Historic JMU landmark Wilson Hall is scheduled to reopen August 26 after its $16 million renovation. The construction project began in January 2018 with the goal of housing the history department.
The reconstruction of Wilson led to a technological upgrade the faculty hopes will strengthen the learning experience of its students. This upgrade includes a cutting-edge history studio with at least three 3D printers, virtual reality capabilities and a podcast booth made out of the building’s original money vault.
The history department has been awaiting its move into Wilson since discussion of the project began in late fall 2016. Academic Liaison to the Project Chris Arndt worked closely with the workers from Nielsen Builders, the company that originally constructed Wilson in 1931, and the department faculty.
“We consulted a lot with folks on campus on what we can do that will make it possible to improve the technological aspects of the building,” Arndt said. “The folks I worked with who do building projects on this campus are phenomenal. They are great unsung heroes of the university.”
The history department faculty was moved into Wilson the first week of August. Department Head Maura Hametz is excited about the space because of the addition of modern learning technology and the preservation of the building’s historic character.
“It’s a little bit humbling because it’s kind of awesome when you walk in,” Hametz said. “It’s a beautiful marriage of the old and the new, and the faculty is super excited to welcome the students and everyone to the building.”
Wilson was reconstructed under certain guidelines as a historic building, so the builders were required to keep as many historical features as possible. The original palazzo floors are almost completely intact, and the high ceilings and tall windows continue to reflect the architectural style of the 1930s. The plaque from Wilson’s original construction has also been incorporated into the building.
The building has three new forty-seat classrooms and two new twenty-seat seminar classrooms, as well as a large exhibition space to be used by both the department and the university. Classrooms were made more flexible with the inclusion of dual projection capabilities and smartboards. New chairs and desks with wheels will also allow for easier classroom reconfiguration. History professor Steven Reich is eager to see how students’ learning experiences will be enhanced by the changes.
“It’s not a dark, stark, sterile, cinderblock room like we’ve had for so many years,” Reich said. “It’s not a room in which the furniture overwhelms the size of the room because the rooms are so small. It will be much easier for me as a professor to move around the room rather than be pinned against the wall.”
Because of the way the space has been designed, the building will be able to adapt for the department to grow and change in the future. The faculty hopes the reconstruction will attract potential history majors and invite social interaction in a way the other buildings failed to do. Finishing touches are being made around the building, but Wilson is expected to be ready to welcome students on the university’s first day of classes.
“Wilson is the centerpiece of the campus,” Hametz said. “What we’re hoping to do is to have history here and maintain it as an iconic building on campus but also to welcome the community here — the students, faculty and staff — and make it a center of learning and collaboration and a model for what we can do all over campus as an academic building.”
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