Wittenberg Magazine P.O. Box 720 Springfield, Ohio 45501-0720
Phone: (937) 327-6141 Fax: (937) 327-6112
Myers Hall: Mosaic of Memoriesstory by Karen Saatkamp Gerboth '93
To see Myers Hall standing gracefully in the center of campus is to see Wittenberg’s symbol, its history and its tradition beautifully blended into one. But behind her red-brick exterior dwells a storied past, complete with initiation ceremonies, famous people, ghostly tales, student pranks and devoted alumni.
Travel back in time and experience the Myers of yesteryear — its growth, its residents, its changes and the plans for its future.
“My first thoughts of Myers deal with images of a stately but aging structure located on a picturesque treed hillside — a creative subject for an artist to paint or a photographer to apply his skills in capturing the beauty of the illuminated pillars against a dark evening sky.”
Standing near one of the student rigged, mattress-covered ends of Myers’ first floor corridor, freshman Max McKitrick ’39 prepared for the journey of his college career. He had worked hard to get to Wittenberg, even earning a scholarship along the way, and now he was here, anxiously awaiting his fate.
Fellow Myers Hall freshmen stood near him, surveying their surroundings and the situation at hand. From their west-end vantage point, they could see the dorm’s upperclassmen lined up along the north and south walls of the hall, stretched out like a human shield.
In their hands, McKitrick surmised, were barrel staves, and in that moment, the object of the dorm initiation ceremony became clear — avoid getting slapped by the staves during a run from one padded end to the other, and the current residents would welcome those spry students into Myers. McKitrick was ready.
Soon he and the other freshmen assumed a collective stance, and within seconds, the starting signal sounded.
Like a medieval rite of passage, the new students scampered across the hall, sprinting at full speed from end to end and back again, trying to evade the staves’ strikes.
Laughter and screams filled the floor that day in 1935, and like many of his friends, McKitrick survived. Later that day, he received “membership” into Myers, a hall that today hides a rich cache of tradition, timeless legends and treasures spanning more than 150 years.
“Myers was very special to me,” McKitrick says. McKitrick would later partake in a second initiation into the Dorm League, an early fraternal organization reserved for those men living in Myers Hall. “I made a lot of lifelong friends living there.”
Years earlier, however, Wittenberg’s first structure lacked much of the character and convenience that attracted later generations. Prolific Ohio writer Lloyd Douglas, Class of 1900, for example, remembered the Old Dorm differently.
In a 1974 Wittenberg Torch article, Douglas was quoted as saying:“I had just bought, for $20, the entire contents of a room on the fourth floor of the men’s dorm; a bed, a worn-out mattress, desk, desk chair, two very shabby upholstered chairs, a small coal stove, a coal scuttle, a shovel, a washstand with a large nose and a pitcher with a nose missing, and a very dirty, tattered home-woven rag carpet. It was indeed a rag carpet.”
Douglas later added that the “old dormitory was certainly no place for an ambitious youngster who dreamed of making something of himself.”
Despite such a Spartan existence, Douglas went on to become one of Wittenberg’s best-known authors, penning 13 books, including The Robe and Magnificent Obsession.
Some speculate that the Old Dorm, with its early rustic charm and stately atmosphere, encouraged Douglas’ creativity. Others hint that the hardship of living there created a resistance to failure as it apparently did for wordsmiths Isaac Funk, Class of 1860, and Adam Wagnalls, Class of 1866.
Myers Hall and Wittenberg were in their infancy when Funk arrived on campus in 1856. Just 11 years earlier, Ezra Keller, Wittenberg’s first president, had scouted out he spot for the college and the college’s first structure.
The hilltop site was then cleared of trees, and construction began in 1845-1846.
Under the supervision of a local builder, students and faculty performed most of the labor for the first wing of the dormitory, which was modeled after a dormitory at Keller’s alma mater, Gettysburg College.
The college held classes in nearby First Lutheran Church during that time. In 1846, the board of directors met for the first time on campus, where the soon-to-be college edifice stood without a roof.
A year later, the east wing was completed, and in 1849, builders laid the structure’s cornerstone. Lack of funding delayed construction until the spring of 1850, but by the winter of 1851, the “Cradle of Wittenberg” was completed using stone excavated from the southwest part of the campus.
The total cost was $28,000. This all-in-one dormitory, classroom building, chapel and meeting place greeted Funk and later Wagnalls when they arrived in Springfield in the mid-1800s.
Back then, students complained of trudging pot-bellied stoves, wood, and later coal, up five flights of stairs for heat, and then bringing the ashes back down. They lamented the daily ritual of coaxing an old-wooden pump for cold water.
They bewailed the need to build fires every morning. Like the entire area of Springfield, wrote Harold Lentz in his History of Wittenberg College, the Wittenberg of ante-bellum days possessed no such luxuries.
Yet, fun still prevailed in the all-male Myers Hall, then known as Recitation Hall. The Wittenberger indicates that students partook in the “occasional rolling of cannon balls, bricks and the like up and down the halls and stairways, water duels, room stackings and initiations.”
