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Here’s to Harrelson

For more than 50 years, Harrelson Hall has loomed over the Brickyard like a flying saucer on stilts.

The partial demolition of Harrelson Hall.

For more than 50 years, Harrelson Hall has loomed over the Brickyard like a flying saucer on stilts — a circular freak of a building that flummoxed students with its spiral ramps, windowless classrooms and ductwork that whooshed like a subway tunnel.

It spawned horror stories from students who wandered lost inside its corkscrew hallways, craned their necks to see equations scribbled around curving blackboards and struggled to make sense of restroom stalls shaped like pie slices.

It inspired ridicule and pranks as much as scholarship.

Four agricultural engineering students drove an MG Midget up the ramp in the late 1970s. Skateboarding in Harrelson became an unofficial sport at NC State, as did rollerblading, shopping cart riding and Super Ball bouncing.

But Harrelson’s long reign as NC State’s best-known oddity has expired. As the campus says goodbye to this misfit of a building, a curious fondness is emerging for the structure, which is being reduced to a heap of rubble this summer.

Its construction did, after all, grow out of a burst of 1960s energy, a period of daring that launched the space program and urged a crew-cut-wearing nation to grow its hair into a Beatles mop. Harrelson’s designers believed architecture played a vital role in shaping and improving human life, giving it zest and originality. For all their mistakes, those minds earn posthumous marks for effort.

To understand Harrelson, it’s important to remember how the campus looked prior to 1962, when the building opened its doors to students. In that era of conformity, much of NC State looked like a place that spared every expense on its buildings, churning out rows of bland brick boxes and leaving the fancy stuff to Chapel Hill.

And today, a few still offer a tribute to Harrelson and the inventive spirit it tried to represent. “That building was about the future,” says Marvin Malecha, dean of the College of Design from 1994 to 2015 . “It was about trying new things.”

A black and white textural shot of Harrelson Hall.

A Monument to ‘The Colonel’

Indeed, no ordinary university building could bear the name of John William Harrelson ’09, the first alumnus to serve as NC State’s chief administrator.

An overachieving and no-nonsense scholar, Harrelson worked his way through college by ironing his classmates’ clothing (for 12 cents an hour) and dimming the campus lights each night at 11 p.m. He rose to senior class president, head of the Mechanical Society, business manager of the Agromeck and captain of the student military squad before graduating in 1909. He served in both world wars. Students knew him, affectionately or not, as “Colonel.”

His namesake building rose at a time when the university, much like the nation, was staring into a grand future. Enrollment in the early 1960s stood at 6,000, a total that was expected to nearly triple by 1975. NC State needed a building to handle this growth: not just the numbers, but the increasingly complex educational world created by a society that was hurtling quickly into television and computers.

Enter E.W. “Terry” Waugh, a professor recruited to the design school by Dean Henry Kamphoefner.

Born in South Africa, educated in England and Scotland, Waugh loathed the style of architecture then dominating the American South, which he derided as stale imitations of old Charleston, Williamsburg and New Orleans. In his book,“The South Builds,” he dismissed the landscape of buildings around him as a “charade” and “a mockery of the vigorousness of our forefathers.”

Waugh called for a new approach to fit a new world. He spoke of carrying torches and meeting human needs. For him, buildings could and should inspire the young minds bubbling inside of them. Showing off his drawings of Harrelson, he described a “spiral ramp floating around an inner vertical cylinder,” hardly guessing his creation would one day host shopping cart races.

Plans for Harrelson Hall's second floor.
Plans for Harrelson Hall’s second floor.

What emerged in 1962 , at a cost of $2 million, was the first-ever cylindrical building on a college campus. The News & Observer carried its picture on opening day, calling it “magnificent.” The Dispatch, in Lexington, N.C., reported, “State College students … are now becoming acquainted with one of the most unusual buildings on an American campus, or in the world for that matter,” adding that “from a distance it looks like a great white cake.”

At the time of Harrelson’s debut, Ted Halverson ’64, of Gaithersburg, Md., was working toward his nuclear engineering degree. He recalls everything else about campus, and the world at that time, being uniform and rectangular. Suddenly a building with curves appeared on his treks across campus, offering fresh scenery.

“It was fascinating to watch it grow,” says Halverson, a retired engineer. “Everything just sort of went up like an ice cream cone.”

Then came the puzzled head-scratching from passing students. It looked like an air filter or a stack of soup plates.

“You heard stories about maybe it was a spaceship,” says Jerry Johnson ‘67, of Cocoa Beach, Fla., who is retired from the Air Force.

A black and white textural shot of Harrelson Hall.

A Marvel Reveals Its Flaws

Once students got inside, the novelty quickly faded.

In his math class, Halverson couldn’t see all of the notes written on the curving blackboard — a privilege afforded to lucky students whose last names started with the right letters in the alphabetical seating chart.

“I had to rely on one of my classmates’ notes,” Halverson says. “I think I got a ‘C.’” (The blackboards were later reconstructed to lose their curves.)

