Navigate

History

This article, originally published in the Carolina Alumni Review in 1997, was updated in 2003.

Welcome to the George Watts Hill Alumni Center

It could be called the Grand Central Station of Carolina — a crossroads where all roads keep doubling back. As it marked its 10th year in 2003, the George Watts Hill Alumni Center had become a stopping-off place and a launching pad for students, faculty and alumni.

For English professor and novelist Doris Betts ’54, the Alumni Center was the site for her daughter’s wedding dinner and the lunch location for the search committee she chaired in her department. “It’s the first time that faculty have had a place to entertain visitors on campus,” Betts noted.

For attorney Wade Smith ’60, it has been home to a weekly discussion group, which included Betts and six other friends, as well as a convenient and comfortable place to conduct business. The Alumni Center “is extremely important to all of the alumni because it is a headquarters for us,” he said. “It is a refuge or a haven if we have other business on the campus.”

For Doug Dibbert ’70, president of the UNC General Alumni Association, the Alumni Center affords the space, technology and location to best serve the University’s community — with room to grow. “It has provided a focus for our programming and an opportunity for us to reach out to a diverse alumni with a wide range of programs,” he said. Beyond that, it has enhanced UNC’s image, he noted. The Alumni Center is part of the itinerary of every visiting dignitary, and it repeatedly has served as a recruiting tool for new faculty and staff.

It has become part of student life on campus as well, allowing for “a natural transition for students into their alumni status,” Dibbert said. “They will have been involved with our programs as students and have passed by the building each day to and from classes.”

A familiar path

At Carolina’s geographical center, next door to Kenan Stadium, the Alumni Center straddles the original student footpath between the North and South campuses. While the brick pathway remains a key student thoroughfare, the students are no longer alone: Every day their backpacks are mingled with briefcases, their Carolina T-shirts meeting Oxford-cloth button downs and tweed jackets. No other campus location comes closer to bringing together students, faculty and alumni.

With its 63,000 square feet of dining rooms, parlors, meeting rooms, offices and a library, the Alumni Center was intended to be the home to which alumni could always return. While it is the home base for alumni, the Alumni Center also is host to scores of Carolina activities, the central office for the GAA and a building replete with North Carolina history.

A walk through the Alumni Center offers a quintessential view of University life:

  • In the Johnston Trust Room, prospective department chairs often are interviewed. The room, styled as an English library, was intended to be reminiscent of the lounge in Graham Memorial from its days as the Student Union. Just off the main lobby, it is perhaps the first room a new visitor will glimpse — and one that often draws in alumni to read and relax.
  • In the Koury Library, old Yackety Yacks often are pulled from their shelves, as class pictures evoke old memories. Lining other shelves are copies of a diverse collection of books written by Carolina alumni and faculty. The intent is to make Koury home to all books written by former UNC students. Copies of the Carolina Alumni Review, all the way back to the first issue published in 1912, also can be found here.
  • Along the hallway near the Koury Library three small rooms offer more personal space for interviews and small meetings. Alumni with a few hours to spare while visiting campus can use these rooms, in Smith’s words, as “a haven” to catch up on their work.
  • Nearby in the Kenan Room, meetings also are routine. The furniture in the Kenan Room was purchased by Tom Kenan ’59, and the books, china and vases were brought from his home. The library bookcase and chest of drawers are early 19th century, and several plates are late 18th century. The Kenan Foundation and Tom and the late Frank Kenan ’35 funded the room to honor Col. Tom Kenan (class of 1857), who was president of the GAA for 20 years in the late 1800s. The room was decorated in blues and grays to match the colors of the colonel’s portrait that hangs in the room.
  • Across the breezeway, in The Carolina Club portion of the center, students are part of the wait staff in each of the two on-site dining rooms — one formal and the other the O’Herron Grill — available to the club’s approximately 3,400 members and their guests. Hundreds of members celebrate holidays with The Carolina Club in Alumni Hall; others enjoy the afternoon teas in the Harvey Lobby. The emphasis, as is felt throughout the Alumni Center, is designed to convey a sense of tradition, both UNC’s and that of its alumni.
  • Nearby in the Royall Room, the GAA’s alumni education program, the Carolina College for Lifelong Learning, conducts classes, lectures, seminars and book discussions in subjects ranging from the arts to current events, which bring many of Carolina’s award-winning faculty closer to alumni.
  • In Alumni Hall — a 7,500-square-foot ballroom that also converts into three smaller rooms — corporate and academia interests routinely intersect. Noted speakers have addressed standing-room-only crowds; industry giants as well as smaller enterprises use the space for conferences and meetings. This also is the site of the ongoing series of “Think Fast” programs produced by the GAA, covering conflicts in Kosovo, the 2000 presidential elections and, most notably, a community gathering titled “Understanding the Attack on America” that drew a capacity crowd of more than 700 in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
  • In the first-floor Church Lobby, just off the brick path beneath the building’s breezeway, some students inevitably get their first glimpse inside the Alumni Center when they pick up new student membership packets and sign up for workshops. More than 4,700 students enrolled in the GAA’s student membership organization for 2004-05.And if you’re around later on most evenings and weekends, the Alumni Center continues in its host role for Carolina. On one weekend about 400 Tri-Delta sorority members and their families danced in Alumni Hall to celebrate a family weekend. Throughout the football season, the center is a base of pre-game and post-game activities. And on random evenings throughout the school year the voices of the Clef Hangers, the male a cappella group sponsored by the GAA, can be heard; they practice on the third floor.