Traditions also soon developed during these years. One such tradition involved the stoves. The Wittenberger reports that every time a stove became red-hot, tradition held that it should fall over.
If a student owned one that did not fall over, the student “became the object of envy, and plots to reduce him to the common level were laid.” Despite such pranks, the danger of fire was always real in Myers.
The late Rev. Willard Hackenberg, Class of 1901, for example, recalled a disastrous prank that could have ended in catastrophe.
“Two students from Indiana decided to have some real excitement and set fire to the coal bins,” located at the rear of the dorm, Hackenberg explained.
“What a fire that was! Think of the many tons of coal that were burned. ... The Springfield Fire Department came with great force, but because the water pressure was so low, all the firemen could do was protect the dorm.
They had to allow the coal and the bins to burn, using all the water on hand to keep the very hot flames from reaching the most important building.”
Such was the era of dormitory life enjoyed by Myers’ early residents, including Funk and Wagnalls, both of whom would later compile the famous Standard Dictionary of the English Language.
More than 50 years would pass before the Old Dorm would take the name it claims today. In 1916, according to reports, the Myers families of Ashland provided $20,000 for an extensive renovation, including new floors, new paint, the removal of chimneys, and the addition of the pillars and portico Ezra Keller once envisioned.
The outside was also repainted in keeping with historical records, which confirm that the brick building was originally painted in 1866, the same year the college added a slate roof and constructed stone steps and a platform.
In the fall of 1916, records also show that Harry Swearingen opened the campus’ first cafeteria in the hall. To the students’ delight, meals were served at all hours in the new cafeteria.
The menu included various kinds of soups, pies, vegetables, soft drinks, sandwiches and even ice cream cones, all at moderate price, according to the Torch.
Little did Swearingen know that his decision to open a cafeteria would later lead to stolen trays for sledding down the Hollow and “borrowed” cups for personal use, among other chow-time-related stories.
Indeed, as the 1920s neared, Myers Hall now “blossomed forth with the stately and dignified appearance, which the founders of Wittenberg had meant that it should have,” Lentz notes.
“In the center of campus, towering high above all other buildings, it makes a splendid impression upon the visitor to Wittenberg as he enters the campus through the main entrance.”
On Oct. 1, 1918, however, two years after the 1916 dedication of the newly named hall and the addition of the cafeteria, the Student Army Training Corps (S.A.T.C.) arrived at Wittenberg to prepare its young men for battle in World War I, according to The Wittenberger. The invasion dealt a cruel blow to the residents of Myers.
“The ruthless invaders of our abode unmercifully changed overnight our cozy dens into prison cells,” noted a 1919 Wittenberger.
“Furniture was broken, personal belongings transported to the fifth floor, in fact everything that was owned by the Old Dorm’s staunch supporters, was confiscated as contraband of war.
New students of Wittenberg learned to look upon old Myers Hall as mere Army barracks, and they learned to ‘love’ it as such. And for three long months the good times and the traditions of the good Old Dorm were cast aside and a reign of terror was established.”
During World War I, Myers also provided minimal “hospital” services for a short period of time to soldiers sick with influenza, explains Ken Dickerson ’51, retired director of special projects and a Wittenberg historian.
“The influenza pandemic in 1917-18 that killed between 20 and 100 million people worldwide struck hard on the Wittenberg campus,” Dickerson says.
Though the number of flu-related casualties in Myers was minimal thanks to dedicated volunteers who nursed the soldiers back to health, some residents today still think specters from that era haunt the hall.
The advent of the S.A.T.C. also affected the Myers Hall Dorm League as an organization and forced it to reorganize in 1919. Undaunted, the League quickly initiated 14 men that year and threw what some considered to be the most successful Dorm League party in Myers’ history.
The Wittenberger reports that the college spirit began to reassert itself and “a good start had been made to prepare the way for the rush of men who are bound to come to Wittenberg next year.”
Nearly 30 years would pass before Myers received another much-needed renovation. For some, the overhaul could not come soon enough, according to The Wittenberger, which notes that “Myers’ hacked walls and scarred floors bore testimony to the fact that ‘boys had been boys’ all these years.”
The first part of this renovation occurred in 1946 behind the hall and took the shape of a basic, wood-framed dining facility. Desiring to construct a gathering place filled with food and amenities appealing to students, Wittenberg officials then decided to build the college’s first Student Union adjacent to Myers.
The project would cost $18,000, but the builders faced a few frustrating situations during the construction process.
The builders also experienced difficulty in acquiring the necessary materials, including booths and a soda fountain.
Though eventually procured, the funds were so diminished by the time the Union became operational that the university could not afford a jukebox. Fortunately, the Dean of Women at the time managed to persuade the Wittenberg Women’s League to donate a second-hand one.
Despite the ordeal, the Union opened, and students quickly flocked to the site to enjoy hamburgers, hotdogs, cold sandwiches and fountain goods, among other items. Don Bowman ’50 remembers the Union well.
