Wilson Hall, JMU’s iconic building on the Quad, will become home to the university’s history department following its $16 million reconstruction. These renovations include the addition of several amenities, such as new technologies and more flexible classrooms to enhance both the teaching and learning experiences.
The architectural discussion of the building’s renovations began in late fall of 2016 and construction began this past January. Nielsen Builders, the company that originally constructed Wilson, is managing the renovation process.
“It’s basically taking space that has been administrative space to academic space,” Director of Communications and University Spokesman Bill Wyatt said. “As the university grows and the number of students grow, so do the faculty and academic programs on campus.”
Since its initial construction in 1931, the building has housed the university's presidents, the Office of the Registrar, a post office, the art department, a radio broadcast studio and various student organizations. The history department was chosen to occupy Wilson following its reconstruction because its needs fit within the space available, and administration wanted to have an academic department at the center of campus.
The history faculty is currently housed in several different buildings, including Jackson and Cleveland Halls. It’ll be the first time in over 30 years that the department will be under one roof. Andrew Witmer, chair of the history department committee, has worked with the architects and administration to make sure the opinions of teachers are heard, including their thoughts on design and how classrooms can be improved.
“They’ve really welcomed history’s input, which is nice,” Witmer said. “I love the way that the project is bringing together a beautiful old building with new technologies — a thorough renovation.”
Not only will it be convenient for students to have the entire history faculty in one space, but new technologies in Wilson Hall will also enhance the learning and teaching experiences. A new cutting-edge history studio will display innovative history projects by both students and teachers using 3D printing and virtual reality — technology that can also adapt to different teaching styles.
“We’ll have well-designed classrooms with a lot of flexibility in how we set them up,” Witmer said. “And we’ll have plenty of seating area outside the classrooms unlike Jackson Hall.”
Even with the inclusion of technology like 3D printing and VR, it’s the architects’ goal to maintain the historical character of the university’s signature building. Chris Arndt, an academic liaison to the construction project, has had a close working relationship with the history department and construction workers.
“In many ways [the project] represents a marriage of the type of heutagogy and educationalist institution JMU was when it opened, and where the university is going,” Arndt said. “It enhances the versatility of teaching and helps teachers look into the future.”
Wilson has been a major attraction at JMU for students, visitors and faculty since it was first constructed due to its central location and prominence. The history department is looking forward to welcoming anyone who chooses to explore its building, with public spaces to gather and scenic views of the Quad.
“People are drawn there,” Witmer said. “We want to take advantage of that as a department by showing people what we are doing and exposing them to different ways of doing history.”
Construction prohibits the public’s access to the building until the project is finished. The space is projected to be available for use in fall 2019.
“The people I’ve worked with are extremely collaborative, and we’re very fortunate to have them work here,” Arndt said. “The construction staff and people on campus who are helping with the project are terrific.”
Contact Kamryn Koch at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more coverage of JMU and Harrisonburg news, follow the news desk on Twitter @BreezeNewsJMU.