The Fight for Wilkinson Hall

Continuing in her work with the William Taubeneck papers, this post is contributed by SCARC student archivist Hannah Lawson, a chemistry major with a passion for art, conservation, and preserving history.


Wilkinson Hall, which resides on Orchard Avenue, is home to Oregon State University’s Department of Geosciences; the Geology and Geography programs. It was dedicated to William “Doc” Wilkinson, a former professor and chairman in the Department of Geology. It is the so called ‘phoenix’ of the Earth Sciences Department at OSU for good reason: the plans were struck down and halted time and time again, only to rise from the ashes due to the perseverance and passion of the Geosciences faculty.

In the 1940s and 50s, the Geology Department at Oregon State University was one of the most revered in the state. It began to languish in the late 1950s and early 60s. While other geology departments at other campuses were getting upgraded buildings and facilities, the department at Oregon State were being pushed and prodded into the smallest, most forgotten rooms on campus. William “Bill” Taubeneck, a geology professor at the time, described the geology facilities at Oregon State as “the most primitive in the West.” By the 1960s, the same facilities shared by 4 professors and 30 students in 1930 were now shared by 11 staff members and nearly 140 geology students.

Wilkinson Hall

Original designs for the Geosciences building from 1969

Wilkinson, along with Taubeneck and a few other members in the Geosciences faculty, began pushing for the construction of an Earth Sciences building in the 1960s. Both the Geography program and Geology program were in desperate need of defined spaces. The plans for this new Earth Sciences were revealed to the Geosciences Department in 1969. Bill Taubeneck was instantly dissatisfied with them. The original plans for this Earth Sciences building had no spaces for geology labs, and multiple ill-designed offices and classrooms. Taubeneck argued that there needed to be space for hundreds of rock specimen per student, as well as maps, photos, and fossils. Taubeneck also noted that poor facilities made it hard for Oregon State University to attract new geology professors and researchers, who could not conduct their research without a new building designated for the geosciences. A new Earth Sciences building would be integral for the future of geology at Oregon State. From that point on, Taubeneck was the chief crusader for the re-design, as well as the construction itself.

Several issues quickly arose, which postponed the development of building plans. Construction was continually put on hold by the State Emergency Board. The most devastating issue was the moratorium placed on all construction on Oregon state college campuses, which was placed by the State Legislature in March of 1970. The building was originally scheduled for construction in May of 1970. Oregon’s economy was both declining and inflating, which sharply increased the estimated cost of the proposed Earth Sciences building. Additionally, student riots across the state were causing property damage to campuses, which made legislatures hesitant to fund new buildings.

Hollis Dole, right, with Eldon GIlbert ("Oregon Stater," December 1975)

Hollis Dole, right, with Eldon Gilbert (“Oregon Stater,” December 1975)

Taubeneck was fortunate enough to have quality friends and associates in high places, which would benefit him in his fight for Wilkinson Hall. A particular ally was OSU alum Hollis Dole, who served as Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Mineral Resources. Hollis would ultimately act as a mediator between Taubeneck and influential legislators in Oregon’s government. A series of letters between Taubeneck and Dole show the collaboration and friendship between the two. Dole kept Taubeneck informed of hearings in Washington, as well as pressed his fellow politicians about the issue of the Earth Sciences building at OSU, while Taubeneck continued persuading at the grassroots level. Both pushed continuously for the Geology Department, a program they were equally invested in. In late 1970, Taubeneck brought Rep. Stafford Hansel and Sen. Lynn Newbry through a tour of the Geology facilities located in the Education Hall, Benton Annex, and the now demolished WWII Quonset hut, and how these spaces created tension for students and teachers, as they restricted access to supplies and laboratory equipment. In short – the Geology Department and its’ professors were unable to provide their students with the proper education in the buildings they were divided by and housed in. They needed a space specific for them and their unique needs. Hansel and Newbry assured Taubeneck that the building would begin construction in March the next year, but in February of 1971, Taubeneck was told by Dean Popovich that the proposed Earth Science building was a lost cause.

In a letter to Gov. Tom McCall, Taubeneck expressed the inadequate conditions of the Geosciences Department. McCall, a proponent of higher education and proper management of natural resources, was empathetic to the needs of Oregon State University’s geology and geography programs.  While the decision to vote upon and release the funds would ultimately be made by the Ways and Means Committee, having the governor’s approval was a large step forward for the fate of the Earth Sciences building. McCall mentioned to Taubeneck that a reduction of the estimated cost of the building construction would be necessary for the final approval.

William Donald Wilkinson (President's Office Photographs, 1947)

William Donald Wilkinson (President’s Office Photographs, 1947)

The obvious requirement for a new building motivated Taubeneck and the Geosciences Department to push even harder for state approval. The plans were redesigned with guidelines from the Geology Department (who were not initially consulted during the original plans) with downgraded fixtures and the removal of two floors. The final budget came several thousand dollars under budget, and was approved in May of 1971. Construction of the building began shortly thereafter in the following summer, and the building was completed in December of 1972. The dedication ceremony, which came two years later on April 20th, 1974, officially named the hall after “Doc” Wilkinson, whose dreams of a Geoscience building were finally realized, nearly 5 years after his death.

Hollis Dole was the main speaker at the dedication ceremony. He remarked in his speech, It’s a New World, “On this campus a new building rises to remind us that nothing stands still, that change and challenge are as much a part of life as breathing and eating. May we accept the changes and the challenges and go forward boldly to claim a better life in the future than any we have known in the past, and do to so with the confidence and spirit befitting the great nation we are.”

The entirety of Dole’s speech highlights the energy crisis in the United States during the 1970s. It parallels the story of Wilkinson Hall, which is fraught with the unpredictable nature of politics and bureaucracy. However, the fight for the Geoscience building shows us that it can only take a single, committed person to change the course of Oregon State University history. It shows us how far a professor will go for his field and his department. William Taubeneck was a man who truly cared about the education of his students, and is a prime example of excellence within Oregon State.

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