Hatred of the new building grew quickly, spawning a slew of campus legends, all of them false. Some students believed that Harrelson was slowly sinking into the ground.

Another story offered the theory that Harrelson had been a senior project turned in for a failing grade, and that the student who dreamed it up had managed to get it built out of sheer revenge.

As the years passed, so grew Harrelson’s reputation as NC State’s boondoggle — a tag that follows it to demolition. By 1972, the first nail was put in its coffin when an annual report from the Department of History called it “one of the most unsatisfactory academic buildings imaginable.”

The list of complaints spanning decades could fill a thesis, and the disorienting, curlicue hallways would form exhibit A. A few years back, during a brief stint inside Harrelson, Mark Tulbert would often see the same student circling past his office three or four times within a few-minute span.

From his vantage point, Tulbert, who helps oversee the campus’ performing arts series, saw helpless wandering as the shared plight of students. “If they deviated from their path at all,” he says, “they got lost.”

One of the most unsatisfactory academic buildings imaginable.

Harrelson had stairs on the outside of the building, forcing climbs in 90-degree heat or freezing cold. The air-conditioning system could not keep up with the building’s demands, and classrooms were often hot and stuffy. The chairs all sat fixed to the floor. And the bathrooms? They formed the nucleus of the building’s shell, all of the stalls rotating around the center point like wedges in a Trivial Pursuit game piece.

Raleigh writer Carrie Knowles foolishly tried to use these facilities in roughly 1990, when her husband taught sociology in Harrelson and she was pregnant with their son. When she attempted to exit the stall, great with child, she got trapped by Waugh’s attempt at trying new things.

“The only way I could get out was to stand on the toilet. The door kept bumping my stomach. There was no way to get out of the stall with this giant baby.”

A black and white textural shot of Harrelson Hall.

The Cost of Cutting Corners

In its defense, with decades of hindsight as a crutch, Malecha notes that Harrelson Hall may have been a victim of budget-slashing. Maybe, had the building been designed the way Waugh wanted it, Harrelson might have lived up to its round potential. But maybe not.

Maybe it demonstrates the chasm between ideas on sketch paper and reality in poured concrete, a gulf between its designers’ dreams and the demands of practicality. Malecha says he hates to second-guess Harrelson’s creators and offer a critique from half a century away. But, still, he says, its designers might have added windows in key places, giving its users some sense of direction while they navigated its innards.

Demolition of Harrelson Hall.
Demolition of Harrelson Hall.

“They became,” he says of the designers, “too much a slave to geometry.”

But on its way to oblivion, we can offer Harrelson some thanks for trying, for starting a conversation, for refusing to be dull. Harrelson veteran (both as a student and English professor) Wanda Ramm ’96,’99 MA has two farewell wishes for the round building.

“I would like to ride my bicycle from the top to the bottom,” she says. “And I would like to push the button.”

Sorry, Wanda. There is no button. Even in death, Harrelson won’t be giving anyone the satisfaction of watching it implode. Too many vibration-sensitive facilities (chemistry labs, a nuclear reactor) nearby. Instead, the building is being taken down piece by piece and hauled away, its concrete core crushed to be reused in road beds.

Some of the limestone panels will live on — at least temporarily — in the form of benches that will grace a landscaped spot on the circular site.

But eventually they’ll be gone, too. Plans call for a new classroom building at the south end of the Brickyard. And, yes, it will have corners.

Harrelson Hall interior photos by Doug Van de Zande.

This story first appeared in NC State magazine.

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  1. As a math major at NCSU, I really enjoyed having my classes in Harrelson. It was unique and I felt like I had arrived when I took my first Calculus class Harrellson. My other classes were often in the plain, dark utilitarian brick building and Harrelson Felt like a creative space. The perfect circle was the perfect shape for a math building. It felt like I was living and learning in a uniquely artistic venue. When I saw the bare ground where Harrelson used to be this week, my heart was sad for the loss of a building that made me feel like I was an active participant in a uniquely, special place. Good bye, dear one.

  2. Great Article!
    I greatly disliked the building when I had classes in it, but now that it’s gone I’m sad… a lot of memories from NC State.
    Erika Ruth class of ’00

  3. I attended a few classes there.It was terrible. I began to feel like a chicken in a cage when I entered it

  4. Provided a great background for the NCAA Championship bonfires on the Brickyard with the Cardiac Pack! Had a few classes in there also, I always liked the building as different.

  5. I waited until a quiet Saturday evening and ,I confess, I drove my Honda all the way to the top. It was fun, loud and easy. The trip down was too fast and too scary!

  6. All my math classes were in Harrelson. I worked for the Physics dept in the Mines bldg right behind Harrelson ( the first Nuclear Reactor on campus ). I know for a fact that the brickyard is loaded with radioactivity buried there by the Soil Science dept back in the 40s as a part of their “atomic peanut” project. We had 12 feet of soil removed near the Mines bldg, but could not remove the bricks where the other radioactive material is burried. So now some students are going to get fried. I’ve warned them about this a half dozen times, and nobody is listening.

