Texas Tech University

Historic Lecture Hall's Renovation Blends Former Grandeur, Future Functionality

Glenys Young

August 9, 2021

Chemistry 107 was upgraded as part of the Presidential Forum initiative.

The original Chemistry building at Texas Tech University is among the oldest campus facilities. When its construction was finished in 1929, the college itself was only four years old. So, of course, as we now approach the university's centennial, the Chemistry building also is getting on in years.

But as the saying goes: Everything old is new again.

That's certainly the case for one particular room, Chemistry 107. After being selected for a renovation through the Presidential Forum initiative, this historic lecture hall has now returned to its former grandeur while simultaneously getting a technological boost into the 21st century.

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‘Dim and confining'

Like the other early campus buildings, Chemistry was designed by architects Wyatt Hedrick and William Ward Watkin, according to the Operations Division's M.L. Smith, senior architect in engineering services, and Patricia Vitela, assistant managing director in planning and administration, who led the restoration.

“Although we do not have historical photos of the space, we can visualize the space's grandeur by looking at the original construction drawings and noting the architect's design of high ceilings, dramatic high windows and detailed millwork,” Smith said.

The original vision had to be gleaned from drawings because the room also had undergone a renovation in the 1980s that left the seats, flooring and front wall mauve – a color that was trendy at the time, but quickly became dated. The original windows and walls had been concealed behind plastic laminate covering and the ceiling lowered at the front of the room.

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“We believe all of these modifications were meant to improve acoustics and reduce glare,” Vitela said. But four decades later, the room felt dim and confining. The furniture was mismatched and in poor condition.

It was not at all the way a space with so much history behind it should look. You see, room 107 is, in many ways, an embodiment of the growth of Texas Tech.

Truly a historic place

When Henry Shine joined the Texas Tech faculty in 1954, as an assistant professor in what was then the Department of Chemistry & Chemical Engineering, room 107 was not used for chemistry classes. With its almost 200 seats, it was simply too big for the chemistry classes of the time.

“Most of the then-small faculty group taught sections of general chemistry in classes of about 30 students, and the classes were scattered all over the campus,” explained Shine, now a Horn Professor Emeritus.

But the same year Shine joined the department, another young chemist did likewise: Wesley William Wendlandt, whom the students soon nicknamed “W-cubed,” was appointed coordinator of general chemistry.

“W-cubed instituted the use of large classes of students, thus freeing up more faculty time for research and development of a graduate department,” Shine said. “In that way, 107 became used for large classes of general chemistry students.”

What kind of research advancements resulted from that change? On the academic side, the science of gravimetric analysis under Wendlandt and mechanistic organic chemistry under Shine. On the industrial side, the entire West Texas wine industry.

The small office just outside room 107, at the time connected to the lecture hall, belonged to Clinton “Doc” McPherson. His main duties were to take attendance and to produce experiment demonstrations as dictated by the lecturing faculty members. But in 1969, McPherson and Texas Tech horticulture professor Bob Reed began studying grapes. They concluded that West Texas was perfect for grape growing and, as history proved, they were right. Several years later, with help from two other Texas Tech chemists, Jerry Mills and Roy Mitchell, McPherson and Reed began experimenting with winemaking. From their humble beginnings in the Chemistry building grew a $13.1 billion enterprise.

Old and new again

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Such a historic room deserved to look the part – but it also needed to serve the needs of today's students and faculty members and those who will use the space in the future.

“We sought to include some of the traditional architecture in the spirit of the new design,” Vitela said.

The new renovation added natural light by restoring the windows in the room and enhancing them with remotely controlled blackout and diffuser shades. Craftsmen built solid oak panel doors to replace the hollow metal doors installed in the 1980s. A new acoustic material was installed that preserved the look of the original plaster wall finishes while meeting the sound levels recommended by an acoustic consultant.

To suit the technological needs of today and tomorrow, electrical power is provided at each student seat. An adjustable-height podium is equipped with the latest audiovisual technology and lighting control. In addition to a new laser projector and screen, the team added monitors throughout the room to accommodate student sight lines, while considering the potential glare from the windows.

Smith and Vitela say their favorite part of the renovation is the room's renewed comfort and functionality for its users.

“From demolition to the final product, it took more than seven months,” Vitela said. “But we were excited to share the final results with the campus community and enjoyed the positive feedback we have received.”