New beginnings

The George Watts Hill Alumni Center’s meeting rooms can accommodate two to 800 guests, and more than 100,000 people attend an event or dine in the center each year. The center is open to alumni, regardless of whether they are GAA members; other areas of the building provide the backdrop to GAA staff operations, with offices, conference rooms, storage and communications systems to facilitate the work of the GAA and Carolina Club employees.

GAA members already are familiar to the association’s services, offered through Lifelong Learning, Career Services, Membership, Alumni Records, Reunions, local Carolina Club activities, Student Programs and the Carolina Alumni Review. The Alumni Center has allowed these services to grow rapidly, both in scope and volume. As a working facility, it has spawned a new package of programs aimed at serving Carolina and its alumni; notable expansions include Lifelong Learning, Career Services, local Carolina Clubs activities and the student membership arm of the GAA. But some of the GAA’s oldest services have seen big changes as well: Alumni Records, which maintains records of more than 230,000 living Carolina alumni as well as more than 46,000 deceased alumni, has benefited from expanded space — as have alumni and others who use the files and workrooms for research.

“This facility has had an impact on every alumnus, whether they’ve been in the Alumni Center or not,” Dibbert said. The Alumni Center’s work spaces and communications systems have enhanced the work of the GAA, said Dibbert, who has led the organization since 1982. “It has made a tremendous difference in what we are able to do.”

Sometimes the examples of the GAA’s increased capabilities are the most basic: Alumni who return to Carolina for reunions will have noticed a major difference; with one site available for handling registration, questions have been fewer — and those that arise can be answered more quickly. Also, a key way far-flung alumni are able to stay in touch is through the dozens of newsletters written, prepared and printed within the Alumni Center. In the early 1990s, there were fewer newsletters and they cost more to produce. In-house printing has cut the cost to local Carolina alumni clubs and increased the communication between clubs and alumni.

“Alumni who come and visit leave with a great deal of pride that this facility is something alumni have done for themselves but which is benefiting the entire University community of faculty, staff and students,” Dibbert said. “It’s very comforting to work in a building that has such a broad base of affinity and support.”

Before 1993, alumni activities took place anywhere room could be found — and the work of the association was conducted in cramped quarters. The association worked out of The Carolina Inn for 33 years until 1969, when it moved into a small apartment building beside the inn, converting it into the Alumni House. The GAA staff made creative use of the apartments-turned-offices; bathtubs and stairs provided storage space, and GAA board meetings alternated among four campus locations. A reception area was a luxury the old Alumni House didn’t afford.

In 1986 — after more than 25 years of attempts to raise money to build an Alumni Center — one of UNC’s most prominent philanthropists, George Watts Hill ’22, pledged a challenge gift of $3.5 million. It was the highest amount that had ever been given to the University by a living alumnus. The pledge by Hill — who served as the GAA’s treasurer for 35 years — in addition to $39,000 already raised by an ongoing Alumni Center Campaign and a $500,000 lead gift from the James M. Johnston Trust, set the ball rolling.

Ralph Strayhorn ’47, who chaired the Alumni Center Campaign committee, said: “Once we got Mr. Hill’s lead gift for the center, the raising of the money was very — I won’t say easy, but came in very nicely. Of course, that doesn’t mean we didn’t work very hard for it.”

A number of people did work hard; in addition to Strayhorn, observers credit Anne Cates ’53 with being key to providing a home for alumni. For Cates the project didn’t end with the building’s completion; in many ways she has taken it upon herself to oversee the center on an ongoing basis.

“This Alumni Center is Anne Cates,” said Richard Stevens ’70. Stevens, who was on the campaign committee, is a past treasurer of the GAA. “It is a building full of energy; it is alive with activity. Anne was the real inspiration and charging force behind many aspects of the building. She was heavily involved in the design and in the flow of the building – very hands-on. She also was the real charging force behind The Carolina Club.”

The committee called on all alumni to raise the $12.5 million that the center ultimately cost. No alumni dues or state funds went toward the building or its furnishings.

History — and Mr. Hill

The building often strikes first-time visitors as a showcase of antiques and a tribute to the past — both Carolina history and that of North Carolina. Many of the state’s most prominent leaders — politically, professionally or culturally — have been UNC alumni, and this is portrayed by much of the building’s decor, whether it be the first editions of alumni authors, war medals, photographs, portraits or the Carolina banner and pillow purchased as a student by Robert Eaves ’28.

“Just as the history of the alumni association is in a large measure — certainly for the first 100 years — a history of North Carolina, what you find reflected as you experience the Alumni Center is that same history and tradition,” Dibbert said.

