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Whitley Hall:
A Brief History of
TAMUC's High-Rise Dormitory

Commerce, Texas

by Joshua V. Chanin

I was previously the community director of Whitley Hall, and tasked with managing the daily operations of the 500-person residence hall and mentoring 15 student staff members. During my first year as Whitley's coordinator, residents snacked on delicious foods, enjoyed positive company, and digested material on stress relief, sexual and mental health, and drug abuse awareness during interactive programs. Big changes happened in my second year, including painting the hallway walls, mounting flat-screen TVs in the lounges, and installing a new $1 million HVAC system. I thoroughly enjoyed my 2-year tenure as the 'general manager' of Whitley, bonding with my staff during office hours and engaging in dynamic discussions with residents before they went to class. Since Whitley Hall recently celebrated its 50th anniversary and has had a list of hall directors and dormitory mothers before me, in this article I offer readers a brief history of Northeast Texas's tallest building which many students have called 'home.'

American universities' enrollment numbers exploded following World War II when young men and women returned from Europe and Asia, and stepped into the classroom as aspiring undergraduates. The student body at East Texas State Teachers College in Commerce (ETSTC) — commonly known as Professor Mayo's college for the poorer folk in rural Northeast Texas — swelled to over 4,000 students by the end of the 1940s. This was a 3,000-student increase in just 3 years. James Gilliam Gee, a former staff officer to George S. Patton, oversaw this period of growth and hungrily predicted a 25,000-30,000-student increase during the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. The anticipation of more students led to the administration's decision to construct many academic and athletic facilities in the early years of Gee's presidency, including the College Farm (1947), Student Union Building (1948), Field House (1951), and Gee Library (1959). During this flurry of brick and mortar, President Gee was nicknamed "ET's Great Builder." It was only a matter of time before the college needed to build more residence halls (the existing dormitories were filled to capacity). West Halls apartments for upperclassmen were built in the early 1960s, but alleviated the campus housing issue temporarily. Since skyscraper, "cookie-cutter dorms were relatively quick and inexpensive to build," according to art historian Carla Yanni, Gee opted to echo the decisions of other university presidents and, prior to his retirement in 1966, submitted a plan to construct a high-rise dormitory.

Texas A&M Commerce Whitley Hall Drawing
Whitley Hall Drawing

ETSTC's administration unanimously chose George L. Dahl, a Dallas architect who had designed 26 art deco-style buildings for the Texas Centennial Exposition in 1936, to oversee the structural plans for the new residence hall. The administrators were highly impressed by Dahl's professional credentials and willingness to listen to his clients' ideas. Moreover, Dahl already had an established, friendly relationship with ETSTC since he had designed Binnion Hall (1947) and Memorial Stadium (1950). Dahl sketched the first blueprint — titled Residence Hall - Unit J — at the end of 1966. The drawing depicted a striking structure atop a mound on the south side of campus, at the intersection of Culver Street and the highway. A white sidewalk wrapped around the dormitory like a rope and trees dotted the grassy areas at the front and side of the building. A sizable white canopy graced the front and rear entrances. The landscaping was impeccable, but the 12-story brick building was a monstrous, striking feature. Dahl had envisioned Unit J to have many modernistic touches, including wide-reaching glass windows and spacious floor plans. Inside, the central core was planned to house a small basement and 3 high-speed elevators. Additionally, the high-rise would have three 3 staircases, 2 of which were enclosed by glass panels on the east and west sides of the structure, and 1 in the center of the building. Gee's successor, D. Whitney Halladay, praised Dahl's sketch and quickly approved the plans.

Texas A&M Commerce Whitley Hall  president Sam Henry Whitley
Sam Henry Whitley, the third president of the college

The Board of Regents decided to name the proposed skyscraper dormitory Whitley Hall in honor of Sam Henry Whitley, the third president of the college. During his 22 years in the top office (1924-1946), Dr. Whitley enlarged the student body and physical plant, encouraged the growth of the athletics program (where the Lions captured many championship titles), hired the first faculty member with a Ph.D. in 1925, and steered the institution through the dark days of the Great Depression and World War II. Dr. Whitley suddenly died from a heart attack in October 1946, sending the campus into mourning. Beloved by the faculty and students, Dr. Whitley left behind a long-lasting legacy — it was no surprise why the Board chose to commemorate Sam Whitley.

