Oldest building at WSU returned to former glory

PULLMAN - It was a mystery, all right.

It had all the elements: dead bats, a spire riddled with bullet holes, hidden rooms and lost closets.

With the help of old photographs and Thompson Hall itself, they hoped to uncover the secrets of Washington State University's oldest building.

Now all those involved - professors, students, architects, contractors and designers - believe Thompson Hall has been returned to near-original condition.

Restoring the stately structure at the center of campus took two years, exhaustive research and $7.5 million.

For foreign-language chairwoman Bonnie Frederick and many others in the building, the renovation came none too soon. They had spent years struggling to work and teach surrounded by the results of muddled renovations.

"There was the day our secretary was sitting, looking at her desk and a dead bat fell out of the ventilation system," she said. "That's what we call a sign."

It's hot, it's cold, it's both

Some of her colleagues complained of feeling sick in the building. A few claimed they could never get warm in the winter. Others could never cool down.

"In some parts of the building, the heat was on and you just couldn't ever turn it off," Frederick said.

When the wind blew, the foreign-language professor learned to stuff the gap in her window frame with cotton batting. "It was a building that was falling apart," she said.

Built in the early 1890s on a bare Pullman hillside, Thompson Hall was essentially the foundation of Washington State University.

The builders formed its bricks from a bed of clay behind what is now Stevens Hall. They built its base from a rare stock of granite. A brand-new Legislature appropriated $50,000 for the project.

Seventeen architects submitted designs for the building, and WSU regents chose a plan from the Seattle firm of James Stephen and Timothetus Jesnhans.

The original design was for a building three times larger than the current Thompson Hall. It had a large circular drive so carriages could drive right up to the door.

"Obviously, that didn't happen," Frederick said.

Still, the building is quite large, at different times housing the administration offices as well as classrooms, labs, a kitchen, library and even a gymnasium.

Several myths follow the hall, including one that it's patterned after a French hunting chateau.

"My feeling is that's a rumor," said Cima Malek-Aslani, the project architect. "It's very end-of-Victorian period and really looks like it's derived from Richardson-Romanesque," a style popularized by East Coast architect Henry Hobson Richardson.

She points to the different scales of arches, the turrets, towers and dormers - very much in the style of Richardson, who drew on Europe's Romanesque architecture in designing buildings in the mid-1800s.

The interior was fairly spare, with large open rooms. Though no one could unearth the original drawings for the building, architects relied on a few precious photos for clues. They even dug down to the original plaster to decipher the colors of the first coats of paint.

The challenge came in sifting through the layers of renovations and improvements to find the heart of the hall. There was a lot to undo.

People in the building still talk about the 1968 renovation like a natural disaster.

"It was dreadful," Frederick said. "It was the kind of renovation that happens when air conditioning is more important than the people or the historical character."

The years of updating the power and heating systems and remodeling the classrooms had piled up.

"There were walls built upon walls built upon walls," said Donavon Harris, project manager for WSU's facilities development office. "It was really a mess."

As the repairs in the building grew, the space shrunk. Some say Thompson has held seven environmental systems. Others say nine.

"Actually there were 14 different heating and air systems," Malek-Aslani said.

When heating systems got old, facilities workers would install new systems on top of them, complete with new ducts and vents. They buried the old equipment behind walls, sometimes at the expense of small rooms and closets.

Back to the beginning

The windows, the doors, the brickwork, the roof - everything had to be redone. Workers gutted the building of all but the floors and exterior and load-bearing walls.

They fixed everything from the daylight basement to the copper spire at the peak of the south tower. When the old spire was removed, the project managers discovered it had been used for target practice.