Williams Hall

By Emily Christiansen

Originally called “Science Hall,” Carleton constructed Williams Hall in 1880 with a $12,000 donation from Dr. Edward Williams. Williams Hall was in fact Carleton’s first science building, housing the Chemistry, Biology, Physics, and Geology departments. Edward Williams donated the money to Carleton in memory of his son, William Williams, for which the building was named. The construction of Williams Hall followed the fire that destroyed Willis in 1879, and was partly seen as a replacement for that structure. Besides Williams’ major contribution, alumni donations early in the life of building helped to equip the labs in Williams Hall. 

The book Carleton, The First Century, describes the original functions of Williams Hall, which changed substantially over its eighty-year existence. The building initially included “chemical, physical and biological laboratories, the library, museum, and lecture and recitation rooms.” Williams Hall also served as a meeting space for clubs and groups, such as the Naturalist Club, Sewing Society, and Men’s Literary Society rooms. Several accounts describe the different animal specimens and other “philosophical apparatus[es]” on display. This museum of natural objects was open to the public, and the building was open to the public at night for this reason. Williams Hall was originally bisected into two, large rectangular rooms on the first and second floors in order to accommodate laboratories, a lecture hall, and the museum. 

The Front of Williams Hall

Early science courses certainly looked different from the present, but programs still followed specific-to-the-department course sequences and helped students prepare for further education. A brochure from 1890 details the chemistry and biology courses offered: the biology curriculum consisted of an eight-course sequence starting with “Biology 1: Elementary Botany,” and concluding with “Animal Physiology and Embryology;” chemistry was a five-course sequence. One distinction that may dismay current science students was the lab requirements: a course such as Elementary Botany required only two additional hours of lab work a week. 

Even in its early days, Williams Hall faced similar challenges to those of present Carleton– the construction of Anderson Hall in the last decade was a response to a persistent problem. Carleton seems to be perpetually in need of more science facilities: by 1892, only a decade after its construction, the College was calling for additional spaces for science classes. The increasing number of science students in tandem with advancements in scientific instruction resulted in the overcrowding of Williams Hall. For example, a pamphlet from 1892 cites the lack of a physics lab, or the fact that the chemistry lab could only accommodate 40 students when it needed to provide space for over a hundred, as issues with the amount of space. 

Despite a lack of space for science instruction, other activities and groups made Williams Hall their home as well. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Williams occasionally served as a gymnasium. This makeshift gymnasium was apparently insufficient in meeting students’ recreational needs– a 1891 contributor to The Carletonian complained that “The gymnasium [the Williams Hall basement] is crowded and overflowing. There is not near enough room to do even decent work…The time has come when a properly fitted gymnasium is a necessity and Carleton must have one soon at any cost.” Sayles-Hill Gymnasium, built in 1910, eventually solved this problem. 

In response to the clear need for larger science facilities, an addition to Wililams was proposed in 1892. Architecturally reminiscent of Scoville, the proposed addition involved adding a wing of over double the existing square feet to the west side of Williams. The addition was four stories tall with a tower and another main entrance. It included storage spaces, several different lab spaces, lecture rooms, and a library. It reportedly would have cost $30,000 to build, of which at least half of that estimate had been raised. Chas S. Sedgwick Architects of Minneapolis designed the plan; they designed many other public buildings, like libraries, higher education buildings, such as at the University of Minnesota, and many churches. For unclear reasons, though likely relating to funding, this addition was never realized, and instead Laird Hall and Leighton Hall of Chemistry, built in 1905 and 1920, provided additional science space. 

In the 20th century, Williams Hall housed the art department, student activities, publications, and a slew of other offices besides those of the sciences. Offices for the alumni and public relations director and faculty were set up here. The publications, The Carleton College Bulletin, Algol, and The Carletonian, used the basement, with The Carletonian moving here in 1928. The locations of these offices were often in flux, given the limited space. 

Before the construction of Boliou, the art department had an art gallery, studios, and classrooms in Williams Hall. The art gallery often held exhibits, not only showing student work but that of art professors and professional artists unaffiliated with the college. While in Williams, the gallery acquired an increasingly large fine art collection. When Boliou Hall was completed in 1949, the art gallery in Williams was converted into classrooms. 

Williams Hall Art Gallery

While it served a multitude of functions, Carleton had considered tearing down Williams Hall decades before its eventual demolition. Prospective plans for Carleton often leave out Williams Hall, implying its destruction and replacement by other buildings. One plan from the 1910s considered moving Williams to make way for a new chemistry hall, responding to earlier cries of overcrowding. The actual demolition in 1961 was a well documented and salient event on campus. According to reports from The Carletonian, people were not sad to see the end of Williams Hall. Even initial advocates for its preservation came to see it as a positive change on campus. Professor of English Owen Jenkins was quoted saying, “the destruction of Williams is an improvement”– most people saw Williams Hall as outdated and needing to be replaced. 

The same week of its demolition, Olin Hall, the College’s new hall for science, was dedicated by President Gould. Throughout the following decades, Carleton staff considered commissioning a commemorative boulder to WillIams Hall, remembering how it served the college for 80 years.