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Imagine, if you will, a large but not enormous building with a brick exterior.  It is about half as long as a football field and three stories high.  There are many windows, those on the first and second floors some eight feet high, on the third floor somewhat smaller.  There are doors on the east, west, and north sides of the building, and on the south side an auditorium projects outward from the main block of the building.  The exterior of the building is articulated with vertical stripes of brick, and the doorframes, of a light-colored stone, are modestly but gracefully decorated.  This is Murphey Hall.  When I arrived in 1963, and for many years thereafter, ivy vines covered much of the exterior, from the ground floor up to and including the third floor, but the vines were removed at some point, perhaps in the 1980s.

Fig. 1. Murphey Hall from the north, spring 2009. Photo by Emily Baragwanath

Within, corridors on each floor run the length of the building from east to west.  Off the corridors open rooms of various shapes and sizes.  The larger rooms are mostly classrooms, the smaller ones offices for faculty and graduate students.  In 1963, the entire first floor and part of the second were occupied by the Department of Classics.  This included the chair’s office, with a small adjacent office for the departmental secretary; a small library; two large rooms which served as graduate student offices (with about ten students per room, each student having his or her own desk); faculty offices; and classrooms.  The third floor was occupied by classrooms and by four other units: the Department of Religious Studies, the Institute of Outdoor Drama, the Latin American Studies program, and the office of the Secretary of Faculty.

In about 1970, the various offices on the third floor were moved to other buildings, and the Department of Classics moved to the second and third floors, with the first floor now given over almost entirely to classrooms.  There were classrooms on the upper floors too, and some eight or nine departments, including English, History, Religious Studies, Geography, and Romance Languages, had priority use of one or more of the classrooms.  Throughout the latter half of the twentieth century, and well into the twenty-first, Murphey Hall was one of the most heavily used classroom buildings in the central part of campus.  As a result, the halls were often crowded, the whole building busy and noisy.

Following the move upstairs in the ’70s, the Department of Classics had a two-room main office on the second floor and an expanded library on the third floor, an archaeology seminar (notable among other things because it had room-darkening window shades and two slide projectors, so that the archaeologists could project two images side by side for comparison purposes), three graduate student offices, each home to about half a dozen students, a storage closet, a lounge or “Common Room,” twelve to fourteen faculty offices, and several classrooms.

Built in 1922-24, the building was partially renovated or retrofitted several times.  In 1959, major work was done on the auditorium.  The original floor sloped down toward the front of the room in a series of low steps, but in 1959 the steps at the sides of the room were replaced with a floor that descended in a continuous gradual slope to the front.  Unfortunately, the new floor blocked roughly half of the openings of most of the heating vents.  The blockage meant that it was a very cold room in the winter, and students sometimes opted to keep their coats and hats on during particularly cold periods.  At some point, the inner surfaces of the windows were painted black in order to make the room dark for slides, and the windows were sealed shut.  That led to very hot days in summer, as the sun struck the black windows and the air was sealed in.  In 1962, a projection booth was built at the back of the room.

As a product of the 1920s, Murphey had not been built with air-conditioning.  In the 1970s and 1980s, the building was gradually given a number of window air conditioners, but they were large and noisy when in use, making it difficult for students and teachers to hear one another.  I for one tended to turn them off during class until it became unbearably hot.  Also in the 1970s or 1980s the corridors were fitted with a low false ceiling, above which ran various ducts and wires.  The low ceiling destroyed the original proportions of the corridors, and the ceiling tiles were unattractive.  As time went by, they turned gray and yellow and suffered damages here and there–some small, some large–and by 1990 the corridors looked tattered and rundown.

The original heat was steam or hot water which ran through pipes and lovely old flat-topped radiators.  On cold days, it was very pleasant to take off one’s shoes and prop one’s feet against a radiator.  But the pipes grew old and unreliable.  One day the radiator in Philip Stadter’s third-floor office sprang a leak, and hot water spilled out, got into the walls, and ran down into the offices below on the second and first floors and into an adjacent stairwell.  Several hundred books were soaked, and a number of walls needed to be resurfaced.

Eventually, in the early 1990s, it became clear that the building needed a complete renovation [1].  After some delays, money was found for the renovation, and in the late summer of 2001 the Department of Classics moved to Howell Hall as a temporary home, and renovations began.  A summary of the work will give some idea of how far the building had deteriorated before it was renovated:

  • The interior of the building was gutted almost completely.  At one point during the renovation, you could see right through the building from north to south.
  • Some rooms were reconfigured.
  • Central air-conditioning and a new heating system with actual thermostats were installed
  • An elevator was added, providing access to the upper floors.  This has been useful especially for people of limited mobility, and for moving heavy objects.
  • Wiring throughout the building was brought up to code, and classrooms were fitted with up-to-date technology.
  • New windows were installed.  (They could, and in 2018 still can, be opened.)
  • A classroom was created in the basement, but it was oddly shaped and, it turned out, unsuitable as a classroom.  Later it was converted into an office for graduate students in Religious Studies.
  • Niches for plaster casts of three famous ancient statues were created on the first floor [2].
  • Stacks for the department’s library were created.
  • The departmental office was redesigned.
  • A computer lab was created for the use of faculty and graduate students.
  • New lighting was installed throughout.
  • The composition tiles covering the floors were removed, exposing the original 1920s wooden floors in the classrooms and offices.  Some of the original wood could be retained or reused in whole or in part, but some had to be replaced.
  • The lighting and all other details were designed expressly to be consistent with the 1920s exterior of the building: everything was new, but it was early twentieth-century in aesthetics [3].  Work on the renovation, once begun, proceeded rapidly, and the department moved back to Murphey from Howell Hall in January of 2003.  The renovations happened to coincide with a recession in the U.S. economy, so costs were unexpectedly low, and the complete renovation cost around $7 million, somewhat under budget.

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[1] Saunders Hall (renamed Carolina Hall in 2015), a twin of Murphey situated across the courtyard to the north of Murphey, had been renovated twice by the time it was decided to work on Murphey.

[2] The plaster casts, gifts of the classes of 1900 (Aphrodite), 1901 (Athena), and 1902 (Apollo), were cleaned and stabilized.

[3] Gordon Rutherford, then the director of facilities planning for the Chapel Hill campus, was the one who articulated this admirable principle.  He set it out during a walk-through at the very earliest planning stage, as he took those architects who might want to bid on the project on a guided tour of Murphey.