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Woodburn Hall

Woodburn

Photo by Jennifer Shephard


WRITTEN BY  PAM PRITT

The dusty, hidden history of Woodburn Hall is chronicled in generations of students’ names etched in the plaster, and written in lead pencil and permanent marker on the walls of the small cupola room that looks out onto the Monongahela River. Amid the scramble of letters and dates, neither the famous nor the infamous are recognizable, but Mountaineers all, they crept up the steps just to say they’d been here.

The cupola has been closed to students for a few years now, but dates as recent as last year prove their stealth in reaching this tiny room with a view. 

1800s

1800s

Photo by Raymond Thompson Jr.

Oct. 10, 1882, is just about the oldest legible date that can be found in Woodburn’s cupola, but the autograph is lost to generations of others inclined to leave their marks on WVU.

Neat cursive penmanship sets off the date Oct. 10, 1899, another name lost to the generations who came after. Almost bursting at the seams when it opened, Woodburn Hall was far from complete. The North Wing was slowly being built when the now-anonymous signator wrote his name on the west-facing wall. The North Wing was completed in 1900, the name Woodburn Hall was adopted and the street through University grounds (now University Avenue) was paved with bricks as the new century began.

Early 1900s

Early 1900s

Photo by Raymond Thompson Jr.

Long before “Ivy League” became synonymous with higher education, the Class of 1903 planted ivy in front of Woodburn Hall, in a tradition that came to be known as “Ivy Day.” A. Hodges walked up the steps to the cupola that year and added his name to the growing list of pilgrims who felt compelled to leave his signature on the walls of Woodburn. The student population continued to grow and by 1906, just after M. Fletcher signed his name in the cupola on September 30, 1905, the need for a South Wing became evident.

Woodburn was the University’s “nerve center” with the advent of the telephone switchboard, which was installed in early 1910 beneath the clock tower. About five telephones were the hub of communication for the whole campus when W. Crawford signed his name on the wall in 1911.

The sunlight’s rotation around the cupola’s two windows has been nearly as unkind to old signatures as have later adventurers. Faded names without dates and dates accompanied by illegible names appear from time to time. As it is with July 17, 1929, the last of the “Roaring Twenties.”

As another world war loomed, Raymond Hirenbarger added his name to the cupola rolls in 1941. Dick Watts signed his name in the cupola in 1947, the year the Board of Governors refused an architect’s plans for what would become Evansdale, the Coliseum and the Arboretum.

1950s-1970s

1950s-1970s

Photo by Raymond Thompson Jr.

Just a few years before Charles Winch signed his name in the Woodburn cupola in November 1957, the venerable old building was again in peril. Woodburn Hall was in “poor physical condition,” according to one historical article, and since Armstrong Hall was complete, the timing seemed right. 

The 1960s and early 1970s were turbulent times for WVU. Protests about student rights, civil rights and the war in Vietnam were all done in the shadow of the University’s most historic buildings. And as the ’60s faded into the ’70s, William Romine met Bertha Jo Coplin on Jan. 17, 1969, before history class, according to a message written in red on the wall facing the clock tower. (They married Dec. 22, 1971, but their addition to the signatures, complete with a heart, happened in 2005 on their 34th wedding anniversary.)

In 1973, Woodburn Hall became the first of the University’s historic structures to be placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

1990s-Present Day

1990s-Present Day

Photo by Raymond Thompson Jr.

Exterior renovation didn’t begin until 1990. The ivy planted in 1903 and again in 1930 was the first to go, and all the brick was cleaned, repointed, repaired and replaced as needed. Woodburn’s roof was replaced with slate matching the original.

International students have found their way to the cupola, including Mazza Pietro and Giovanni Cimino from San Giovanni, Italy, in an undated autograph, and Stanislas Niyonteze from Rwanda, who signed his name in 2005.

Katherine Szepelak not only signed her name in 2011, she added a self-portrait. And one student with feminine handwriting eschewed signing her name, but left her story of climbing to the cupola to enjoy the view, her wish to be alone and her fear the workmen she could hear would interrupt her reverie, as well as her fear that she would now be late for her political science class. When she hears “the bell,” she realizes she’s now an “absence.”

From its completion until Brian Meredith signed his name on September 2, 2016, and for future students, the cupola at Woodburn was, is and will be a destination for the adventurous and a keeper of WVU history. 
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