The La Roe Construction Company of Dallas arrived on campus and construction on Whitley Hall began in the spring of 1969. The Farm was razed to make way for the dormitory. An assortment of trucks, cranes, and excavators later packed the landscape. Laborers placed the foundation and the steel pillars that created the building's framework gradually climbed towards the sky. The floors were stacked like pancakes and individual windowless units began to materialize. Whitley's bare skeleton received some substance in the fall when interior walls were assembled and large window panels were installed in floors 1 to 6. Since construction appeared to be going smoothly, the administration believed that the high-rise dormitory would be completed on schedule, prior to January 1, 1970. However, in October, the workers realized that Whitley Hall was tilting towards campus. After a review, it was concluded that the structure was being built on a swampy underground pool. Dahl quickly drew plans for a second building that would connect to the original and offer support, but these drawings were omitted due to budget difficulties. Also, the construction workers went on strike and turned to picketing on campus when La Roe disapproved their idea of labor unions and higher wages. Construction halted, agreements were settled, and work resumed in the winter of 1969.

Texas A&M Commerce Whitley Hall
Whitley Hall Under Construction

Texas A&M Commerce Whitley Hall

Texas A&M Commerce Whitley Hall
Whitley Hall in the1970s

By the end of January in 1970, exterior work was complete; the dormitory towered above campus and the City of Commerce, casting a long shadow over the tiny apartment buildings next door. Whitley Hall was a sight to behold at sunrise and sunset when the sun glistened from the wide windows and light flooded the bedrooms inside. The 146-foot residence hall was magnificent, groundbreaking, breathtaking. Work on the hall's interior began immediately afterwards. Painters and carpenters replaced the cranes and trucks, and furniture — which included twin mattresses, plush couches, nightstands, desks, tilting chairs, dressers, televisions, and pool tables — was delivered. Once the white and beige paint had dried, finishing touches were put in before Whitley Hall's grand opening in March 1970. The building had cost a whopping $2.9 million to construct (equaling $20.9 million in today's currency). Students gawked at the large lobby on the first floor, which included comfy couches and artistic wall decorations. Two furnished 2-bedroom apartments for the housing staff were also located on the first floor. The students lived in suite-style rooms on floors 2 through 12 (2 bedrooms shared a tiled bathroom/shower); Whitley Hall utilized a double-barreled hallway. Bedrooms had the modern amenities of the decade, which included electric outlets and hardline telephones. Moreover, each floor had 2 carpeted study rooms and a kitchen.
Despite a 616-person occupancy, Whitley Hall was only 70% occupied when it opened (and housed male students). The institution's housing department moved their offices from Henderson Hall to the much-larger first floor quarters on the west side of Whitley. In a desperate attempt to grow the number of campus residents, the administration publicized the top floor as "the hotel," which would accommodate prospective high school students and their parents. These future Lions must have been thrilled to spend the night on the twelfth floor of Whitley Hall, observe the night's stars, and truly experience residential life at the school (for an inexpensive charge of $5 per room/night). Additionally, guests of President Halladay were lodged in one of the 28 rooms on the top floor (prior to the completion of hotels in Hunt County in the 1990s).

Texas A&M Commerce Whitley Hall
Whitley Hall in the 1980s

Although Whitley Hall appeared to be majestic and picturesque, the dormitory was plagued with facility issues in the first summer. Many residents had originally complained about not having any water from the tap or showerhead; the plumbers concluded that the building's valves were not working properly. The building had also experienced several electrical failures. Whitley Hall was closed for repairs on July 9, and its summer occupants were temporarily moved to Sikes Hall (currently the Children's Learning Center). The dormitory reopened at the start of the 1970 fall semester. To avoid low occupancy numbers, female students were permitted to reside in Whitley Hall starting in January 1971. Following Halladay's sudden resignation in spring 1972, his successor, F.H. "Bub" McDowell (who was an alumnus), modernized the institution's public image, reconstructed the curriculum, and provided more assistance to minority students. Owing to McDowell's strategic plan and inexpensive tuition costs (really low according to Dr. Bill O'Neal), enrollment peaked in the fall of 1975 at 9,981 students. Whitley Hall (at 85% occupancy) was believed to have a bright future.

