The Bottom Step of the Chem Lecture Hall Stairway

There was only one comment to yesterday’s post about the door to the Chem Lecture Hall but it was a great one, from loyal reader Doug Williams, who has won my heart with his attention to trivial detail:

Melissa, have you ever run across any information about the lowest step leading up to Chem Lec? In the 1980s, the first step was concrete. More recently, I’ve noticed that it has been replaced with a stone step matching the others. Whatever was there at the time of this photo is just outside of the shot.

The story I was told was that originally there was no step there. The early chemistry department wanted to discourage women from taking their classes. The missing first step required women to lift their skirts to reach the beginning of the stairs. Since they had to expose their ankles, no real lady would ever take chemistry.

It has to just be a good story, but I’ve never seen an early picture of Chem Lec where I could tell if there’s a first step or not.

I really love crazy stories like this. They don’t come from nowhere—there were  in fact some early reservations about female students. They evaporated quickly, though, as women such as Alice Dean proved to be among the very best students on campus during the first years of the Institute. It was also the case that it could be tricky to get women students lab time in an era when they couldn’t be unchaperoned. However, there was always a bottom step as we can see in this 1925 photograph:

Chem lecture Hall door 1925


Many thanks for the great question, Doug.

Bonus: Things can get strange right before commencement. I saw these guys right around lunch time:

Grads on Wednesday 2014

I thought they might be jumping the gun a wee bit but it turned out they had just had their pictures taken in the RMC:

RMC photographer commencement Wednesdat 2014


Extra Bonus: Rolling robes.

Rolling robes commencement 2014

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10 Responses to The Bottom Step of the Chem Lecture Hall Stairway

  1. Buddy Chuoke '75 says:

    Nice pic of the entrance to Valhalla prominently displayed. Has that door ever been changed out? Looks the same as I remember. While that subterranean space is surely at its highest and best use since Chem Lecture Hall was built, does anyone know what was it’s original intended purpose?

  2. Melissa Kean says:

    I’d bet the door is original. And the space was built as a smoking lounge, which I always thought was odd (everyone smoked everywhere when this was built) until I realized that it probably was a good idea to keep matches far away from the labs.

    • Greg Marshall says:

      Yes, the doors to Valhalla (both west and east) have both been replaced, and perhaps more than once. I know for a fact that it was just done earlier this school year.

  3. Keith Cooper says:

    My understanding is that the missing steps were on the entrances to the building, not the lecture hall. I am pretty sure that I heard that anecdote from James Morehead in a discussion at Sid Rich after dinner (late 70’s)

    • Melissa Kean says:

      Did Bud think it was true or just a legend? I actually have a lot of his stuff about the history of the campus and wouldn’t be averse to looking through it.

  4. Keith Cooper says:

    Bonus: campus store delivering robes for ushers and student assistants. Nice of them to bring the robes to the students, instead of the other way around.

  5. Doug Williams says:

    Wow, that was fast. I didn’t post my comment until Wednesday afternoon.

    I wonder if I heard the story from Keith? I was in the last class he TAed as he was finishing his PhD. I know I picked up a few other stories that spring during those long hours in the terminal room in Herman Brown.

    I have a followup question. Is the bottom step in this picture still the first step or is there a lower step now? In looking at more recent pictures of the Valhalla entrance, it looks like the sidewalk is lower than the ground level in this picture.

    • Melissa Kean says:

      Well, I’m out of town until Monday but I’ll see if I might have something with me that can answer this. If not, you’ll have to wait until next week.

  6. As a young child I sometimes spent the day at work in the Chemistry Hall with my father, John Kilpatrick. His lab was in the same wing as the steps pictured above. There was a passageway at the very back of the labs that led, as I recall, into Valhalla, or the steam tunnels, or both. The Chem Lecture Hall was in that wing, too, upstairs. Sometimes my father would give me liquid nitrogen to go play with there while he stayed in his office working; it was fun to pour it down the steps of the aisles. I also spent a lot of time using the electrical switches to open and close the drapes and to raise and lower the projection screen: the power! I must have explored every square inch of that building.

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