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Mortar and Memory: Virginia Tech Ponders a Building's Future

April 27, 2007

College campuses, more than most places, embody the memories, feelings, and even identities of the people who spend formative years on their grounds. Even the most banal items -- a bike rack or stone steps outside a building -- can bring on a rush of reminiscence.

"Each brick in a campus has a history," said Ishwar K. Puri, chairman of the engineering science and mechanics department at Virginia Tech. "You change the railing on a staircase and people notice."

Now he and others at Virginia Tech must grapple with the history and legacy of Norris Hall, which Mr. Puri describes affectionately as "my home" and clinically as "the place where events transpired." He was there on the second floor on April 16 when Seung-Hui Cho, armed with two handguns, walked through the halls and shot dozens of people.

Mark G. McNamee, the provost and vice president for academic affairs at Virginia Tech, recently announced that Norris Hall would never again hold classes in its current form.

But whether Norris Hall will be renovated, razed, or transformed into a memorial for the dead is uncertain. Memorializing other tragedies, on and off campuses, has often been a difficult process, marked by contention and tumult. Virginia Tech, a place steeped in tradition and peppered with structures dedicated to those killed in far-off wars, will likely struggle to find a way to honor those killed close to home.

"The responsibility on our shoulders is of great magnitude," Mr. Puri said. "Although we won't be defined by what happened, the decisions that we make in response to that incident are very important for the future of the department, certainly after I am department head, even a half century down the road."

A Beloved Building

Norris Hall, which opened in 1962, is named for Earle Bertram Norris, a former dean of engineering whom few people on the campus, even those close to the engineering department, remember. Encompassing roughly 70,000 square feet of classroom and research space, it is boxy and L-shaped, with a limestone skin that matches the campus's neo-Gothic architecture.

If a key value in real estate is location, Norris is prime in its central spot on the campus, just off the wide, grassy space known as the Drillfield. Even though Norris had become outdated in many ways, professors had built individualized research spaces in the building over the past 40 years, Mr. Puri said. And many of them had come to love the site.

"I have talked to people who have gone into the building, who weren't there during the episode, who said that they broke down to see how violated the place was," Mr. Puri said.

Since the shooting, Mr. Puri has talked with colleagues, students, and alumni about what to do with Norris. One student who was wounded during the shootings said he would have no problem going back into the building. Others said they want nothing to do with the place.

"Although it saddens me to say this, it is quite possible that the building will be demolished and that a new building will be built," Mr. Puri said.

Concern for maintaining the momentum and prestige of the highly respected engineering science and mechanics program has been paramount among faculty members and alumni, the chairman said. Some have suggested that Norris Hall could be replaced with a memorial and a state-of-the-art research facility. Others have suggested building a new hall and naming it in honor of Liviu Librescu, the professor who was killed as he barricaded his classroom door, giving students time to escape. The university might also preserve the facade of Norris Hall and build a memorial around it.

Raising money for such projects might be relatively easy, with the public and alumni rallying around the university after the crisis. In fact, the Hokie Spirit Memorial Fund, which will be used to build memorials and assist the families of victims, has already raised $1.5-million.

But a new facility should not be a "fishbowl," Mr. Puri said. "It should not be a place where people come to take photographs."

Striking a Balance

The drive to honor the victims of an awful incident like the Virginia Tech rampage is a recent phenomenon in American culture, said Kenneth E. Foote, a professor of geography at the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of Shadowed Ground: America's Landscapes of Violence and Tragedy (University of Texas Press, 2003).

In the past, he said, Americans rarely memorialized terrible incidents. "Sites of mass murders or gangland killings tended to be interpreted shamefully," Mr. Foote said. "Societies tended to obliterate all of the evidence."

Campus tragedies were no different. The shootings at the University of Texas at Austin in 1966 were not marked or memorialized for decades. A plaque for the dead was set up near a garden earlier this year.

At Kent State University, where students were shot during a Vietnam War protest in 1970, the institution did not dedicate a memorial until 1990, and the memorial turned out to be much smaller than what was originally planned. Jerry M. Lewis, a professor emeritus of sociology at Kent State, was present at the shootings. He said the tragedy got caught up in the debate over the war and blame for the shootings. The university administration sought to bring closure to the incident through the memorial.

