PHOTO | Pete Unwer
It has been over two years since Williamson Hall caught fire in April of 2019. While the building itself was not completely destroyed in the ensuing inferno, it sustained serious damage that remained visible for the past three years prior to its renovation.
With the rededication of Williamson Hall scheduled to happen on March 2 at 2 p.m, Associate Professor of Parks, Recreation and Hospitality, Susan West, shared her thoughts regarding Williamson Hall’s difficulties in the previous semesters, its historical past as a fixture of Arkansas Tech, and the finished renovation of the building.
“It was the most helpless feeling in the world; you were just watching the building burn,” West said about the 2019 fire. She went on to recount how losing Williamson affected the department, mentioning the development of new challenges in their everyday operations.
“We were over by the hospital for three years,” said West. She said the new location left members of the department feeling “disconnected from campus.” She explained how she adapted to the relocation personally.
“I used different colored backpacks to help organize my courses,” West said, citing the lack of a convenient office as forcing her to develop new organizational tendencies. West did not let these challenges dampen her enthusiasm of returning to Williamson, instead opting to say the finished renovation was “very exciting.”
“It was very exciting for me, not just about the building, but to be returning to campus. It’s really hard when you’re all over the place,” said West. Williamson does not just hold importance to the West’s department, however, but to the entire campus’ history as a whole.
Originally founded in 1940 as a National Youth Administration Arkansas (NYA) headquarters, the building came into Tech’s ownership in 1943, after the organization’s discontinuation. It has remained a fixture of Tech’s campus ever since, sporting a multitude of different uses since its acquisition.
In 1947, Williamson began to host radio station KXRJ, and continued to host the station for a decade. Williamson also became the home of the fine arts program in the 40’s through to the early 70’s.
Among the notable instructors who taught there were Tech’s first ever band director Marvin Williamson, the namesake of the Hall, and band director Gene Witherspoon, namesake of Witherspoon Hall. The Williamson building was named to the National Registry of Historical Places in December of 1992.
Williamson was also utilized by the ROTC department, sporting a rifling range at one point in its storied past.
“They actually found bullets in the wood. They had to replace it, and did a phenomenal job,” said West, recounting how the building’s past resurfaced during renovations.
West talked about how the building has remained a fixture on campus, referencing times when Colonel Carl Baswell himself was frequenting Williamson Hall.
“Baswell would go to Williamson, get paid something like 30 cents for the day, and then go on to work on the campus grounds.”
West went on to talk about the building’s historical significance to both herself and the campus, as well as the actual process of renovating the Hall as a historical landmark. “We had to keep those pillars, and where it says the name. It was the original, and it had to stay there. It’s exactly the same, but different.”
West also mentioned how the building’s return has impacted students, citing her own excitement, as well as some of the building’s newer features added during the renovation.
“Some of them are in love with the student space. The agriculture students don’t have a space in Dean Hall like that. There are many students who enjoy that space, since it’s for them,” West said before elaborating on the noticeable changes in student attitude.
The new space allows for students to relax, hang out, or even be collaborative, according to West.
“They can work in groups and teams. Having students hanging out in our building is really exciting.”
West also said the renovated building is important to her specifically.
“There’s something special about that building, it just has a really good energy when you come to it. I am so eager to be back in the building where so many students have made so many memories.”
Though Williamson’s loss had an impact on both students and faculty like West, it is now back and serving as a significant fixture at Tech yet again.
“I know this is the newest thing on campus, but I want people to know we are back. We are here. And we are really looking forward to serving our students,” said West, adding, “it’s really good to be back on campus. I feel like when we’re back on campus, we’re a part of the community as whole.”