By 1927, when Harriman Hall was built, Van Vleck Observatory Hall had already gone up, housing what is still Connecticut’s largest telescope. The construction occurred largely due to donations from Henry Ingraham Harriman ’95 (that’s 1895) in memory of his father, Daniel G. Harriman ’54, who spent the first two years of his college career in the hall that had previously occupied the site. Along with Olin Library, which was completed around the same time, Harriman Hall was the first building on campus to be finished in “Harvard” brick rather than the brownstone of Van Vleck and Clark. An alumni newsletter connected this choice to admiration of a certain other New England institution: “It will be built of brick and marble, like the Library, rather than of brownstone, like Clark Hall; and the wood pilasters and roof coping will be painted white like that of the Library, and like the new buildings of the Harvard School of Business.” The Olin history website, however, has a more prosaic take on this choice of materials; they write that by 1925, all the local brownstone quarries had apparently been exhausted or closed.
There is little information left on what life in Harriman Hall was like. The interior sounds swaggy—it was trimmed in oak with maple floors in the rooms—and I wonder why it’s all gone now. Only the infamous marble bathrooms on the fourth floor of PAC remain. In opposition to Observatory Hall, which was one of the most inexpensive dorms to live in, Harriman Hall was considered expensive and luxurious, with an electric light in every closet. A 1990 Argus article shed light on Wesleyan’s residential policy around the time Harriman was built:
The housing process was significantly different in the old days. Once a student was admitted to the university, he could reserve a room for a $10 fee. A student could even reserve a room prior to being admitted, under one condition. He had to submit a letter from his high school principal giving reason to believe he would be admitted.
Sounds a heck of a lot simpler than GRS. The building was considered luxurious in its time, with both single and double occupancy rooms, though it had a greater number of single rooms than either of its contemporaries, Clark and North College. As it housed 104 students, Harriman, along with those halls and the fraternities, finally allowed Wesleyan to house all its students on campus.
Slowly, Harriman’s role on campus transitioned from residential to academic. In 1954, a convocation concerning the establishment of a Public Affairs Center took place on Harriman Hall’s East Terrace. The $250,000 to build it was provided by the Surdna foundation, but construction could not begin until funds could be collected to compensate for the room shortage that would result. The East Wing that sits in front of Harriman came with the arrival of PAC. The sentiments of faculty at its establishment still ring true today, including the “[recognition of] the importance of what ought to be as well as what is” and the “remarriage of fact and value.”
Harriman’s top floor remained a dorm for many years, but finally, in 1982, it was announced that the transition of the floor into the headquarters of CSS would be delayed by a year, until August 1985. CSS was moving from the first floor of Butterfield A, the current home of the Graduate Liberal Studies program, because it wanted to be closer to PAC. In the interim before the move, the fourth floor, previously all men, was switched to be a “quiet” all-woman’s floor. “Professors on the third floor of PAC have apparently complained about the noisiness of the men living on the fourth floor,” wrote authors Sharon Haar ’83 or ’84 (now a faculty member in architecture at University of Illinois Chicago!) and Paul Kusserow. Apparently these were the days before co-ed bathrooms, because Harriman’s single, unmodifiable bathroom was named as an obstacle preventing the hall from becoming co-ed.
The decision angered the men living on the fourth floor, who were sad they couldn’t return the next year (you never hear people expressing that kind of sentiment about returning to a dorm now, except maybe in the case of WestCo). One Harriman resident said they had tried to be quiet, and that “Saying women are going to be quiet is a sexist statement.” However, Edward Shanahan, dean of students and director of housing at the time, said he “did not agree with the notion that women’s halls are inherently quieter than men’s halls.” Chair of PAC Renovation Donald Moon said that “the use of the building as a dormitory is incompatible with its academic functions,” making a clean break with the old policy. Thirty-two housing spaces were lost in the renovation, and classrooms and faculty office space were also affected during the construction, leading to the scheduling of evening classes.
The controversy didn’t end there. On August 23rd, 1985, the Middletown Press reported that “the removal of asbestos insulation from a classroom building at Wesleyan University may have backfired,” exposing construction workers to limited doses of hazardous asbestos dust and leaving the building contaminated. Wesleyan officials said they said they were treated the building as if it were contaminated with asbestos dust, while at the same time they told workers that there was no contamination. Three workers on the site had told the Middletown Press that they had knocked asbestos down from crowbars so that the material “rained down” on them and pulled asbestos insulation with their bare hands from pipes. The Argus reported five days later that Wesleyan was denying this accusation.
Though air samples came back negative and wipe samples came back with light-to-moderate results, 800 boxes of books left in the building by professors were shipped to a decontamination center in the hockey rink, where the boxes were opened and each book “individually vacuumed.” This fiasco helped delay construction; eventually, however, the renovation was completed on October 31, 1985, bringing CSS to its current perch.
For part one of Wesleying’s architectural history of Harriman Hall, click here.