“You could buy toasted cheese and play hearts, euchre and bridge there,” he says. Following the unveiling of the Union, Wittenberg then decided to reconvert the first floor of Myers to living quarters for the dorm’s male residents.
By 1953-54, the college had achieved this goal, but four years later, Wittenberg decided to undertake an even bigger remodeling effort of the Old Dorm. The year was 1958, and to accomplish this task, the college would need $100,000.
“It would cost us more than $4,000 a bed to build a new dormitory,” the late President Clarence Stoughton stated in a Torch article, “but we can for about $1,000 a bed, convert Myers Hall into one of the most beautiful dormitories in the country.”
Stoughton also noted that such a thorough renovation would make the dorm fire-resistant, provide it with built-in furniture and equipment, and allow 181 male students to occupy the dorm, which at the time had not been fully occupied due to unlivable conditions.
“We are doubly desirous of refurbishing Myers,” Stoughton explained, “not only because Myers is one of the sturdiest college buildings existent, but also because it has been a symbol of Wittenberg for 113 years.”
Alumni responded. A committee of 15 alumni headed by the late H. Russell Hathaway Sr. ’24, a Cleveland-area physician and member of the Wittenberg Board of Directors, launched the $100,000 campaign effort to “modernize” Myers.
The effort succeeded and brought a new look to the dormitory in the form of built-in hardwood closets with matching desks and furniture in each room.
The remodeling effort also updated the hallways and lounges with a bright yellow and green motif, and added Old English furniture throughout them. The Torch at the time reported that such a remodeling helped “to maintain the dignity and tradition of Wittenberg’s first building.”
Its occupants at the time, however, probably didn’t think of the Old Dorm that way. To them, the new look just meant more space for more fun times in the hall they proudly called home. David Arnold ’59 certainly remembers some of those times.
“Take the shower ‘baptism’, another bit of wildness,” Arnold says. “I can wonder aloud if it was merely fun and games at the expense of a friend highly revered or, instead, a desperate effort to remedy certain olfactory affronts.”
Then there were the rooms themselves, Arnold recalls. “One afternoon, I was asked — summoned in fact to come upstairs with my camera to see a special room.
The request was made with great pride, and I was naturally curious how a college student could actually be proud of his accommodations,” Arnold says.
“But when the door upstairs opened, it was as if to a fully stocked ‘nearly new’ shop. Curios were everywhere. So, too, was some antique underwear and other former ‘stepped out-ofs.’
There was barely a square foot of unused space. ... I just stood there, took a picture or two, and envied the style of it all. It may have been the first time I had seen how it was possible to make a personal statement with ‘space.’
I admired how making a mess could be a creative effort, not merely the result of sloth. Here was room decoration raised to an art.”
Despite not living in Myers, Wittenberg women students at the time also enjoyed some laughs in relation to the hall. Mary Anne Lyders Felker ’55, for example, remembers a prank with the Myers Hall bell.
“In the 1950s, the Torch offices were located in the lower level of Myers Hall just down the hall from the Student Union,” Felker recalls. “A scarcity of ‘real’ news in the fall of 1953 led to a plan to ‘steal’ the victory bell from the Myers belfry.
President Stoughton and college business manager Louis Fitch were willing accomplices. Mr. Fitch, a former FBI agent trained to plan clandestine operations, showed the men on the Torch staff how to douse the lights in the northeast stairwell so that the bell could be spirited away in the darkness.
A waiting truck transported the bell to the college maintenance facility.“The Torch headlined the theft and stirred up some excitement,” Felker adds. “The business office offered a reward for the return of the bell.
The Hamma Seminary students were blamed for the theft because of prior pranks. But on Homecoming Weekend, the bell miraculously appeared in time to toll the victory of the football team.”
Almost 20 years would pass following the late 1950s remodeling before Myers would again receive a facelift. The year was 1979, four years after the National Register of Historic Places added Myers to its list, when the Old Dorm enjoyed another extensive renovation.
Restoration grants from the Ohio Preservation Office, combined with federal matching funds, allowed the renovation to begin. Workers sandblasted the exterior, repaired loose bricks and repainted the outside and the pillars, among other labor-intensive activities.
Another 10 years would slip by before Myers received another interior renovation and redecoration — its last of the century. Now, in the new millennium, Wittenberg’s signature building continues to beckon passers-by to admire her unique architecture and well-deserved prominence on the Wittenberg landscape.
Though older and a little weary, she still stands with grace atop her grassy knoll, and her white-framed windows still conceal the stories of those students who have called her modest accommodations home throughout the years. She is Myers Hall, and for many, she defined the Wittenberg experience.
“The beauty of Myers Hall,” Bob Facklam ’59 says, “is not only on the outside, but on the inside in providing a special setting that encourages lasting, meaningful relationships and experiences for students from near and far over the long, rich history of Wittenberg.”
Do you have a story to share about Myers Hall? If so, please let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org or by mail at P.O. Box 720, Springfield, Ohio 45501. We would love to hear from you.
Wittenberg Magazine P.O. Box 720 Springfield, Ohio 45501-0720
Phone: (937) 327-6141 Fax: (937) 327-6112