Celebrating 100 years of Converse Hall
by Jennifer Cooper
They sat on a temporary floor and sang “How Firm a Foundation.” They were the 500 guests for the cornerstone-laying ceremony for Westminster College’s first building at its new site, a site surrounded for miles by sagebrush, willows, and little else. It was August 23, 1906. And in the 100 years since that day, Converse Hall has withstood everything from fire to fake snakes, all the while remaining Westminster‘s most beloved and honored ambassador.
The unique history of Converse Hall began at the turn of the nineteenth century when Westminster College, then named The Salt Lake Collegiate Institute, sought to move from its downtown location and become a more permanent and respected fixture within the state. At that time, Westminster was not only owned and operated by the Presbyterian Church, but heavily relied on its local and national membership for financial support. Park City mining magnate and loyal Presbyterian, Colonel William Montgomery Ferry, donated land on the 1300 East site; and John H. Converse of Philadelphia, also a loyal Presbyterian, contributed $20,000 of the $27,000 required for construction to begin on the building that would bear his name.
With the land and money in place, college and church officials selected a prominent Utah architect, Walter E. Ware, to design the building. They wanted a building that would be handsome on the outside and multifunctional on the inside. Time has proven Ware successful in fulfilling their wishes: Converse Hall has been home to many different campus facilities over the past 100 years including a chapel, a library, and the Courage Theatre. Even the “Do Flop Inn” student lounge had its first home in its basement.
The construction of the beautifully designed Converse Hall was completed in July 1907, but it remained empty and subject to vandalism for some years. College officials found themselves unable to provide furnishing, faculty, or heat for their new building and thus continued a vigorous campaign to raise the necessary funds. Westminster finally held its first class in Converse Hall in January 1911.
Years passed rather uneventfully, until the early morning hours of March 12, 1926, when the strength of both Converse Hall and the Westminster community was tested by a terrible fire. Students worked together with the fire department to put out the flames, but not before the upper stories were completely burned out, leaving only the exterior walls and the science labs in the basement. The fire destroyed much of the college's classroom and office space as well as its 14,000-volume library, which was, at that time, regarded as one of the finest private collections in the American West.
The dedication and commitment of the Westminster community proved unwavering. Both the University of Utah and the Salt Lake City Board of Education offered temporary classroom space, but the students opted instead to finish their academic year using both dormitories and the chapel. F. R. Payne, then president of the Board of Trustees, raised $50,000 for the rebuilding of Converse Hall in just one week. Ultimately, $300,000 (over 2 million in 2006 dollars) was raised, allowing for the complete rebuilding of Converse Hall within its original walls. As further testament to the dedication of the campus community, the work was completed during a single summer, and the newly reconstructed Converse Hall was open for classes by September 1926.
Converse Hall stood relatively unscathed until the mid-sixties when the ivy covering its facade started pulling out bricks and causing extreme damage. Frank Cox, financial vice president and Navy reservist, had access to gallons of paint used to seal the bottoms of Navy ships during WWII. In 1966, Cox ordered the ivy to be pulled off and the bricks to be coated with the protective sealant. The fact the generously donated sealant was pink did not deter the administration from protecting its beloved building, and Converse Hall remained “Pepto Bismol Pink” for over 20 years.
In 1988, an extensive restoration of Converse Hall began, spearheaded by Steve Crane, a partner in Salt Lake City-based VCBO Architecture and a Westminster alumnus. Many projects were associated with the restoration: Crane and his crew painstakingly pulled out and replaced hundreds of the ivy-damaged bricks and oversaw the removal of the pink paint. Crane also removed several fake snakes he found on the roof of the building; they had been used as a humane but unsuccessful way to scare pigeons away many years prior. Crane described the Converse Hall restoration project as a labor of love, a three-year undertaking only a Westminster alumni would have had the heart to take on.
Crane is not alone in his adoration of Westminster’s first building. The image of Converse Hall has conjured up fond memories for many Westminster alumni both young and old. And the special building receives attention from beyond the Westminster community. Converse Hall is one of the oldest educational buildings in Utah, is listed on the National Registry of Historic Sites, and is more widely recognized by the Salt Lake City community as belonging to Westminster College than any other campus building.
Commenting on Converse Hall’s impact over the past 100 years, Westminster President Michael Bassis remarked, “Converse Hall is special to many people and for many reasons. We are fortunate to have such an architecturally outstanding and historically rich building on our campus. And as Westminster continues to grow and thrive, it’s important we recognize and celebrate the building that has played such an important part in the college’s history.”
In recognition of Converse Hall’s contributions over the past 100 years, President Bassis will host Westminster alumni and friends for a 100th birthday celebration featuring Westminster historian, Dr. Douglas Brackenridge, on Friday, October 6, 2006. Guests for this Converse Hall party will not have to sit on a temporary floor or sing “How Firm a Foundation,” but they will be singing “Happy Birthday” to our longtime friend and ambassador.
For more information on Converse Hall and the history of Westminster College, see Westminster College of Salt Lake City: From Presbyterian Mission School to Independent College by R. Douglas Brackenridge.