Americans are now willing, if not eager, to memorialize tragedies, both recent and distant, Mr. Foote said. In Oklahoma City, a memorial to the victims of the 1995 bombing there was dedicated within five years. Many cite that memorial as an example of a successful project. A memorial for students killed in a bonfire accident at Texas A&M University in 1999 was also built and dedicated within five years.

But other memorials under way have been troubled. The memorial at Ground Zero, called "Reflecting Absence," is famously controversial, as victims' family members, officials, and residents of the area have battled over the design, message, and cost of the project. At one point it was estimated at $1-billion, but has dropped since.

Organizers of a memorial to the students killed at Columbine High School in 1999 have had difficulty raising money; the budget for the project was reduced from $2.5-million to $1.5-million. Bob Smith and Denise George, the landscape architects who are working on the memorial, say that fund-raising has had to compete with a string of recent tragedies, including September 11, 2001, and the 2004 Indonesian tsunami. An editorial in The Denver Post, published only days after the Virginia Tech shootings, urged readers to donate money to finish the project.

Mr. Foote wonders whether the haste to build memorials today "sometimes short-circuits the whole process that makes these memorials or the memory work so important."

People need time to reflect on tragedies, to sort out their meanings, he said. In murder-suicide tragedies like Columbine and Virginia Tech, the community also needs to sort out what a memorial will do for or say about the killer.

"There is always a tension between honoring the victims and paying tribute to the killers," said Mr. Foote, adding that sites of tragedies can become rallying points for people with unhealthy obsessions with the murders. "Is the memorial really honoring the victims, or is it celebrating the mass murder?"

In building a memorial at Virginia Tech, university officials will have to balance the message of the memorial with the mission of the university, said Gary Lavergne, director of admissions research at the University of Texas at Austin and the author of a book about that university's sniper murders.

"Virginia Tech is going to grapple with this for a long time," he said. "No matter what Virginia Tech does, they will be criticized."

Mr. Lavergne said the University of Texas needed the time it took to figure out how to appropriately remember the murders -- and not the murderer, Charles Whitman. He is not named on the plaque memorializing the event.

"In my opinion, we do not want to allow that young man to define any part of the campus," Mr. Lavergne said of the situation at Virginia Tech.

'Groping Toward an Answer'

In days after the killings at Virginia Tech, someone created a makeshift shrine dedicated to Mr. Cho alongside similar shrines to the 32 people he killed.

Such impromptu memorials are familiar sights following tragedies today. People leave photographs, letters, ribbons, stuffed animals, and other items as tributes. Organized and created by friends and relatives of the dead, the shrines are often temporary.

"We don't give them enough attention," said Setha M. Low, an anthropology professor at the City University of New York's Graduate Center. "I think that these kinds of temporary, very meaningful memorials are very important for the community in grieving and coming together -- maybe, one might argue, more important than the larger institutionalization of the memorial."

Virginia Tech recently announced that it would preserve all the items left at the temporary shrines. That will be an expensive and difficult task, said Sylvia Grider, who took charge of such a project at Texas A&M University.

After 12 students died in the bonfire accident at Texas A&M, Ms. Grider, now a professor emerita of anthropology, was assigned to archive the items left, including bottles of beer, Christmas ornaments, and T-shirts. (Flowers that were left were composted in a separate bin, then worked into the soil around the permanent memorial.)

The job was the most challenging and important project of her career, she said. But she expressed ambivalence when reflecting on it. "I wonder, in retrospect, how important it is to save everything from a shrine," she said.

She seemed similarly ambivalent about the memorial that was built to mark the bonfire tragedy. "I have sat out at that site and wept at all hours of the day and night," she said, "and I still don't know how I feel about the permanent memorial."

The $5-million memorial is huge and evocative of Stonehenge, with granite monoliths arranged around a circle where the bonfire burned every year at the university. University officials banned the bonfire tradition after the accident. Bob Shemwell, an architect who designed the memorial, said the structure was as much a tribute to the bonfire tradition as to the students who died.

Even with the numerous tragedies of recent years -- including September 11, Hurricane Katrina, the Oklahoma City bombing, the shootings at various colleges and schools -- Americans still wonder how to appropriately honor the dead, Ms. Grider said. "We as a nation are groping toward an answer."