May 24-June 6, 2002
Back Issues
Plans for arena pass ‘major milestone’
U.Va. chooses Chickering for student health plan
Miller Hall makes way for Special Collections Library
Baldacci: ‘What you do with what you have’ is what matters
Dudley honored with Sullivan Award

In Memoriam

Slight change in press’ name confirms University’s support
Call for nominations: Zintl leadership award
Elmaleh’s watercolors on exhibit
Summer schedule
Correction -- faculty salaries article
New Supervisor Orientation Program
U.Va. women encourage leadership

Miller Hall makes way for Special Collections Library

By Matt Kelly

Edward Thomas
Photos by Matt Kelly
Charlottesville artist Edward Thomas paints the destruction of Miller Hall from the front of Alderman Library. He paints local scenes daily and enjoyed capturing a sight as dramatic as a building demolition.

Miller Hall was part old building and part older building. As of May 13, it became no building, demolished to make way for the new Mary and David Harrison Institute for American History, Literature and Culture, home of the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library.

The original building was put up in 1868 under the supervision of chemist John W. Mallet, chair of the School of Chemical Technology and Agricultural Science. It served as the University’s first chemical laboratory and lecture room. Until Memorial Gymnasium was built in the 1920s, what would eventually be named Miller Hall represented the western edge of Grounds.

A floor plan drawn in 1916 indicates a strictly functional interior with irregular and asymmetrical partitions. The main entry was through a narrow off-center greenhouse. Early photographs of the building’s interior show students working in a purely utilitarian space.

As the analytical chemistry building, it housed a valuable and extensive collection, including Southern munitions from the Civil War, silk items and bronzes from the Orient and Europe, armor plate, steel from the Krupp works in Essen, Germany, and an array of chemical specimens.

Miller Hall display case
Workmen clear away the roof of Miller Hall to remove two oak-and-glass display cases from the attic. Originally built in 1876 by Henry Ward in Rochester, N.Y., the cases were part of the natural history display housed in Brooks Hall. The cases will be restored and returned to Brooks Hall.

That collection was lost when, at 4 a.m. on the morning of Jan. 26, 1917, the old hall was rocked by a series of explosions and a devastating fire. The stored gunpowder went off in three explosions about 15 minutes apart.

A third-year student named Spottswood Dabney Crenshaw III, the son of a prominent Richmond businessman, was arrested and charged with stealing $2,400 worth of platinum and torching the analytical chemistry building to hide the burglary. Crenshaw pleaded insanity and was housed for a while at the State Hospital for the Insane at Williamsburg. Three later trials each ended with a hung jury.

While the fire and explosions wreaked havoc, part of the building survived. In 1920, its shell was doubled in size with the addition of a second floor to house the biology program. The renovated structure was designed by Charlottesville architect Eugene Bradbury, whose office also designed the building which currently houses the Women’s Center. (That building had originally been designed as a tea room and post office.)

Bradbury’s design fit the University’s Jeffersonian style, including a new portico similar to the neoclassical portico of One West Range. Bradbury’s design was called “restrained and respectful of its setting on the Grounds of Mr. Jefferson’s University,” in a report commissioned by the Office of the Architect. Bradbury’s second-floor addition included a slate roof, reminiscent of the original hipped roof.

Bradbury organized the building with a central entrance hall leading to a double stair, a corridor separating offices on the east side from laboratories and lecture hall on the west.

Miller Hall rubble
The remains of Miller Hall are loaded into the back of a truck on the morning of May 14. Workers hosed down the rubble to minimize the dust. They also saved 5,550 bricks from the original building to be used for an interior walkway.

Samuel B. Miller’s name was placed on the building in the early 1920s after the School of Chemistry moved to Cobb Hall and the School of Biology was placed in the newly renovated building. Miller started life as a penniless, illegitimate child in Albemarle County, but died in 1869 as one of the richest men in the country, leaving money to U.Va. that eventually funded a biology professorship.

Despite the renovation, the growing department soon became cramped and, in 1929, there was a proposal to add a significant wing. The Board of Visitors nixed the idea, instead declaring Miller Hall “temporary,” to be replaced with something more in keeping with the architectural character of future buildings planned for grouping around that yard. The only significant change in the structure thereafter was the addition of a one-story block that housed two restrooms.

“I was a student there in 1961, and when you came through the front door, there were these display cases,” said Alton L. Taylor, professor of education at the Center for the Study of Higher Education and director of the Summer Session. “They had birds and natural history artifacts in them, but they were not very attractive because they weren’t being kept up.”

The cases were later stored in the building’s attic. A crane removed them through a hole in the roof before the building was demolished. They are to be restored and possibly relocated to Brooks Hall.

Taylor recalled that there were lecture rooms to the left of the entrance, faculty offices on the right and labs across the front of the building.

The building underwent minor changes in 1963 when the biology department moved to Gilmer Hall and Miller Hall became the Peabody annex of the School of Education. The Office of Undergraduate Admissions and the Office of Financial Aid moved there in 1972 after outgrowing space in the Rotunda, and remained there until moving to Peabody Hall last year.

Despite its history — and in a large part because of it — Miller Hall is not considered a significant structure. The building has gone through too many changes and so little remains of the original, utilitarian structure that the Board of Visitors again declared it expendable and ordered it demolished to make way for the new library.

The $26 million Mary and David Harrison Institute for American History, Literature and Culture will contain the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, which will house the University’s 300,000 rare books and 12 million manuscripts, valued at $350 million.

It will include four stories, two of them underground. On the lowest level, materials will be stored in 70,000 linear feet of compact shelving in a climate-controlled environment. The other underground floor will include reference and reading rooms, production facilities, administrative offices, an auditorium and a display of one of 25 existing copies of the Declaration of Independence, donated by the Smalls.

The two floors above ground will contain an entrance hall, exhibit gallery, gift shop, seminar and study rooms and offices for visiting scholars.

For information, see


© Copyright 2002 by the Rector and Visitors
of the University of Virginia

UVa Home Page UVa Events Calendar Top News UVa Home Page