, the NC State Board of Trustees decided in 2003 that the building would eventually be removed. That process finally began in 2015 after the University Bookstores returned to the Talley Student Union following a two-year renovation project

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  1. Didn’t particularly like the building but my best memories of NC State are of being in Howard Petrie’s calculus classes in Harrelson. Petrie was tough and as old-school as they come. Great sense of humor and absolutely the best professor I ever had. Still think about him 40 years later. I’ll always associate Harrelson with Petrie.

  2. I’m not sorry at all to see it go 🙂 I had MA141/241/242/302/305, ST371, FLG101/102, HI321/322/341, and probably another class or two I’ve forgotten about in that horrible building.

  3. A right of passage for freshman engineering majors was to attend a calculus class in Harrelson,,,mine was in the fall of ’89. I remember the weirdly shaped classrooms and uncomfortable seating. I am too far away to visit now, I wish NCSU had auctioned off some items online, I would have loved to bought a chair or memento to keep in my office. I always thought it was a cool example of mid-century architecture and kinda hate to see it go.

  4. I was a ME student during the time Harrelson was being built. I had spent three years in summer school classes a di welcomed the air conditioned rooms. I had a wonderful teacher and friend, Professor Charles N. Anderson who had a office in room 207. It is very sad to see souch a building torn down. Being the first air conditioned building on campus, it was just ahead of its time.

  5. I had the privilege of taking a class in Harrelson in the 1980s, and teaching in the building in the 2000s. No matter how hard I tried otherwise, I invariably came down the wrong stairwell when exiting the building after a class. Never could remember the “color” of the right stairwell.

    Does anyone remember a student lounge at the top center of the building?

  6. I fell in love with my husband-to-be right outside that building on a lovely spring day in 1970. We have been incredibly happily married now almost 44 years.
    He built a wooden car there at State and barreled it down that sloping walkway in Harrelson, ending the accelerated ride by throwing himself out if it before the brakeless speeding bullet slammed into that bottom wall. He lived. 🙂
    I remember being taught Calculus by a professor from India who told me, “You will go to the board and you will like it,” when I tried ever so hard, being shy, to get out of taking the entire period to do one lengthy problem. I went to the board, but I certainly did not like it one iota!!
    I also remember a really cute professor that taught me Algebra and Trig….he often wore floral ties, had long hair, and wire-rimmed glasses.
    I loved that building! I was crazy about NC State and always felt it was a privilege to be there. I had hoped to take my son-in-law, daughter, and grandchild to see it. My father and sisters graduated there as well. A school with integrity to be sure!!

  7. I really hate to see Harrelson Hall go. It was always such a unique and memorable campus landmark. I didn’t like the Calc classes I took there, but I always admired the circular design & pie slice classrooms. There will never be another. Some say good riddance, I say a beautiful part of NCSU history will be gone forever.

  8. My first class as a freshman at NC State was Calculus 101 in Harrelson. I had turned 18 the previous day so I spent that evening in Mitch’s Tavern then had to navigate Harrelson with a tremendous hangover. Ah, the memories.

  9. Class of 1973. Have fond memories of Harrelson Hall. A number of classes that have faded in my memory, but not where I attended the classes. Visiting the area in a few months. Pity that the old building will be gone when I arrive.

  10. I will add, however, that like (I think is no-longer-required) PE100, *all* State students should’ve had to endure at least a couple classes in the spaceship… For that reason, I suppose I will miss it–just a little.

    It’s kinda like the Uni’s version of a hairshirt.

  11. I detested that monstrosity!

    I had waaaay too many classes in those tiny claustrophobic rooms… It was always super-stuffy, and the AC was hit-and-miss.

    Good riddance!