From the name carved over the center’s main entrance to the bronze statue of Hill’s prize bull, Maxmillian, the memory of George Watts Hill is a strong presence in the building. Many of Hill’s medals are on display, and photographs in the second-floor lobby catalog his life: One photograph shows Hill looking over plans for the Research Triangle Institute on what was then an undeveloped site; he was a prominent player in founding RTI and became its chairman emeritus in 1992.

Hill also was committed to education, establishing the Hill Learning Development Center at Durham Academy to assist children with learning disabilities.

“He said, ‘I will never stop doing all I can for Carolina.’ [Watts Hill] loved this place and what it stood for,” Cates said.

Hill’s style is as much a presence in the building as any of the belongings his family gave to the center. Interior designer Dan Addison, Hill’s friend and former apprentice, took on the task of transforming the new alumni building into a home. Addison had decorated Hill’s homes and redecorated one of them, Quail Hill, when it was given to the University for use as the chancellor’s residence.

Behind the rooms

For the James M. Johnston Room, funded by the trustees of the Johnston Scholars program, Addison chose mahogany paneling and Georgian-style chandeliers. The large breakfront and coffee table date from 1890, and the Heriz carpet is an antique.

Photographs in the Johnston Room show a young James M. Johnston ’17, another prominent man who has left his mark on Carolina. A few of the photographs show Johnston with President Kennedy, Hubert Humphrey and Mike Mansfield. Several thousand Carolina students have benefited from the baseball team Johnston owned in the 1960s, the Washington Senators. He designated the proceeds from the sale of the team to an endowment for scholarships. Since its establishment in 1970, the Johnston Awards Program has awarded approximately $1.9 million a year, supporting some 300 scholars annually.

Most of the rooms in the center have similar stories to tell of alumni and their families who have given back to the University. Whether large or small, every object in the Alumni Center can be linked to one of 14,500 alumni who contributed to the campaign committee, and each object has a story of its own.

Persian carpets as old as 75 years — including one woven by the weavers of a former shah of Iran — were purchased by alumni for the center. A 100-year-old carpet that had belonged to Hill’s grandfather hangs on one wall.

Addison described furnishing the building as “putting it all together like a large puzzle,” and although he oversaw every detail of the picture, many of the puzzle pieces were provided by alumni.

Some gifts are particularly noteworthy. Everette James ’59 gave 36 paintings to the center. Earl Somers ’49 contributed two Remington bronze reproductions and a number of paintings. Five tapestries, Flemish and Aubusson, from the 16th and 17th centuries, are on permanent loan from the N.C. Museum of Art. (Tom Kenan arranged for their use at the center when the museum lacked enough room to display them and they were deteriorating in storage.)

A few pieces Addison needed required a stretch of imagination. Addison cut a large table from Hill’s office in half, making two consoles to fit a hallway. The coffee table for The Carolina Club reception area turned up in his own attic. He even found a few pieces at tag sales, including a brass umbrella stand by the elevator.

Another conversation piece among the Alumni Center regulars is the wallpaper in The Carolina Club. The hand-painted parchment, designed by Charles Gracie, also can be found in the White House.

Several of the resources acquired through the campaign required restoration before they could settle into the center. Walnut paneling that now lines a wall of the Royall Room, a meeting and conference room, was salvaged from the former executive offices of R.J. Reynolds in Winston-Salem. A painting found in Hill’s country estate and one found in a dormitory basement were unrecognizable until their restoration by John Short, an expert in art restoration who had been Hill’s private conservator for 20 years.

Short also was responsible for moving and restoring the murals in the Marion W. Peebles Jr. private dining room. The portraits of a pristine Carolina campus that now line The Carolina Club’s most popular dining room are accustomed to a much smaller audience. For 46 years these scenic paintings resided in the Peebles family dining room in Lawrenceville, Va. In 1947, Marion Wooten Peebles ’24 commissioned an artist, whose name has been lost to history, to paint a mural of UNC scenes for his dining room. The murals depict South Building, the Old Well and Old East, Playmakers Theater, Wilson Library, the Bell Tower, The Carolina Inn, Kappa Alpha fraternity house, the Morehead Building and the School of Medicine.

In 1987, when Peebles’ son, Marion Wooten “Dyke” Peebles Jr. ’51, was planning to move, he worried the paintings would be lost to the home’s new owners. Strayhorn and Dibbert visited Peebles and convinced him the murals would be an ideal addition to a private dining room in the Alumni Center. Peebles donated $250,000 and the murals to the Alumni Center Campaign to fund the Marion W. Peebles Jr. Dining Room.

Although the background of the Peebles room is unique, many pieces in the center share its story of history preserved. Sconces found in the basement of The Carolina Inn were refurbished. A 15th-century breakfront found in the law school library stacks was repaired and refurbished for the center. The Koury Library’s entrance and shelves are paneled with heart of pine from the original construction of Old West dormitory in 1821-22 — more than 20 years before the GAA was founded.

It is that sense of history, perhaps, that has endeared alumni to the George Watts Hill Alumni Center. The pieces of the puzzle are in place at last. As Doris Betts said: “We have a real sense of being at home.”

The George Watts Hill Alumni Center is open year-round and welcomes all Carolina alumni and friends to visit.

— Carolyn Edy ’97 (MA)