‘Ugliest classroom building in America’ scheduled for demolition
“They should have torn it down years ago,” said painter and the former University of North Carolina Greensboro professor Setsuya Kotani about the upcoming demolition of the McIver Building. He wasn’t the only one to disparage the structure which housed the university’s English, art, classical studies, and language departments until 2006.
Its modernist architecture was controversial when it opened in 1960, and not just because it clashed with its older brick surroundings. The poet Randall Jarrell called it the Thunderbird Motel, and others compared it to a penitentiary. The abstract installation of enameled panels above its western entrance is attractive from a distance, but up close is invisible, leaving the impression of a Soviet-style concrete slab that some have dubbed “Midcentury Gulag.”
Former faculty and students are critical of more than its exterior, describing cramped offices, cinderblock classrooms, and the smell of mildew and clogged plumbing. I once noticed the late Jim Clark, director of the creative writing program, recoiling from the odor emanating from the women’s restroom. “I sometimes wonder if teaching for five years in this building helped persuade Randall Jarrell to step in front of that car,” he joked grimly, referring to Jarrell’s possibly nonaccidental death in 1965.
Author, essayist and photographer Lee Zacharias, who taught in McIver for 32 years, remembers the ineffective climate control.
“It was so cold in my office the first couple of summers I was there I had to wear gloves,” she wrote in a Facebook message. “This was back in the days of typewriters, and when I asked for some remediation, it took years to get a work order.” Finally, she wrote, “five men came out with a tall ladder, and one taped cardboard over the vent and said that should solve the problem.”
Erected on the location of an earlier building named after UNCG founder Charles Duncan McIver (razed in 1958 because its wooden roof and obsolete wiring were deemed a fire hazard), the 1960 structure was not designed for air-conditioning. Later installation of a noisy and inefficient HVAC system not only impaired acoustics but lowered the ceilings and thus the lights. “You learned to recognize people by their walks,” Zacharias wrote. “This many years after retiring, I could tell you more about the shoes, ankles, and pants legs of my students than their faces.”
And then there were the rats. Zacharias recalled them as being particularly bold on weekends when she had to enter the building with a key. “You couldn’t let yourself in the front door without seeing them climbing into the garbage bins on the front porch.”
Painter and writer Lynne Buchanan recalled those rats but also has fond memories. Calling herself a child of the 1970s, Buchanan said it was the first building at UNCG in which she felt at home. “Like it, I was a relative anachronism: a college freshman at 34.” She said that when the new art building was built, “something about it felt profane.” Where it had seemed natural to spatter paint on McIver’s well-worn floors, “the new place was virginal and immaculate, and we were expected to keep it that way, which felt antithetical to the pursuit of painting.”
Despite admitting to often describing it to friends as “the ugliest classroom building in America,” Zacharias also has fond memories. “Hideous as it was, I am grateful to have taught there,” she wrote me. She also said she is thankful for “the memories of what it meant to spend time with students, with the writing program, and with The Greensboro Review, which was just a closet when I first took it over, in a space that was inadequate, so aesthetically unappealing, but was our own.”
In late 2017, there were rumors that demolition would begin next month, but a Jan. 8 announcement from University Communications clarified February as when the surrounding pedestrian walkways will be closed, with the vacated building to be razed in April. It is being torn down to make way for the planned $105 million nursing and instructional building.
Award-winning novelist and former North Carolina poet laureate Fred Chappell said he wonders what the demolition will reveal. “When I first arrived in the UNCG English Department in 1964, I heard that the Chairman had repeatedly asked William Faulkner to speak at what was then the Women’s College, and that, after many invitations, Faulkner wrote curtly back that he didn’t do that kind of thing.” The legend, Chappell said, was that Faulkner’s dismissive note was placed in the cornerstone of the new building. “So when they tear McIver down, maybe they’ll find it.”
Ian McDowell is the author of two published novels, numerous anthologized short stories, and a whole lot of nonfiction and journalism, some of which he’s proud of and none of which he’s ashamed of.