Laird Hall

By Dan Ashurst ’22

The cornerstone-laying ceremony marking the beginning of construction on Laird Hall took place on Saturday, October 14, 1905. At 3 PM, a procession of cadets, Carleton students, professors, faculty, trustees, and even the St. Olaf band formed. When the cornerstone was laid, the following objects were placed inside of it: A Bible, a history of Carleton College, a letter from William H. Laird, after whom the building was named, donating $100,000 (almost $3 million in today’s money) for the construction of the building, records of the Board of Trustees accepting Mr. Laird’s gift, and many other materials. The ceremony was joyously followed by a football game at Laird Field and marked a major step in Carleton’s science program. 

The construction of a new science building was at the top of President Sallmon’s priorities when he began his presidency in 1903. The majority of faculty and board members considered the endeavor to be of the highest priority, and so the president directed his energies towards fundraising for the building. At the time that Mr. Laird gave his gift, it was the single largest monetary contribution ever given to Carleton, covering both the building’s construction and its maintenance and endowment for many years. His gift was written about in many newspapers as a magnanimous and significant contribution to the ideal of rural, democratic, liberal arts education. 

Laird Science Hall was finally dedicated on the afternoon of Wednesday, June 6, 1906 under Carleton’s second president, President William Henry Sallmon (served 1903-1908). The dedication involved another procession followed by an address by the college president and an inspection of the building. Laird’s iconic, massive pillars, composed of plaster around a core of local chaska brick, were a stunning acknowledgment of the vast expenditure made possible by Mr. Laird’s generous donation to the college. They also resembled the columns of an ancient Greek temple and thereby acknowledged the ancient Greek model for education and thought that Carleton valued at the time. 

The new science hall contained chemistry, biology, physiology, and embryology laboratories, classrooms, and department spaces that were cutting-edge for the time. President Sallmon was so proud of this building that he even moved his own office into it. Compared to other campus buildings at the time, Laird’s exterior architectural aesthetic was dominant as its large pillars and long processional stairs exuded authority. 

The College immediately began publicizing Laird’s state-of-the-art facilities in Viewbooks, which were campus promotional materials meant to attract prospective students. One Viewbook from 1909 proclaimed it to be “One of the best equipped college science buildings in the West” and not-so-modestly touted its price: “Cost: $50,000. Endowment: $50,000.” 

Laird has a storied history of housing many different kinds of offices and organizations on campus. In the 1930s, Dental Services was housed on the ground floor along with other offices of the College Health Service. The physics department broadcasted its own radio program from Laird around this time under the callsign KFMX, and for this purpose there was, for a large part of Laird’s existence, a large radio tower located on the roof. This radio tower was removed and relocated in the 1950s due to the constraints that its vibrations placed on the roof of the building. In the 1940s, the college constructed a greenhouse on the east side of the building. Physics and zoology were also once housed in Laird. In the 1960s, the Alumni Relations office was established in Laird Hall. More recently, the Office of Health Promotion, at its creation in 2016, was first housed in Laird 15 before its current location in Sayles, and students regularly visit the Registrar’s Office on the ground floor. Another aspect of Laird Hall that most Carleton community members are oblivious to today is the fact that an annex building used to be attached to Laird’s west side. In the early 1960s, this annex was used as a women’s athletics space and included a dance studio where ballet classes were held. This annex was demolished in the 1960s. 

In 1961, Carleton completed construction of the Olin Hall of Science, a new science building with a far more modern aesthetic, designed by the famous postmodern architect Minoru Yamasaki, best known as the architect of the World Trade Center in New York City. Once Olin was complete, in the 1961-1962 academic year, the physics and biology departments immediately moved from Laird into the new building. The English department, which had previously been housed in Williams Hall, was then moved into the vacated spaces in Laird, where it remains today. Williams Hall, was subsequently demolished in 1961. The Laird greenhouse, which had been appended to the east side of the building, was also removed around 1962 and its functions were moved to Olin Hall’s new greenhouse. 

In 1967, the College seriously considered demolishing Laird entirely and relocating its functions to Willis Hall. Around the current site of Laird, they had considered constructing a large and modern student center. Laird Hall had many issues regarding heating, cracking in the large columns outside, security concerns, and more that caused great nuisance to the offices housed there and did not meet the standards of the day. However, shortly after, a group of alumni raised $500,000 to keep and renovate Sayles-Hill which, along with the estimated cost of $1.9 million to construct the new student center, likely played a key role in swaying the college to keep both Laird and Sayles. Instead of being destroyed, Laird has undergone significant renovations at many points since the 1960s in order to address the issues of the building’s age. 

Laird Hall is today the beloved home of the English department. It also houses the Registrar’s Office on its ground floor. Recently, its interior has been completely renovated and rejuvenated. In a campus plan from 2005, Laird was identified as a “legacy” building that should be maintained into perpetuity due to its historical significance to the campus. As such, Carleton students will be able to enjoy this building’s rich history for decades to come.