Built in 1915, the “Students’ Building” (now Harrison hall) has served the widest range of functions amongst the buildings on the quad.Throughout its history, Harrison was home to the school’s second auditorium, a dining room, laundry room, classrooms, the school’s first moving picture machine, Glee Club rehearsals, music classes, the library, music practice rooms, and a post office. Today Harrison is home to the school of communications as well as media arts and design, with a full TV production studio in its basement.
In its first days as the Students Building, Harrison was home to a new library, offices, and an auditorium. Its main purpose however was to serve as a dining hall. Despite the dining hall being the primary reason for Harrison’s construction, it couldn’t function as a dining area until 1916, two years after its construction was started. As the schools population grew, the need for a larger dining hall was present. This lead to renovations in 1922 that expanded Harrison’s dining hall, resulting in the relocation of Harrison’s auditorium to Sheldon Hall.
On December 13, 1924, a column in the Breeze that allowed student’s to submit their own writings, “Campus Cat”, posted a letter from a student to Santa, asking him to stack Harrison’s basement with chewing gum. This might seem like a weird request for Santa, but it was very telling of the student population at the time. Chewing gum became a craze amongst female students living on campus. Despite the student population’s love for chewing gum, many of the Breeze’s editors condemned the practice of public gum chewing, describing the habit as unrefined. Still, many students kept chewing on. This shows the type of standards that women were held to at the time. The pressure to keep a certain standard of ladylike character was very present for women who attended the Harrisonburg Teaching College (now known as James Madison University).
In 1917, the Students’ Building (now Harrison Hall) received a gift from President Burruss. The building received a life-size statue of Joan of Arc. In the words of President Burruss, the staues purpose was to “serve to inspire every young woman who sees it . . . with faith and hope and courage.” The statue was placed in Harrison Hall’s lobby to be seen by all. Over the years the statue became an icon amongst students, but as time past further, the statue had been forgotten by many. The student population grew and Harrison became increasingly congested. People became concerned for the statues safety as it became neglected and covered in graffiti. The school decided to put the statue in storage up until 1996 when it was restored and placed in the first floor of Carrier Library.
In 1917, the Students Building was renamed Harrison Hall. The hall gets its namesake from Gessner Harrison, a Harrisonburg native who was a professor of ancient languages at the University of Virginia from 1828 to 1859. According to a 1984 Breeze article, he was renowned for “[serving] his people through the schools.” Harrison was deeply loyal to slavery and the South. When Virginia seceded in April 1861, Harrison’s four sons enlisted in the Confederate army. Harrison was not the only Confederate to have a building renamed for after him that year. Jackson hall and Maury hall were also named after prominent Confederates figures. It was no coincidence they were all renamed at this time. The renaming of these halls were a part of the Lost Cause movement, a movement to interpret the Civil War in such a way that shows the Confederate perspective in a positive light. This movement stemmed from white Southerners who wanted to keep the values of the “Old South” alive. Followers of the idea often tout the idea that the South was brave to fight an oppressive Union, often ignoring the role slavery played in the Confederacy’s motives.
Today, after many renovations and additions, Harrison is home to the College of Arts and Letters. Many SMAD, SCOM, and WRTC majors flock to and from the building to take classes and further their educational experience.