By the end of 1929, the fate of UNC's Memorial Hall was hanging in the balance. Engineers had declared the building unsafe for use, and President Harry W. Chase was faced with presenting the news to the University trustees. The building was demolished in 1930 to make way for a new Memorial Hall, and with it went a storied past, as recounted by writer Joseph Q. Mitchell.
Every year thousands of visitors enter thorough the massive wooden doors of Memorial Hall ... and a large number always say, "Why this building looks just like an enormous coffin."
And as a matter of fact the hall has good right to wear a death-like air, because its builder, Samuel Sloan of Philadelphia, died from sun-stroke when it was nearing completion, and his two assistants, A. G. Bauer and John Richards, committed suicide a short while after the structure was finished. And others who have been connected intimately with the building have been hoodooed; at least it would seem that this is true.
The cathedral-like construction of the Hall, with the muslin draperies attached to the walls and ceiling for the betterment of the acoustics, go far in giving it an undeniable resemblance to a giant casket. Every visitor finds something about the building that is impossible to forget. Some with precise tastes for architectural beauty are repelled at the way the old building rambles and turns, and they call it a monstrosity. Others, with a sense of humor are charmed by the grotesque, old world air about the dusty place.
And, excepting the Capitol at Raleigh and a few county jails, it is probably the best known building in North Carolina. Hundreds of mothers and fathers have assembled there to see their sons and daughters presented diplomas and awarded degrees. Statesmen and educators make speeches, bands play, and thousands of students gather in the building every year, never knowing any of the facts of its history. A few inquisitive students have heard tales from old men about town. They hear hints like this: "The old place is jinxed, hoodooed. Everyone connected with it has bad luck." And they hear mentioned the case of the young man who climbed the flagpole on the day of the building's dedication. This young man, Billy Walton, so the story goes, was offered five dollars to climb the pole without cleats and adjust the flag ropes. An old man in the crowd cautioned him if he did, something terrible would happen to him. Walton climbed the pole, contracted tuberculosis soon after and died. Oh, it has had a stirring and dramatic past, this weather-beaten and dusty old building.
The way it came to be built is this: At the commencement of 1883 Governor Jarvis and President Kemp Battle were sitting on the rostrum of Gerrard Hall. The hall was filled to overflowing. Many people had traveled long distances in buggies over rough roads to be present at the affair, and now they were denied room. President Battle knew they would go home angry with the institution, so he turned to Mr. Jarvis and said, "Governor, if you will promise the people that next year we will have a building large enough to accommodate everybody, I will show you where the money will come from." The governor was pleased with the proposal and promised to procure the sale to the University of bricks made at the state penitentiary on extremely favorable terms. A board, or committee was appointed and went about in a harum-scarum way to obtain subscriptions. The committee engaged an architect from Philadelphia before a dollar was raised.
A movement had begun in Raleigh at this time to erect a cenotaph to President Swain on the campus of the University. The architect proposed that instead of a cenotaph, the subscription should be turned over to the Memorial Hall fund, and that the building should be a Swain monument. This suggestion was approved and plans were drawn up for the building.
The architect was a very imaginative person, extremely enthusiastic and unbusiness like. His first estimates of the cost of erection was $20,000, but he successively raised it to $25,000, $30,000, and $40,000, and the final cost was about $45,000. The board of trustees decided that the architect planned regardless of cost, trusting that the University would not have an unfinished building left on its hands.
It is one of the largest, if not the largest building in the world without central supports. The roof is supported by two great wooden arches, one hundred and twenty-seven feet in diameter, lengthwise of the building. These supports were built on the ground, and raising them was a perilous task. At the first attempt a celebration was planned, and the trustees with Bishop Green of Mississippi, were invited. After speeches, many formalities and pretentious ceremony, one of the arches was raised high up into the air when suddenly the tackle jammed and the ropes gave away. The arch tumbled awkwardly and dangerously to the ground. The crowd scattered and the ceremony was postponed. Later an experienced house mover was engaged, and a network of long, complicated ropes and pulleys and heavy timbers was constructed, and the arches were finally raised.
While the building was being completed the finances ran short once more. President Battle decided to turn the building into a general memorial hall, wherein should be marble tablets containing the facts of the lives of prominent alumni and officers of the University. Friends and descendants of these men were to donate above the cost of the tablets, and the surplus was to be used to continue the building. About $10,000 was raised this way. These tablets of white marble are placed in the walls of the building. There is one to President Swain in the centre behind the rostrum, and others to President Caldwell, Dr. Mitchell and Dr. Phillips flank this one. One large tablet to the students, two hundred and sixty in number, who were killed in the Civil War, is a pathetic reminder of the ardor with which these men went to battle. On the walls were placed ninety eight tablets to distinguished alumni and officers. The tablets, square, of white marble, stand out in relief from the dirty grey wall of the building. Some have yellowed, others are cracked, and they are scanned by almost every North Carolinian who enters the hall in the hope that some one of his or her ancestors may be commemorated there.
The building, begun in 1883, was dedicated July 3rd, 1885...
At first the building was used only for the commencement exercises once a year. Then its floor was made horizontal and it was used as a temporary gymnasium. Then it came into service as a chapel. Now half-hour chapel services are held in the hall five days each week and it is used as a general assembly hall and auditorium. The Carolina Playmakers use it for some of their most elaborate productions, and traveling players and entertainers are booked to perform on its historic rostrum....
When the Playmakers give a performance in this building there is one classic and historic, yet secret and little known, way of seeing the show gratis. The attic of the hall is large and dusty. One climbs through a trap door in the wall of the gallery and up through a network of supports and framework to a little platform in the dome. The electric lights for the hall, twelve in number, are placed directly above twelve frosted windows set in the ceiling. This is done so that lights will not be glaring. If one wishes to see the show for nothing, it is possible to climb up into the attic and off onto this platform, tilt one of the windows a wee bit, and look through directly under on the stage.
It is a dangerous and thrilling proceeding, and an unusual way of seeing a performance. The actors are so far away they assume fantastic proportions when the backstage lighting is seen at certain angles. Any play or performance becomes stilted, or grotesque and unearthly when seen in this bird's-eye view. Many students have cut their initials in the supports in the attic. Some of them have dates, and it is very probable that hundreds have escaped box-office fees by hiding in the attic. Scattered on the platform one may find playing cards, programs, and newspapers and it is obvious that the attic has been used for a great many things. The playing cards suggest poker games played under glaring lights, and the scattered newspapers bear dates from 1917 to 1926. No 1927 newspaper was found and probably the students who knew of the attic have all been graduated.-- The News & Observer 10/16/1927
Photo - North Carolina Collection Photographic Archives, Wilson Library, UNC-Chapel Hill