    1. And I knew 4 people who died from exposure to that radiation .. Rosalee Sanders, Dr and Mrs Staski, and Rosalee’s boyfriend ( after I dated her ). I’m serious about this. Go get a G-counter and see for yourself. It pegged for us in Mines.

  7. I worked as the lead assistant in the Language Lab on the third floor of Harrelson (top of the yellow stairs) for several years. The building certainly had its issues, but I have fond memories of times in the Lab.

  8. Never had any classes in Harrelson. However I did remember the bookstore in the bottom and getting my books upstairs. Once went to the legal office there and my first week at State trekking up the forever winding ramp to the top. Harrelson will be missed.
    -Joe Conard II BSEE ’16

  9. I majored in philosophy and so most of my classes were at least scheduled for Harrelson. In nice weather, however, a lot of our seminars would be held outside on the grassy area beside the brickyard. I never disliked the building, though. I thought it was pretty cool at the time.

  10. As a freshman back in 1998, I had an evening math class in Harrelson on my very first day of class, before I really knew my way around campus. After class I exited via one of the stairwells, and, due a combination of the building’s circular hallways and the darkness outside, I had no idea what direction I was facing. I briefly wandered around lost until I found the railroad tracks and followed them back to my dorm.

  11. Harrelson was such a unique building.
    I had Oceanography and a few math classes in there. I REALLY hate to see it go! It was a landmark for NCSU!
    So, many memories!!!!

  12. I had several classes in Harrelson and I don’t recall all the confusion everyone is talking about. I went to the building, went to classroom, left. I can’t recall ever getting lost and I don’t recall any odd shape to the rest rooms. Most toilets work the same regardless the shape of the room they are in. While I’ll miss the scenery, I’m sure the replacement will be a great building.

  13. It’s true the brickyard, and all of main campus, will never be the same. I was there a couple weeks ago and it was sad seeing it peeled away layer by later. RIP. Never forget my math classes there in the late 80’s.

  14. I had calculus (3 semesters), differential equations, Oceanography, Econ, History of Science, Chem 101 Exams … a lot of learning went on there. And, yes, I skateboarded down the ramp.

    I remember when the couches were taken out and burned on the Brick Yard to celebrate the ’83 National Championship.

    I remember when I finally figured out that each of the stairwells was a different color and which direction each one opened up to. It was kind of like learning the openings of a subway station in London.

  15. I had my first French class in Harrelson, and totally got tricked by this weird and cute building. Sad to see good old memories washed away.

    BS. 2014

  16. What a shame the new building will have corners. I mean the tower of DH Hill sort of sucks and it has corners. there are many perfectly wonderful round buildings. Windows could have been added. Its poor floor plan could have been reworked. Or a new round building could have been imagined to fit into the circular space. It wasn’t perfect but it made the brickyard the iconic landscape it was. The campus will never feel the same.

  17. My introduction to N.C. State’s Math Department was at Harrelson Hall. I remember trying to locate my academic adviser’s office. I probably walked (in a circle) past it 3 or 4 times before I found it. The classrooms were oddly shaped, true, but I kind of liked them. The bathrooms, less so.

    Class of ’04

  18. I remember finding the odd window that students could actually access and wondering what part of Central Campus I’d see when I looked out…
    BSChE ’86

  19. From intro Stat to a 500 level Stat series as a SAS guinea pig with Jerry Warren to the Monroe (clackity, clackity, clack) calculators and the IBM 64, then Scientific German, it was a hoot and a holler. MS 68, PHD 71

      1. I agree. The article was too negatively written. I always liked Harrelson Hall. I had many classes there.

        1. I have to agree. I sat for many classes in Harrelson and never had many issues after my first semester. I was unique to our campus and I always made my kids look at it and relish in it’s unique identity. In retrospect, maybe that’s why they attended other universities. Naw, they just came to appreciate that buildings don’t have to be square, just like phones don’t need a cord.

      2. I thought the article accurately reflected the feeling of the students I attended NCSU with in the 70s. And that maybe the reason I slept through my history class, was the stuffy interiors and not the professor. You should check out Josh’s other work in the News and Observer. He always finds unique touches to his articles and columns.

  20. I first visited the NCSU campus in 1968 (48 yrs ago) on a student trip to determine possible interest in attending there after I graduated from high school in Charlotte, NC. Harrelson Hall was pretty new and nothing like I had ever seen before. I have a very good photo of the place from that trip. I later attended NC Sate and got B.S. and M.S. degrees in the Entomology Department, one of the best in the USA.

  21. I’m sorry to see it go. Spent many an hour in Harrelson … classes from History to Calculus. And yes, I did ride my bike up and down the spiral several times. It lost a bit of its UFO character when they filled in the bottom, and it did have it’s issues … but I challenge NCSU to replace it with something half as interesting! Wayne Chism BSEE 1976

  22. really enjoyed all this coverage…I’ve been at NCSU as a researcher since 1991….and I too enjoyed the unusual features of Harrelson Hall…time marches on – Winnell Newman