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Dominating the southern edge of campus, the sixteen-story, 178-foot Webster Hall is the tallest building at Washington State University and, topping out at an elevation of 2,720 feet, is easily among the highest non-natural objects in the vast Palouse region of eastern Washington and the Idaho panhandle. Upon its completion in 1974, the largely unornamented, raw concrete building placed a temporary exclamation point on what appeared to be the university’s gradual move away from a smaller-scale, red brick architectural tradition. No building on campus has approached its size since that time.
Designed by Naramore, Bain, Brady and Johanson (NBBJ) of Seattle, Webster Hall was built for $8.8 million to bring together the Departments of Physics and Geology, as well as the “Technical Services” shops—each of which had been previously scattered in different areas and buildings on campus. It is set back from NE College Avenue by a small, raised plaza with planter boxes, and features a vast, albeit minimally landscaped, concrete plaza to its east. This plaza, built originally in brick, doubles as a roof garden over what became a second phase of the project: the construction of two large “underground” campus lecture halls, accessed by corridors leading to banks of elevators, which are exposed to the south. From the north, however, Webster Hall rises sharply fourteen stories above this two-story extension, and it is the tower that is plainly visible for several miles in all directions.
Yet Webster Hall demands attention for much more than its height, and would not have appeared thoroughly out of character with campus architectural development in the 1960s and early 1970s. The grid-like, crushed rock facade of Fulmer Annex (1961) had recently been completed across College Avenue, and NBBJ’s own Fine Arts Center (1970) featured similar exterior materials and articulation and had assumed a prominent position on campus just four years before. Further to the south, five massive residential towers had emerged in the 1960s to provide housing for a growing student population, their height relative to Webster Hall minimized only by their construction at a lower elevation. Moreover, within a context of university structures whose materials and treatment revealed the fundamentals of construction and suggested the economy of building, Webster Hall architecturally announced that WSU was not disconnected from the national spotlight.
While hardly extravagant, close inspection of the facade reveals some attention to detail and context. Although the thinner east and west facades are predominantly monolithic and contain small windows where the stairs are located, the north and south facades, neither of which is symmetrical, provide different faces to the campus. The main (north-facing) facade is bisected by an enormous concrete column with four bands of windows to the right and a single band to the left, each with a strip of red brick at its base. The south side also features an enormous concrete column, but it is off-center, separating five bays of windows on the east side from a single bay on the west. Concrete projections, or brise-soleils, offer shade protection over the window bays on each side; and large, two-story, red-brick panels suggest a capital at the top of the north elevation, hiding mechanical equipment yet making a gesture to the predominant campus architectural palette.
The main entrance opens into a double-height space for a display of objects and a jutting balcony above may have been installed originally for better vantage points of displays. There are exposed utility areas in the corridors: a likely intentional move common to university buildings in the 1960s and 1970s to demonstrate inner workings but also to avoid excessive costs—characteristics of an architectural “Brutalism” that gained widespread popularity at this time for taxpayer-funded construction. Spectacular views of the city and region unfold from a publicly accessible lounge on the northwest side of the twelfth floor.
Not all such architectural and contextual considerations were likely on the mind of Dr. William Band, the chair of the Physics Department, when he began envisioning a new building in 1961. Band wanted more space for his department, but also imagined a collaborative, interdisciplinary structure that would bring physics and geology together with chemistry and the biological sciences. He assembled a committee of faculty to visit and investigate recent campus building designs around the American West that were designed to facilitate interdisciplinary research and teaching. Among other ideas, their research sparked the design and location of lecture halls that could easily accommodate the bringing of materials, equipment, and samples from adjacent laboratories to students into the lecture hall, high-speed elevators, and “conversation areas, lounges, and study areas” to encourage interaction between students, faculty, and staff.
The design and construction of the building was not without controversy. Prior to the approval of construction, students in the architecture department wrote a memorandum to President Glenn Terrell predicting that the tower design would isolate students from faculty and prevent the very collaboration that the university wished to foster; in just three days, apparently 800 signatures were obtained to voice objection to the proposed tower. Furthermore, the contractors employed on the project did not properly prepare the site, which was previously occupied by greenhouses. The site preparation led to delays in construction and a multi-million-dollar lawsuit, eventually settled in the university’s favor. Shortly after Webster Hall’s completion in 1974, the Struppler Theater Organ was moved from its original home in the Cordova Theater in downtown Pullman, where it accompanied silent movies, and placed behind the Alfred B. Butler Lecture Hall in Room 16 to demonstrate acoustical properties.
Webster Hall, named in honor of WSU Regent Kate B. Webster in 1994, is also the site of the annual pumpkin drop on the university’s “Dad’s Weekend” in the fall semester, where physics graduate students drop pumpkins from the roof down to the parking area on the south side in order to measure the forces of gravity. It is also one of the few campus buildings to feature a plaque, affixed to concrete to the left of the main entrance on the north side, dedicated solely to the architectural firm affiliated with the design. Beyond some landscaping for the plaza, Webster Hall remains in its original condition.
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