Almost immediately following my appointment to serve as president of Northeastern State University in October 2011, and prior to my official start date, I received several calls and emails about Wilson Hall. The fundamental question was, "What are you going to do with Wilson Hall?" I recall thinking to myself, I don't know what Wilson Hall is or the purposes it has served. Since it was obviously very important to a significant number of people, I immersed myself in finding out Wilson Hall's details - some of which I have included here.
Construction of two residence halls, one for women and another for men, began the first week of March 1936. On May 7, 1936, the hall for women was named by the Cherokee Seminary Students Association in honor of Miss Florence Wilson, who was principal of the Cherokee Female Seminary from 1875 to 1901. Wilson Hall was designed to accommodate 184 young women. It was constructed by the federal Works Progress Administration and cost approximately $240,000. The building's official open house was held on Feb. 16, 1937, and students were allowed to move in later in the spring semester.
In the 1960s, there was an addition to the building consisting of three floors above grade and a full basement. The combined square footage of the original structure and the 1960s addition is approximately 64,235 square feet, not including additional unused space in the attic and basement.
In short, I discovered that Wilson Hall had both historical and emotional significance to all who passed through its doors. It was much more than a place where students lived, dined, met, and fell in love. It was vital to the fabric of NSU, and although it never had central air conditioning or an elevator, it needed to be saved and restored if at all possible.
To gain additional insight about Wilson Hall and determine its potential future, in March and April 2012, we conducted forums on campus and in the community. These forums were well attended and generated several ideas about what could be, provided it was structurally sound. Suggestions included that it be used for student organizations, a historical center/museum, create social spaces of all sizes for faculty and staff, renovate it for student housing, etc.
Following these meetings, we enlisted help from an architect and construction company to complete an engineering and feasibility study. In May 2013, we received the report that stated, "Both the original building and the 1960s addition appear to be structurally sound." The soundness of the structure is due primarily to the design and construction of the WPA. Furthermore, the building could be renovated to become the new home for the College of Liberal Arts (COLA).
To begin work as quickly as possible, and based on the finances in place at the time, we divided the renovation project into three phases: Phase 1, securing the envelope, repair the roof, replace windows, tuck point the brick; Phase 2, interior demolition; and Phase 3, interior buildout. The complete buildout will be based on programming needs by the COLA faculty and leadership and the Cabinet. Phases 1 and 2 were completed at a total renovation cost of $2.8 million. In January, we awarded the contract to complete Phase 3 to Flintco Construction. We were pleased that the winning bid of $10.9 million came in lower than the original third-party estimator projected. We were also able to incorporate an additional 11,165 square feet of previously unusable space from the attic and basement. The project is funded by private donations, infrastructure fees, dedicated reserve funds, and Section 13 funds.
In about 12 months, we will have a formal rededication ceremony of the fully restored Wilson Hall. The College of Liberal Arts will move into 75,400 square feet of reimagined space. Although the project has taken about five years longer to complete than initially thought, it will be completely paid for when finished - debt-free.
Steve Turner is the president of Northeastern State University.