Written by: Dr. Sarah Wilkerson-Freeman, 2006
In the early morning hours of January 12, 1931, the Administration Building of the A&M College burned to the ground. Only a safe containing student and administrative records survived the blaze. The desperate call to rebuild was answered by a member of the board of trustees, Robert E. Lee Wilson (1865-1933), one of the largest landowners in Arkansas, and other local supporters of the college. Throughout 1931 and 1932, the structure took shape on the site of the past conflagration that could have meant the failure of the school, for the nation was in the midst of the Great Depression and funds were scarce.
Two Little Rock architects, Arthur Neal McAninch, an Arkansas native who built many churches and public buildings throughout the state, and John Reginald Petter, were chosen to build the new administration building. Petter, born in London, immigrated with his parents to the United States as a boy. In 1917, he was a student at Boston’s Massachusetts Institute of Technology where many of the architecture faculty had been trained at the Ecole de Beaux Arts in Paris prior to World War I. Petter personally designed the Art Deco stone relief that distinguishes Wilson Hall. The new building opened in 1932 and was named in honor of its most generous benefactor, R.E.L. Wilson.
The distinctive three-story yellow brick building housed the library, auditorium (complete with balcony seating), and administrative offices as well as the laboratories, kitchens, studios, sewing rooms, classrooms and offices that served all departments of the arts and sciences. Four-year B.A., B.S. and B.S.E. degree programs had been established in 1930, before the devastating fire, and Wilson Hall represented an extraordinary commitment to advancing public higher education in the Arkansas Delta despite tragedy and hard times. When the New Deal programs of the 1930s increased government support for public buildings, Wilson Hall became the architectural model for many campus structures that followed.
V.H. Kays, son of our first president, V.C. Kays, says Wilson Hall saved the university. The state was going to abolish many of the schools in the area but decided not to abolish ASU. "Frankly, by getting the state so far in debt (in building Wilson Hall), (the state) couldn't abandon it." "We had some other hard times at this institution, but that one was really getting close, he said.
For the next thirty years, Wilson Hall was a mainstay of the campus, primarily serving as home for the liberal arts and humanities while other disciplines found new homes in more modern structures. Campus renovations in the 1960s, marked by the removal of Wilson Hall’s library collections to their new home in Ellis Library, destroyed much of the beauty of the building’s interior. But the exterior’s attractions remain an important part of the university’s appeal and character. One Wilson Hall limestone relief, featuring a nude male contemplating a scroll, artwork created to designate the entrance of the former library, has become an iconic figure on campus as it symbolizes ASU’s dedication to quality higher education and the historic place of Wilson Hall in that on-going endeavor.