Johnstone Hall: A Living Building

If you've ever been a student at Clemson, then you've likely experienced the legendary Johnstone Hall. Erin Smith takes a look back on one of the landmark dormitories that made Clemson University what it is today.

Three sections of a landmark dormitory disappeared overnight.

Only a gaping hole is left, like the missing front tooth of a grinning kindergartner. No longer is the view to Fike and Death Valley blocked. Johnstone Hall sections D, E and F have been destroyed.

Dubbed the "Tin Cans," for its paper-thin tin walls, Johnstone was a staple of the Clemson University campus for half a century. Far beyond construction and demolition, Johnstone is remembered by many as their first home at Clemson. The university, formerly an all-male military land-grant college, was founded in 1889 by Thomas Green Clemson. When sections D, E and F were destroyed in 2002, Johnstone still contained gun racks that the military students used each day.

Could anything replace this dorm that was simultaneously horrible and wonderful? In the midst of a rapidly transforming campus, Johnstone was a reminder of where Clemson began and how far the university had come. The dorms has been dubbed the "Tin Cans," "the new barracks," "The Stone" and much worse. Ten years after the first phase of demolition, Johnstone once again underwent changes. Luckily, all who bleed orange will keep Johnstone alive through the memories.

The planning for Johnstone began in 1951. After over a year of research, sketching and planning by the Clemson University Board of Trustees, Johnstone was finally ready to begin construction in 1953. Regarded as an architectural feat, it was also a sparkling new dorm for the Clemson military cadets. The Daniel Construction Company, owned by Trustee Charlie Daniels, used state-of-the-art methods at the time.

A hydraulic pump lifted concrete slabs to the barrack levels. The process was slow, moving only three to five feet in an hour, but was deemed "trustworthy and simple based on sound engineering principles and techniques". The concrete slabs were sturdy and weighed about 400 tons each. The $5 million project (in 1954 dollars) was completed in less than a year and is believed to be the only structure built by the "lift-slab" method still standing. Four phases of building created eight sections, with space to hold 2200 beds. Bricked staircases at the ends of the buildings would soon smuggle beer, girls and themselves into the dorm at all hours of the night.

When fully completed, the entire building contained eight sections—Johnstone A, A Annex, B, C, D, E, F and F Annex. In 1993 the first phase of demolition began, tearing down Sections B and C. Both phases required asbestos to be removed from the ceiling. Asbestos was used during the 1950's before its harmful airborne effects to the lungs were known.

The next phase began in 2002. The asbestos removal took four months, beginning in early spring. The building was gutted until only the frame remained, allowing a direct view straight through the building.

In May 2002, just before the only commencement ceremony ever held in Death Valley, the building was empty and ready for complete destruction. The remaining two sections, Johnstone A and Annex A, connect with the University Union, Harcombe Dining Hall, the post office and the dungeon-like temporary gym.

Tim Latto, Class of 1956, "had the joy of riding one of the slabs to its final position." An architectural student, Latto understood the importance of the lift-slab method. He was also one of the first students to move into the new barracks in 1954 and considered the new doors luxurious. "We even had a lavatory in each room. There was a rack for our M-1s," Latto remembers.

James F. Barker, current president of Clemson University, moved into Johnstone the summer of 1965, after graduating high school one day and literally moving into Johnstone the next. Barker had to begin school three months before regular students to be able to attend Clemson's popular architecture school. The first member of his family to attend college, he did not have preconceived notions of a college dorm. Johnstone seemed fine to him, especially since most of his days (and late into the nights) were spent in the architecture building.

On February 28, 2000, President Barker took time out of his schedule to stay in E section with resident assistant Nick Cina. He wanted to reacquaint himself with the infamous dorm from his past and also talk to the students there. Known for involvement with the student body, Barker realized, "there is a real danger of losing touch with the heart of the university, which is with the students in the forms, dining rooms and classrooms, not in the president's office."

E-213 was his home for the night. While sitting on the cold hallway floor, he chowed down on pizza and listened closely as students told him about their experiences and what Johnstone meant to them. More than a dorm, they said, Johnstone was home.

Students started to study about 10 p.m., maybe because the president was there or maybe because they really did do homework, occasionally. President Barker settled down for bed about 12:30 a.m. but remembers students checking in on him throughout the night to see if he had snuck back to the President's mansion. First Lady Marsha Barker also received a clever advisory e-mail —"You can go visit your husband tonight but you have to be out by 2 a.m.," because of the visiting hour restrictions in the dorm.

Johnstone Hall provided shelter to fathers, sons and brothers throughout its lifetime. Matthew Ellenberg lived in F section of Johnstone from fall 1999 through spring 2000. His father also lived there, in Johnstone A, quite a while before his son. The two were excited to have the Johnstone life in common. Other father-son teams even occupied the same room, including Ryan Oates and his father in section E, room 332.