President McDowell firmly believed that enrollment numbers would continue to soar, and students would populate the many academic and residential facilities on campus. However, this anticipated growth was a dream, and enrollment at East Texas State gradually declined in the late 1970s and early 1980s. This was because of decreasing birthrates nationwide (and an increase in drugstore contraceptives), competition with other colleges in Texas, and high school students choosing to join the workforce instead of attending college. When McDowell retired in 1982, it was not unusual to see bleak hallways, half-empty classrooms, and desolate sidewalks on campus. Enrollment numbers became dangerously low by the mid-1980s-6,342 students. Since a majority of students lived in Hunt County, there was less of a demand for dormitory rooms. Whitley Hall was nothing more than a meatless shell as it struggled to lodge more than 50% occupancy in 1985. Some began to question the wisdom behind the administration's decision to build a mostly-empty, expensive dorm. Students jokingly labeled Whitley as a "12-story filing cabinet" and "Halladay's Motel."

Texas A&M Commerce Whitley Hall
Texas A&M Commerce Whitley Hall, 2020

Charles J. Austin, McDowell's successor, saved the institution from the chopping block in 1985 when the Legislature considered closing the school's doors. The student body swelled in the late 1980s and 1990s when the next president, Jerry D. Morris, encouraged international students to study in Commerce. Students from England, Italy, India, Brazil, China, France, South Africa, and Germany lived in the dorms. Whitley Hall dusted its cobwebs and maintained a healthy occupancy of 550 male and female students per year. President Morris also approved a major renovation project at Whitley, which included replacing the kitchens with laundry facilities and installing fire sprinklers in the bedrooms. Since the World Wide Web took the world by storm in the 1990s, the Whitley study rooms were equipped with computers and printers to better serve the technological needs of the students.

At the turn of the 21st century, Keith McFarland, Morris's successor, introduced "Meet & Greet the President," which allowed incoming students moving in to Whitley Hall to meet the president and faculty. Today, President Mark Rudin dons Lion gear and greets students and parents at the residence halls on move-in day. Following the September 11, 2001 attacks, Whitley's residents mourned by either lighting or darking the bedrooms to spell USA on the north and south sides of the dormitory. The residents continue to light the sky-rise dormitory every year to commemorate our selfless veterans and brave soldiers overseas. Since it is the only skyscraper in the area, county citizens are able to see the illuminated marvel. I proudly helped to coordinate "Light-Up Whitley" when I was the community director (and it was the most heartwarming and rewarding project I undertook during my tenure). In sum, the physical plant has significantly changed since Gee's and Halladay's early administrations (and the campus has had a name change-to Texas A&M University-Commerce). Many of the older dormitories have closed their doors since the start of the Covid-19 Pandemic, but Whitley Hall has remained standing as a proud testament to the university's strength and pride. May Whitley Hall stand for another 50 years…

Texas A&M Commerce Whitley Hall
Whitley Hall staff

© Joshua V. Chanin April 1, 2021 Guest Column

Chanin, Joshua. A Photographic History of Texas A&M University-Commerce (forthcoming).

Reynolds, Donald E. Professor Mayo's College: A History of East Texas State University (Commerce, Texas: East Texas State University Press, 1993).

Various Locust yearbooks, student scrapbooks, East Texan articles, photographs, and documents from the Samuel H. Whitley Papers, Velma K. Waters Library, Texas A&M University-Commerce
Author Biography:
Joshua V. Chanin is adjunct instructor of history and community director of Whitley Hall at Texas A&M University-Commerce. He received his M.A. in history from the University of Texas at Arlington, and specializes in the history of women and education in Texas.

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