Mcbryde Hall, The Pacesetter

By J. Ambler Johnston '04


Major construction work on the new McBryde Hall, housing the departments of history, mathematics, political science, and sociology, was completed last December. All that remains to be finished is a large auditorium on the front of the building. The new McBryde, combining native stone with huge expanses of glass and concrete panels, follows a design lineage dating back to its predecessor, the old McBryde Building of Mechanics Arts, definitely the pacesetter for campus architecture for more than half a century.

The old McBryde Building was built over a four-year period to replace the Preston and Olin shops building that had burned down in the spring of 1913. Joseph D. Eggleston, president of the College at the time, decided that the campus needed a more impressive type of architecture that had been employed in the brick building constructed up to that time; consequently, he had McBryde designed in the neo-Gothic architecture that in time came to surround the entire drill field and much of the rest of the campus as well. Unfortunately, a group of legislators decided that the building was too pretentious for VPI and helped delay appropriations for completion of the building until 1917.

In the 1914 "Opening Number" of the College Bulletin, Eggleston expressed his views on the campus architecture:

"For our own institution we can more justly claim strength in the courses offered than beauty for our own buildings. Owing to the rapid growth of the institution, the buildings were economically constructed in order to save every possible dollar for equipment to supply the needs of the increasing number of students. In consequence the building are severely plain in design. Now we are promised an architectural policy which proposes to give us a group of buildings worthy to shelter a great educational institution. Already a start has been made in this direction, and the McBryde Building of Mechanic Arts will serve as a type for the structures to come later. Let us hope that when those who dole out the dollars in Richmond see what has resulted from their first appropriation they will be moved to give more buildings, and yet more, until we have a noble group replacing the present temporary barracks and academics."

Eggleston's choice as architects for the building was a little known firm by the name of Carneal and Johnston. One of the partners of the firm, J. Ambler Johnston, had graduated from VPI in 1904, and this was to be one of his company's first major jobs, a fact which disturbed many friends of the College who would have preferred a better known architectural firm. Eggleston's confidence was evidently well placed, however, since Carneal and Johnston went on to design or consult in designing many more buildings on the campus; the new McBryde Hall was designed by Lyles, Bissett, Carlisle, and Wolff Associates in collaboration with Carneal and Johnston.

A panel of sculptured figures, designed by famous sculptor Lee Laurie for above the entrance of the old McBryde, was saved when the former building was torn down in 1966. The figures will be installed in the new auditorium when it is completed.

When old McBryde was demolished, J. Ambler Johnston wrote a story concerning construction of the original building and the design of its sculptured panels. It is appropriate in this Centennial year that his remarks about the building that set the pace of architecture on campus be printed.

- The Editor
Soon after I graduated in 1904, a slightly older VMI graduate, Mr. Carneal, and I set up the firm of Carneal and Johnston, Architects and Engineers. Since I was still a comparatively inexperienced young sprout a decade later, out firm naturally had not attracted clients intending to erect major structures.

We had been fortunate, however, in being selected as construction supervisors of a new group of buildings for the University of Richmond. The designs had been executed by the celebrated firm of Cram, Goodhue and Ferguson of Boston, one of the foremost architectural offices in its day. Ralph Adams Cram was a celebrity in America and Europe and recognized as an authority on Gothic architecture. Four years of association and daily correspondence with them concerning the Richmond project had quite an influence on our way of thinking.

Meanwhile, the administration at VPI had changed. Dr. McBryde had retired, and Dr. Barringer had served for four years before resigning. Dr. JD Eggleston was then elected president. During this period I had met and formed a warm attachment to the local and distinguished lawyer, Harry M Smith, one of the early graduates of the erstwhile Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College and, at the time, a member of the Board of Visitors of VPI. I had also become acquainted with Dr. Eggleston through alumni contacts.

In 1913 the old "Shops," the original Preston and Olin Building burned down, and Dr. Eggleston persuaded Governor Mann to put about $60,000 at his disposal to begin immediate rebuilding. It is impossible to relate how I yearned to have Carneal and Johnston selected for the design of a new building.

It so happened that Dr. Eggleston and Mr. Cram were in some way connected through marriage and knew each other quite well. Mr. Cram magnanimously recommended us to Dr. Eggleston and when he referred it to the Board of Visitors, Mr. Smith carried the day; we were commissioned to design the new shops building.

Dr. Eggleston said he wanted this new building to be the prototype of a new era at VPI. He wanted to depart from the poverty stricken factory type of "Lack of Architecture" hitherto employed and wanted this new structure to express the character and type of education for which it was created. He even went so far as to suggest a little sculpture to the end.

It is obvious that an architect designing a utilitarian structure with a limited budget can not insert innovations into the design unless approved by the client; so those suggestions from Dr. Eggleston concerning the sculpture became a challenge to us.

Back in those days technical schools were struggling to emerge from the 'trade school' type of college into scientific institutions, but the transition was slow and difficult. There were many who still thought that an engineering school should be a combination of the apprenticeship of a blacksmith, carpenter, machinist, millworker, and foundryman. A few schools, such as Stevens, MIT and Cornell, were just beginning to demonstrate that out of the 'trades' science could create the engineer.

Many were the now forgotten conferences leading to the decision that the sculpture desired for the McBryde Building of Mechanic Arts should display symbols of the trades; next we had to decide how to do it.


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