Stranger Places: Blow Memorial Hall

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GRAPHIC BY SARAH BRADY / THE FLAT HAT

Blow Memorial Hall is one of the most perplexing buildings on campus. Full of offices from completely unrelated departments, Blow has become the College of William and Mary’s junk drawer: the building where the administration puts things that just don’t have a place. Rooms in Blow range from dungeon-like basement offices and large, airy rooms, to a dusty lounge on the third floor. Navigating the building is like a game of chutes and ladders, but with long hallways and an extraordinary number of staircases. What was the original purpose of Blow Hall? Why is it a mess today? Why do they make cotton candy on the third floor? Some of these questions will be answered.

Blow Hall was originally Blow Gymnasium, built as a second gym to house the men’s basketball team in 1923. The College attempted to raise money for the gym via student donations, but the fundraiser flopped after failing to meet its $10,000 goal. Even back then, it was hard to get the students excited about Tribe athletics. Construction only began after a generous gift of $130,200 from Mrs. Adele Matthiessen Blow, who wanted the hall to commemorate her husband, Captain George Preston Blow. The gym was considered state of the art at the time, and housed a large basketball court, a running track and a pool in the basement. Sadly, Blow Gymnasium would not keep its shiny veneer.

Sketch of Blow Gymnasium, published April 6, 1923 in The Flat Hat.

Blow underwent renovations in the 1940s and 50s, adding squash courts, a volleyball court and lounges for men and women. However, a series of misfortunes overtook Blow Gymnasium in these decades. A fire broke out in the lounge in 1943, apparently started by a cigarette butt carelessly dropped by a student. By 1949, the gym had fallen into disrepair, with the Flat Hat reporting filthy showers and broken benches. In 1958, the ceiling collapsed in the ROTC office in the gym’s basement. It was time for a change.

Sketch of Blow Gymnasium following early renovations, published Oct. 1, 1940 in The Flat Hat.

In 1987, the College gave up on Blow as a gym and decided to turn it into a building for administrative offices and classrooms. The new and “improved” Blow Hall opened in 1990, and it hosted a rotating menagerie of departments, from admissions to career services to counseling. College administrators boasted of Blow’s energy-efficient design, sleek furniture and modern electronics. Things were just too good to be true.

Calamity soon struck Blow 2.0. In installing the new “energy-efficient” HVAC system, the building designers seemingly forgot about the high humidity in Williamsburg. Humidity coupled with poor ventilation and a cracked foundation led to mold growth in the building. The new AC system did little more than recirculate the mold and mildew, leading to serious health problems among staff. After months of headaches, nosebleeds, coughing and difficulty breathing, the College spent $30,000 to de-mold the building.

Blow Hall, battered by fire, mold, and a lack of a clear vision for its existence, still stands today. You might venture into its maze-like interior to pay a bill, get scholarship advising, or go to a class. While it’s not the nicest hall on campus, it’s certainly not the worst. Blow Hall has become a solidly mediocre building, a symbol of the solidly mediocre basketball team it once housed.