A Human History of the Shanklin Laboratory Renovations, 1967-1978

I have just finished processing a collection of papers, the Shanklin Laboratory Renovation Records, detailing the various proposals to renovate Wesleyan’s Shanklin Laboratory in the 1960s and 1970s.

I repeat, proposals, not actual construction-based papers.

This subtlety in the nature of the collection is what interested me the most; though there are plenty of blueprints, work-orders, and lists (so many lists) scattered throughout the 19 folders that I organized the collection into, it is clear that this 10 year project never really got off the ground.

Why the hold up? You may ask. Well, there’s the short story, and the the long story. I’ll tell them both.

The Short Story


That’s a pretty short story, right? But really, in the 1960s  as enthusiastic as Wesleyan was to expand its student body (by 510 heads!) and finance new and exciting building projects, this new vigor came with a hefty price tag. Shanklin was a relatively new building- well, about 40 years old…it was new-ish in terms of structure, and completely outdated in terms of scientific facilities. The problem was that there was another even more egregiously outdated science building on campus, Hall Hall (not a typo, that really was its name), and the demolition of that building and the construction of a state-of-the-art new science center (now known as Exley) had already been approved. In the tide of excitement surrounding the construction of Exley, Shanklin’s voice was just a little too weak to obtain solid funding for renovation.

The Long Story

Now, I know that the “Short Story” was actually pretty long, so I’ll try to keep the Long Story short.

The Long Story concerns the people who had a stake in Shanklin: the professors.

The primary reason that I identified for all the delays and cancellations in the Shanklin renovation was that no one could agree on priorities. Shanklin housed faculty offices and “private” labs and research setups as well as  classrooms and teaching labs. This collection is full of letters and memos from professors to the administration lobbying for their work spaces , or at least the labs that generally served their research needs, to be given priority in the renovation.

I don’t mean to make this sound as though I, a lowly student worker, am pointing fingers. On the contrary, cataloging this collection helped me realize the complexity of the bureaucracies surrounding construction and renovation projects. It was so easy for individual voices to get lost in all the paperwork, and the Biology Department professors wanted to be sure that they would continue to be heard as the facilities that shaped their research, teaching, and employment underwent changes. There were so many decisions to be made, from where windows should be placed in light-sensitive lab setups to what collections of lab furniture should be ordered.

Unfortunately, with all these clashing agendas; the higher ups wanting to make minimum renovations so as to conserve much-needed funds, and the professors insisting that their working conditions were bordering on unacceptable; only a few rooms got renovated each year, a far cry from the large-scale changes proposed in 1967.

This collection, though relatively straight-forward, is an excellent example of the human side of constructing a campus. Buildings come up and down over the years, but it’s seldom that we get to peek into the web of arrangements, fears, and conflicts that facilitated these changes. I’d take a closer look if I were you!

3 thoughts on “A Human History of the Shanklin Laboratory Renovations, 1967-1978”

  1. Hmm. A forty year-old building that is “newish in terms of structure, and completely outdated in terms of scientific facilities”. What I find so fascinating about these narratives in Wesleyan’s history is that no matter how straitened the circumstances, the commitment to a rigorous academic experience in the sciences never waned; there was never any talk of “maybe we should be happy being a nice little liberal arts college.” Now, might be as good a time as any to remind ourselves that Wesleyan has always invested in people and program first — and, facilities later.

  2. Are there any books written on general Wesleyan University history? It seems like there would be so many interesting stories and useful information.

  3. Hi Max,

    There are two general histories of Wesleyan, Carl Price’s Wesleyan’s First Century and David Potts’s Wesleyan University 1831-1910: Collegiate Enterprise in New England. The second volume of Potts’s history (through 1968) will be out in a couple of years. There are also a number of other books about particular aspects of Wesleyan, like Leslie Starr’s Welcome to Wesleyan: Campus Buildings. The Archives is full of great information that will hopefully inspire other books!

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