Behind the Brick Walls: Ewell Hall evolves to fill needs, maintains historical character


Whether for secretive meetings or piano recitals, Ewell Hall has adapted to serve the College of William and Mary for almost one hundred years. Completed in 1926, Ewell Hall was one of the first buildings constructed to fulfill the master plans of Charles M. Robinson and Charles F. Gillette, and it was an important addition to the campus of a university looking to become larger and more relevant in the 20th century. 

“The building holds a great degree of significance as one of the 11 buildings included in the original plan which defined the new American college as a transition from ‘court to campus,’” University Architect Dan Pisaniello said in an email to The Flat Hat. 

According to Swem Special Collections Research Center, Ewell Hall wasn’t always known as Ewell Hall, as it was originally dedicated as Phi Beta Kappa Hall, not to be confused with the current auditorium building which holds the PBK dedication today. Ewell Hall once filled the role of a large performance auditorium space and served as a living memorial to its original namesake, the Phi Beta Kappa Society, which was founded by students at the university in 1776 and has since become a well-known honor society. The building still bears the mark of its original dedication, with the large circular seal of PBK still present at the front of the building. 

Ewell was built to include meeting space for PBK in the front section of the building, with a re-creation of the “Apollo Room,” in which the organization originally met at the Raleigh Tavern in Williamsburg. The reconstructed Apollo Room now serves as the Dean of Arts and Sciences’s personal office, in the left-front wing of the building. Ewell also included guest rooms for visiting PBK members. 

Through the years, Ewell adapted, continuing to serve the College as the main auditorium and as a movie theater and radio station. Some of the guest rooms upstairs were converted to women’s dorm rooms to fill the need for housing. In 1952, the PBK national headquarters were located in the leased, formerly-residential upstairs rooms.

The auditorium portion of the building was destroyed by fire in December of 1953, and a new rear portion of the building was constructed in 1955, which became the home of the music department. It was also around this time, in 1957, that the building would be re-dedicated to honor the 16th president of the College. Another wing, which includes the Ewell recital hall, was later added and completed in 1989. 

These changes to Ewell Hall have left the building with no connection between the front portion that houses the offices of the Dean of Arts and Sciences and the rear, which housed the music department until the opening of the new music building this year. 

This has confused generations of students and visitors alike, who tried to reach the classrooms or recital hall, ended up in the front offices and were pointed in the right direction by the Dean’s office. Even after the music department’s move, this confusion has remained an issue at Ewell. 

“When music left, we had such an influx of people trying to get to the music classes, not realizing they had switched down to the new building, that we had multiple signs set about on the front patio, just helping to try to redirect folks, and we actually kept maps of everything here so we could redirect accordingly,” Dean’s Office Manager Amy Detwiler said.

Unlike the academic portion of Ewell, much of the front remains similar to when it was constructed in 1924, with original woodwork and high, ornamented ceilings. 

The historic nature of the office space provides an authentic feeling, according to those who work in the Dean’s office, and may partially contribute to their harmonious work environment.

“I genuinely enjoy walking up to this building every morning,” Detwiler said. “It just reinvigorates me and it makes me excited to come to work, which I’ve never really had that feeling before about a building. I’m grateful for that, and I think the people in the building make up the space as well.”

Erica MacLeod, executive assistant to Dean Suzanne Raitt, recalled having always been interested in history, and described living and working in Williamsburg as a dream come true. 

“I’m one of those rare people that you’ll meet in life that is literally living the dream,” MacLeod said. “I love working every day. Still, when I walk across this part of the campus and I walk by the Wren Building, I will pinch myself.”

For MacLeod, the architecture of Ewell contributes to the enjoyment of her work, as well as some humorous ghost stories.

“Being able to walk into this historic building, into this beautiful office, one of the few offices with the high ceilings and the crown molding, I’m just so blessed,” MacLeod said. “We also have a filing cabinet door that opens on its own down the hall by the dean’s office.”

Unlike the front of Ewell, the rear portion has recently found itself with neither a department to call it home nor a distinct architectural character. The building, which had previously been run-down but active with housing the music programs, is now mainly used by student organizations for its recital hall. Gillian Oliver ’26, who plays the cello in the William and Mary Symphony Orchestra and is the vice president of TBD Theater, has experienced the building in both its bustling and dormant states.

“Last year, Ewell was our music building, it was a little dingy, but it was nice, it had a charm to it,” Oliver said. “It’s just so empty and abandoned and it’s just kind of sad at this point. I just miss the old charm that it used to have when it housed something that people were so passionate about.”

More recently, Oliver and TBD Theater have had to use the Ewell recital hall as a rehearsal space, and they will be in the hall for their spring performance of “The Adventures of Rodent Boy,” which was written by Oliver herself. TBD had attempted to rebook the Commonwealth Auditorium in the Sadler Center, where last year’s performance was held, but it was already completely reserved, underscoring what many students perceive as the issue of the college’s lack of performance spaces for non-theater students (as PBK is only available for department productions and Sinfonicron).

With a small stage, no access to the lighting control booth and a small number of seats, Oliver remarked that the recital hall doesn’t really fit the bill of a performance space, but could fill that need if renovated and enlarged. 

“It would be great to have a place for student organizations in general to perform, not even just student theater, but the comedy groups, the acapella groups, the cultural organizations, all of those,” Oliver said. 

The College has yet to announce concrete long term plans for the rear portion of Ewell, other than as a building to relieve others that are getting renovations. 

“The vacancy provides an opportune time to complete necessary renovations to the building with the least disruption to campus,” Pisaniello said. “Once renovated, the space would provide academic department space as well as administrative space that would allow W&M to consolidate functions into one larger building rather than spreading those functions across multiple buildings. This strategic move would pave the way for renovations needed in other academic buildings and optimize the academic use of these spaces.”

While an uncertain future and designation as a “swing space” may seem demeaning, Ewell Hall heads into its second century, continuing to adapt, just as it always has.


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