When Ruffner Was New

by Lynn Bell

Ruffner Hall was closed in January 2013 for an 18-month renovation that will gut the building and replace all its mechanical and plumbing systems. Interior walls will be reconfigured, carpeting and noise-abating surfaces will be added, and furnishings will be updated.

Carolyn CallahanCarolyn Callahan
Jim EspositoJim Esposito
Dan HallahanDan Hallahan
Rebecca KneedlerRebecca Kneedler
Herb RichardsHerb Richards

To the building’s detractors—and there are many—renovation is woefully past due. Yet, exactly 40 years ago when Ruffner was new, it was widely hailed as a contemporary, state-of-the-art home for an up-and-coming education school.

It was the ’72-’73 winter break when Curry faculty, staff, and graduate students moved into a big, bright building where everything was clean and fresh. Faculty scattered around Grounds were brought together for the first time, and many of them were thrilled with the large classrooms and colorful metal furniture in their offices.

The BR Years: Before Ruffner

To understand the enthusiastic response to Ruffner Hall, it helps to understand where Curry faculty and students had been. Peabody Hall, built in 1914, had its advantages, located on the Quad not far from Alderman Library. By the mid-1960s, though, the building had become old and dingy, lacked air conditioning, and was not nearly large enough to accommodate the growing faculty.

“The offices were the pits,” remembers Dan Hallahan, Charles S. Robb Professor of Education. Hired in 1971, he was a member of the special education faculty, which had been relegated to the basement ReservedParkingalong with the counselor education professors.

Hallahan’s desk was located nearer the door in a shared office with Chuck Heuchert. The room was so narrow that Hallahan had to pull his chair up close to his desk every time Heuchert or his visitors needed to squeeze by behind him.

“Jim Kauffman’s office had pipes running through it,” Hallahan recalls, “and there was a drainspout outside his window that sometimes clogged and flooded the window well.”

Five professors hired in 1969 were placed in a narrow temporary building behind Peabody, called the Miller Annex. Herb Richards, who recently retired from Curry’s educational psychology program, claims the building had previously been used by the Medical School for storing cadavers. His colleagues in the annex included Jennings Waggoner, Harry Strang, Peter Hackett, and Mike McMahon. After Hal Burbach arrived in 1970, they became known as the Miller House Six.

Curry Culture

The period between the mid-1960s and mid-1970s encompassed not only an era of social and cultural upheaval in our nation but one of rapid growth and change for the Curry School, which was then the Curry Memorial School of Education. In her book on the history of the Curry School, Ellie Wilson describes the mission espoused by Frederick R. “Ted” Cyphert when he became dean in 1968:

He believed that lessening the divide between theory and practice was critical to the Curry School’s growth as an institution of importance. His emphasis on research reflected a desire for legitimacy in an era when schools of education continued to be under fire, and Cyphert was anxious to create a leadership role for the Curry School. During his six-year administration, he advanced faculty efforts in educational research, supported the expansion of many programs, and nearly tripled the size of the faculty.i [Italics added]

Carolyn Callahan joined Curry’s educational psychology faculty in fall 1973, just six months after Ruffner Hall opened. She says she was lured here by the notion that the Curry School was growing and changing and becoming a better place.

“I really felt like I belonged here,” she says. “The special education group was incredible. People were making names for themselves, doing research, getting grants. Women undergraduates had recently been admitted. The whole university was changing. It was an exciting time to be here.”

Plans for a new education building designed by Houston architectural firm Caudill, Rowlett and Scott had been approved by the state in 1967. Budget issues and recurrent design changes delayed groundbreaking to 1970. The school had already outgrown the building before the first shovel hit dirt.

A Big Step Up

In the winter of ’72-’73 the modern-looking structure with big, airy classrooms and freshly painted offices felt like big step up from historic Peabody Hall, remembers Rebecca Kneedler, Senior Associate Dean for Academic Partnerships and International Initiatives. She was a doctoral student in Curry’s special education program at the time. “It was fresh and clean and shiny new,” she says, “and we were coming out of the basement.”

Jim Esposito, associate professor of administration and supervision, had already spent his first year at Curry in a first-floor Peabody office.  “My first impression of Ruffner was that it was an upgrade, with cutting edge technology,” he says. “Everything was new. Most of the offices had some kind of window. And we had a nice education library.”

Of course, for months after it opened the structure was still referred to only as the “education building.”  Not until April 1976 was it officially dedicated as Ruffner Hall.

Some of the offices in the education building were shared. Hallahan initially shared a second-floor office with Don Ball, separated by a bookshelf. He remembers teaching “Intro to Special Ed” classes to 130 students in the basement-level auditorium. Those were the days before the chairs began squeaking and groaning with every movement.

Not every professor was happy with the new quarters, but it was the early 70s, and camaraderie abounded nonetheless. The school was full of young, new energetic faculty, some of whom enjoyed playing bocce ball in the grass behind Ruffner Hall on Friday afternoons.

You Work in a Prison?

Despite the fact that Ruffner Hall’s architect was considered one of the finest then designing schools buildings,ii its contemporary 70s style never fit in with the rest of the university architecture.

Callahan remembers as a new professor driving her grandmother down Emmet Street and pointing out the location of her office. “You work in a prison?” her grandmother asked when she saw the plain, boxy structure. Exterior aesthetics were the least of the building’s problems, though.

Less than a year after its completion, bricks began falling off the foot-high wall perimeter atop of the building and had to be buttressed to protect passersby.

Sited on a hillside, Ruffner soon began to settle—in Richards’ words “listing toward Emmet Street.” Callahan remembers one morning feeling a draft at her feet in her first-floor office, which was adjacent to Richards’. She looked down to find a quarter-inch crack opened between the wall and the floor—a problem eventually ameliorated with the installation of rubber molding.

The building’s flat roof posed drainage problems after every hard rain, and water pooled in the ceiling tiles of a two second-floor rooms.

“The elevator was faulty from the beginning,” Callahan reports. It stranded her between floors on only her third time riding in it, and from then on she always took the stairs.

Then there were matters of personal preference. “No one liked the high windows on the first floor offices,” Hallahan remembers, and Richards says some faculty members were disappointed that the windows could not be opened.

Even worse, the layout of the offices was isolating. Faculty members kept their doors closed to shut out the hall noise, and there were few public spaces for conversation and collaboration.

To accommodate the overcrowded conditions, renovations began almost immediately. Center hallways were closed off to create new offices. Rooms were rearranged. Since the heating and cooling system was not designed to accommodate renovation, room temperature varied widely and remained a perennial problem. Richards, with his wry sense of humor, claims he used to issue weather reports to his classes.

And yet…

Ruffner Hall clearly has had its limitations, though they were never enough to hinder the Curry School’s continually rising national reputation.

“Despite Ruffner Hall’s dreary physical space, Curry was still able to attract and educate countless outstanding students for almost 40 years,” notes Hallahan. “Seems to me, this is an excellent example of substance over style.”

In less than two years, we will see how much more can happen inside a building whose interior is designed for the needs of a 21st-century education school.

Read about the renovation of Ruffner Hall.


i Wilson, E.V. (2005). The Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia: 1905-2005. (p. 93)

ii Ibid. (p. 90)

When Ruffner was Renovated