  12. September 1966 … First class at State … 8:00 AM … Calculus I (or 101?) … Professor Charles Lewis … Sat next to Dixie Atwater from Boone, NC … Harrelson Hall; May 1970 … Last class at State (optional final exam because of Kent State tragedy) … Matrix Theory (I think) … Walked down ramp / steps of Harrelson Hall for final time … No dancing girls … No red carpet … Nothing but a relatively empty red brick mall that was constructed sometime between 1966 and 1970, as I recall. In between, mostly great memories of classes and experiences in the building, but a constant feeling that it never really “fit” on State’s campus. I will be glad to see it go … Implosion would have been appropriate, I think …

  13. Shame it wasn’t engineered to last… so much for exceptional engineering, and up goes tuition cost!

  14. It’s the winter of 1977-1978. You’re in Calculus 101 and 102 deep in the interior confines of Spaceship Harrelson Hall at 7:50 am all week long. Fluorescent lights buzz overhead in the windowless room as the awkward grad student attempts to teach L’Hopital’s rule to a bunch of half-asleep freshmen. You accidentally drop your mechanical pencil and it rolls all the way to the instructor’s feet. The forced air ventilation rumbles aloud not unlike the Star Wars vehicles still playing first run at the movie theatres. Class ends, and you stumble down the glass and metal confines of the circular ramp and emerge into the glorious sunlight as you make your way over to Hillsborough Street. You grab some bacon and eggs at Baxley’s. You are five years away from watching Jimmy Valvano and team take the National Championship. Life is good…but you will be glad, oh so glad, to be done with Harrelson at 7:50 am.

  15. Spent many hours in the building during the early 60’s. Questioned the design but never really hated it. Glad my granddaughters got to see it.

  16. I hate that building. Teaching in Harrelson was like teaching in a mildewing underground bunker. Good riddance.

  17. The Everest-like ascent to 8am classes on the 4th floor. The awkward mirror angles in the men’s bathroom. The wooden seats made out of medieval racks. They were all worth it for the short, glorious moments of riding down the inner spiral on a razor scooter after midnight. You were never my favorite, Harrelson, but I will never forget you.

  18. Before serious demolition begins someone should make a final check to be certain there is not a dazed student still searching for a classroom on the inner ring.

  19. Why is everyone complaining about “no windows”? The faculty offices around the circumference all had windows. If you’re in class, you don’t need windows. Yes, the facade was terrible, but the circle of pie-wedge classrooms was extremely efficient.

    That slant allowed you to see the blackboard better (just like the design of most theaters until 10 years ago). Also that wedge shape amplified the speaker’s voice.

    I guess people are going to complain next about the ingeniously designed stacked auditoria in Dabney nex?t

  20. Began there at State in ’73 with Calc 1 & 2 in the summer sessions, 8am-10:30 daily, with an HVAC system that froze & deafened us simultaneously and a lecturer (unquestionably trained by Satan himself) who could bore any human to death in milliseconds. That I didn’t give up on college right there & then astounds me to this day. Over the next five years & 3 different majors, I went on to suffer through close to 30 classes in that hellhole. Nonetheless, many fond memories of the knowledge and the people I encountered there. Love ya Harry, but glad to see ya die.

  21. As a struggling engineering student, I was very happy that Harrelson was air conditioned, since I spent several summer sessions taking Calculus courses. Maybe that’s why so many of us disliked Harrelson. I’ts calculus.

  22. Many memories in Harrelson. Not only did I have classes there, I was a work study student in the History Department for four years. Sad to see the landmark go, but glad that the materials will be recycled/reused.

  23. Hellish Harrelson has been the hall to hate but it’s not the worst design for a classroom building. I was at the University of Cairo for a semester studying archaeology where we were housed in a PYRAMID (I’m not making this up) on the top floor which should have given us a great view except that there were no windows and the ceiling was only 4 feet high. Plus it had 3500 year curse on it so we all had really bad luck every time we went in the place and probably why I failed most of my classes.

  24. I was very disappointed when I learned that Harrelson was to be dismantled rather than imploded. I would have gladly paid for the opportunity to press the button to bring that awful building down!