Julian Falls moved into D-614 the fall of 1983, but his older brother lived there before him, giving him the chance to stay on the hall, go to football games and meet other Johnstone "rats" before he entered a classroom. "It was the first time I had lived away from home. I think that fact made it pretty cool," Falls said. "Of course, it was nice to have the shoeboxes (the nickname for a set of five dorms due to their shoebox-like appearance), which were all girls dorms at the time, right across the street." Falls lived in Johnstone for a full four and a half years, moving only once into C-628 after his freshman year. The initial destruction in 1993 claimed Falls' first room and finished off his second in 2002. To Falls, the sad part about the destruction is that he can never show his children where he lived in college. His best memories are summed up in three ways:

"Johnstone was the heart of everything. You could walk to all classes, downtown, sporting events, post office, etc.; the building was so old and seemingly indestructible that you felt like you couldn't hurt anything; and the camaraderie with the guys on the hall. You didn't have to go anywhere to hang out with the fellas."

Although Johnstone no longer stands, Falls will always have his memories. "One night, friends of mine dragged a small tree up one flight of stairs and left it in the hallway. It took up the whole hallway. You couldn't walk by it." Other large items ended up in Johnstone hallways, including a Volkswagon Beetle. Clifton Harkey ('59) and Bob Coates were there; "somehow a group of ingenious students had maneuvered the beetle through the then-wide-open loggia, past the office, up the staircase of three or four steps, and into the hallway, without so much as a scratch on the car." Sports were a part of daily life in the all-male dorms. Tackling one another, driving golf balls and booting soccer balls through the seemingly endless halls was a daily event. The walls were made of metal so thin that balls would leave dents.

The tin walls also let in a lot of noise. Fall's remembers phone calls in the room next door "A phone would ring and the people wouldn't be there but the caller wouldn't get a clue to stop calling. But if you kicked the wall hard enough and at the right place, you could knock the phone off the hook so it would stop ringing." Johnstone also boasted wide ledges, most useful during sunny spring days. The boys of Johnstone would lay out on their ledges, which were only about two feet wide, and yell at the girls going by. Residents could even be seen sleeping out on the ledge from time to time.

Unfortunately, "one guy fell off of the ledge and was hurt pretty bad. When we came back the next fall, they had put clips on the windows." That was the end of the babe watching in the sun for Julian Fall's hallmates.

Richard Roth lived in Johnstone during his freshman year, from fall 1998 to spring 1999. "I thought Johnstone was terrible when I moved in," Roth remembers. "The best thing about it was the majority of the freshman guys living there, so it was a great place to meet your first friends at Clemson." He still keeps in touch with those friends. His next-door neighbor later became a fraternity brother. Excitement often rocked the halls of Johnstone. Early Saturday morning, February 5, 1999, a lone candle flickered silently until it caught onto other room items. The fire bell clanged as residents of Johnstone E section quickly ran out to escape the smoke, girls and all. One female visitor, embarrassed because she was caught red-handed staying in the guys' dorm, couldn't help but laugh at herself. A fire alarm is never welcome, especially at 6:40 a.m.

The early morning fire was not the only one to plague Johnstone through the years. The dumpster outside sections E and F burned for days while the fire department ignored the flaming trash. Apparently, the fire department thought that students started the fire and wanted them to suffer a little for what they had caused. The students decided to take the situation into their own hands, dragging the dumpster cover over the top so that the trash would hopefully burn itself out. One student, Larry Black ('71) later wrote a letter to The Tiger, the Clemson student newspaper, encouraging students to write to President Edwards to complain about the fire department.

Students in 2002 still understand the significance of Johnstone to Clemson. Last year, two students knew that the valuable mementos would soon be taken out because the Housing Department planned to take out most of the door plaques, gun racks and the original building materials to sell to Clemson alumni. Risking themselves, the students decided they would embark on their own reconnaissance mission for a few sentimental door plaques and gun racks. After realizing that the doors were already gone, their excitement fell a bit, but the two maintain that the experience that night was "a priceless image" that no one can take away, "a last glimpse of something important to Clemson, so memory filled and so important to so many."

The Johnstone experience was real. Drew Land, President of Student Senate during the 2001-2002 school year, believes "the greatest thing about Johnstone was that as bad, dirty and nasty as it could get, you knew it was fun and felt the strong sense of community held within the walls".

Returning to Clemson for football games in Death Valley, every Tiger fan can see the hole where Johnstone once stood. Meanwhile, the memories keep Johnstone alive.

Bill Gentile, Class of '91, definitely knows the true meaning of Johnstone. "Johnstone's walls will be knocked down, reduced the dust and scarp metal, but its memories will be treasured by those who were lucky enough to experience life in a place that was more special than what others saw as an old Army barrack."

The preceding story comes courtesy of Erin Smith, a recent graduate from Clemson University. would like to thank Erin for her contribution to our site, and also send out a congratulations for her recent engagement to Irmo native and Atlanta basketball legend, Matt Watson. Top Stories