The walls are talking in Converse College’s Pell Hall.
Sounds of construction, sawing and drilling, and the crackle of debris falling through open shafts between its four floors, filled the 123-year-old shell of the building on Friday. Construction crews have gutted the entire 16,842-square-foot building, stripping modern Sheetrock and angular door frames to reveal bead boarding, arched brick doorways and wallpaper, painted and stamped by hand, original to the 1891 structure.
“You can almost see the girls coming up the stairs, in their dresses and hats,” said college spokeswoman Beth Lancaster as she toured the building, referring to the students who were among the very first to attend the women’s college more than 120 years ago.
“It’s almost a living creature…You felt the whole building’s presence as you removed things.”
Kipp Cox, project manager for Harper Corp. General Contractors, said a historic building like Pell speaks during major construction projects like these. “It’s almost a living creature,” he said. “It tells you what it can and can’t do.”
Molly Duesterhaus, Converse’s vice president of student life and dean of students, said you could place a golf ball on the floor of Pell and watch it roll before the work began. “You could see the sag in the floor,” she said. Cox said the fourth floor was six inches lower before the start of construction. Tie rods were installed, and the building was jacked up gradually, 1/8 of an inch at a time. What began next was almost like an archaeology project into the earliest history of Converse.
During past renovations of Pell, it was modernized to include sheetrock and carpeting. Hardwood floors, their wide planks currently covered in construction dust, will be preserved, and wide ceiling beams will be salvaged and used in restoration, said Rhonda Mingo, assistant dean of students. Under the wall coverings, workers found decorative vents for gas heat. Pell also had gas lighting when it opened as a residence hall, the second building on campus, in 1891.
The original Pell included two calisthenics rooms — areas for indoor exercising that was becoming popular during the late 1800s. Though those gym-like rooms had long been converted to living space, the original beams for them were found during demolition on the first and second floors. “You felt the whole building’s presence as you removed things,” Cox said of the demolition. “You could feel what the building was when it was completed in 1891. It had all gas lighting too, which at the time was very modern.”
“Converse is committed to preserving its historic buildings, even at expense. These historic buildings are very important to the community.”
The discovery of the bead boarding and arched doorways was a surprise when the current wall coverings were removed. “The brick work we discovered underneath is just beautiful,” Duesterhaus said. “We will reopen some of the archways.” The original plan for the renovation was all Sheetrock, but the bead boarding, along with chair rails and base boards, will be preserved or restored along the stairwells.
Another surprise find was a square brown liquor bottle hidden in the floorboards. Retired history professor Jeffrey Willis, now the college’s historian, said the bottle probably dates back to 1945. Could it have been hidden on purpose, by a student or faculty member perhaps? “Very likely,” Willis said, with a smile.
On Friday, sunlight glowed red, yellow and blue through the stained glass in the building’s tower. The glass will be removed and restored, and returned to the tower, Cox said. The front of the building will also be restored to its original Victorian grandeur, Duesterhaus said. The hand painted, decorative flourishes around windows and the contrasting arches around the windows will return. “The trees and shrubs were removed to expose the front of the building,” Duesterhaus said. “We will bring those features back to prominence.” A columned porch will be added to the side of Pell, which will shift the main entrance of the building from the front tower to the side of the building.
Willis said for its first 50 years, Pell was called the “annex.” It was the second building at Converse, after the Main Hall, which was later named after the college’s first president, Benjamin Franklin Wilson, who died in 1929. Pell was named for the college’s second president, Robert Paine Pell, who died in 1941. When it was completed in 1891, Pell housed students and had two classrooms and the calisthenics rooms. The classrooms were occupied even on weekends, as Converse students at the time only left campus once a month. “The rooms housed the literary societies,” Willis said. “The students spent so much time on campus, and it was just humming with activity on weekends, unlike today.” Dexter was the next building to go up on campus, completed in 1899. The first floor once housed a gymnasium.
When the last students moved out of Pell in 2011, the college began researching its options for how to renovate it. A survey of the Converse community – faculty and staff, alumni, trustees and the Spartanburg community at large – showed that 98 percent wanted to preserve Pell rather than tear it down, even if the price tag to restore it was $9 million.
Fundraising for Pell renovations, with $2 million in additional work at neighboring Dexter, is almost complete, school officials said. Renovations at Dexter will begin as soon as students move out for the summer May 17.
When the work is finished, sometime before Aug. 20, 92 freshmen will be housed in Pell, with another 90 in Dexter, in a completely redesigned “living community” referred to on campus as the First Year Experience. Pell will contain single, double and triple rooms, with additional study spaces and living areas, and common outdoor spaces between Pell and Dexter. A new connector will be built between Pell and Wilson. A student committee is choosing interior color schemes, carpet and tile. Outdoors, an older rose garden will be restored, and a roundabout and dining terrace added at the back of Pell. “It will be a central area to build community, with indoor and outdoor spaces for students to connect,” Duesterhaus said. The exterior brick of both buildings will be cleaned, with mortar repair as needed, Mingo said.
At Dexter, improvements will include a new roof, columned front porch, elevator, windows and central energy plant. Willis said the building is still in good shape at 114 years old. “It’s an incredibly sound building,” he said. “Converse is committed to preserving its historic buildings, even at expense. These historic buildings are very important to the community.”
This article was written by Jenny Arnold of the Spartanburg Herald-Journal.