  25. Oh, those 7:50 am calculus classes – statistics classes with TAs that did not speak English – middle ages history snoozer – Harrelson, we will all remember you fondly! (Oh yes, and the brickyard bonfire for the NCAA Basketball championships – what a trip!)

  26. The writer of this article tried not to let the fact that his first two semesters at NC State consisted of five-day-a-week 7:50 a.m. calculus classes on the third floor of Harrelson Hall affect his reporting of its demise.

  27. Stat 371. Dr. Manson. Writing formulas with one hand while erasing the previous content with the other. The hardest course I ever loved. Fond memories of Harrelson.

  28. My first class at NC State was in Harrelson hall, 8 am August 17th 2011. I didn’t spend much time in Harrelson again until my senior year, when I was elected to office. At that time, the Student Body VPs office was on the inside of the building all the way at the center. The odd thing is that the office itself was originally just a classroom, but an interior wall was added to create my office and two (others).

  29. Many memories of math courses here, many friends made. I actually loved the ramp style ascent to my classes. It was so unique! The landscape will never be the same. It’s sad to think that future students’ NCSU will miss out on the Harellson Hall experience.

  30. Bittersweet. No longer will students be enclosed in windowless, slanted classrooms with no cell service..worried about dropping a pencil or water bottle and watching it roll up to the first row…and no longer will a student on her most hungover day of class have to run up that circular harrelson hall ramp full speed to the building’s only bathroom only to fall short of the goal and vom over the side of the railing to the floor below (true story.. sorry to that girl sitting on the floor below, I’m a horrible person).

    Unfortunate, because I was kind of looking forward to pointing out that building & telling that story to my kids one day..

  31. Sad. I had one of the last classes taught in this building last year. At least I was lucky enough to get lost and take the spiral ramp on inside before this hall is demolished.

  32. Calculus in Harrelson along with finding your calculus classroom in Harrelson was a right of passage that I will be sad to see end. It’s terrifying as a freshman to try and find your first class there because of the inner ring!

  33. Had a few classes in Harrelson while there in late 70’s. A unique design but not sorry to see it go. Fond memories of classmates in those classes though.

  34. A glorious thing, the removal of harrelson is.

    A white building in the middle of the brickyard? Didn’t work out.

  35. Harrelson was iconic but never loved by anyone I knew, including myself. The lack of windows always made it seem dreary and depressing. Couple that with a professor who should have long since retired from teaching since his focus was always on his wife who had been on a ventilator for seven or more years at that time, and it holds no special memories for me. It’s best use was as a campus landmark for lost freshmen as they struggled to get acclimated to their new home.

  36. Please set up some webcams and record the deconstruction of this landmark. we watched the construction of the new indoor practice facility and are able to watch the renovations of Reynolds. Why not Harrelson?

  37. There was nothing worse than those dungeon like fixed in place chairs and wedge shaped classrooms in the winter when people tried to negotiate the rows with backpacks and jackets. Not terribly sorry to see it go. Also sorry to hear it wasn’t sinking – might have been OK as a 1 story building 🙂

  38. I did not like teaching in Harrelson. Drawing demand and supply diagrams was ok, but more complex, curved figures on the curved blackboards was not good. The design company for Harrelson also designed my current home.

    1. The big problem I had with teaching (other than the hideous blackboards) was that if somebody dropped something, it would roll all the way to the front…. and if they =spilled= something. Ugh. What hideous design.

      I had to laugh at the “There certainly wouldn’t be any of them chained out front trying to save it,” line — what a uniquely ugly and impractical building.

  39. Hate to see it go also…Bad memories, usually my fault for not being prepared for a test, but many more good memories. It was less than a year old when I started in the fall of 63, but was my favorite classroom building in the early 70’s after I came back from the Army. The article failed to mention accounting, however there were only 3 courses in accounting at the time.

    1. Most of my classes were held in this fabulous building from 1972 through 1975. I have many fond memories of it!

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