Occupants share memories, pay final respects to quirky Fred Hall

August 27, 2003

Even though its ceilings leaked and its heating vents rattled, the hundreds of scientists who passed through the hallways of E. B. Fred Hall came to accept the building’s quirks.

No longer suited for modern-day science, the building is marked for demolition, which will begin next April. On Saturday, Aug. 30, some of the people who worked and studied in the building over the years gathered to say their final farewells to “Fred.”

Constructed in 1953 on the corner of Linden Drive and Babcock Drive, Fred Hall, formerly called the “Bacteriology Building,” was the first home of the bacteriology department. Its 15 laboratory areas brought together the department’s faculty and students in a way never done before on campus.

“The department had very limited and inadequate facilities for many years,” recalls Robert Burris, an emeritus biochemistry professor who received a doctorate degree in bacteriology from UW–Madison in 1940 and who still refers to Fred Hall as “the new bacteriology building.” Before it was headquartered in Fred Hall, the department occupied the nooks of buildings such as Agriculture and King halls, where Burris did his thesis research. “The building filled an obvious gap and was very well received,” recalls the retired biochemist.

Despite this warm reception, Fred Hall was riddled with architectural problems during much of its life. For instance, pipes carrying cold water for the emergency decontamination showers ran alongside steam pipes, which resulted in scalding showers. The heating radiators in the main lecture hall would “sing” as heat filtered through.

“They were so loud you couldn’t hear the speaker,” says Gary Roberts, a bacteriology professor who spent half his career in Fred Hall. Maintenance crews, he adds, worked on the problem for years, but could never fix it.

Another nuisance was leaking laboratory ceilings. A little ingenuity from smart scientists, though, remedied it. For example, Roberts taped tinfoil troughs to the ceiling. At each end of the troughs strings dropped down along the walls. Roberts says the strings guided the water to the sides of the room and kept it from dripping directly into lab experiments.

To top it all off, the building was struck by lightning in 1987. Scars of the incident are still visible on the northwest corner.

“There were a bunch of things that were a pain in the butt,” shares Roberts, “but they didn’t interfere with the quality of science.” If anything, he adds, they brought the department closer together.

Over the years, the changing face of science outgrew Fred Hall. Roberts says, “The building was designed to do 19th century science.” That is, the labs were built to accommodate one faculty researcher and several students. Today, when most research labs are larger and group interaction more common, roomier areas are needed. “It’s better for modern science to have larger lab space,” explains Roberts. “It creates a better community.”

With that in mind, Fred Hall will be bulldozed to make way for a new building designed for such science. At 330,000 square feet — nearly four times the size of the current building — the new building will accommodate 47 labs from three academic departments, including bacteriology, food microbiology and toxicology, and medical microbiology and immunology. Researchers in these areas will be interspersed and located in “neighborhoods,” which will house research groups with similar scientific interests.

“The idea is to create more interaction,” says Glenn Chambliss, who is chair of the bacteriology department, resident of Fred Hall for 29 years and a leading proponent of the new building project. “These different areas of microbiology can cross-fertilize with ideas.”

Right now, the new building will be called the “Microbial Sciences Building.” But Chambliss says it will carry on the Fred legacy in some way. “The naming of Fred Hall was an honor to Dr. E.B. Fred,” a bacteriologist who joined the UW–Madison community in 1913 and served as its president from 1945-1958. “We haven’t decided how we will continue honoring him.”

Also, relics of Fred Hall will decorate the walls of the modern building. Roberts, who volunteered to sift through a roomful of items in the departmental safe as Fred Hall was being vacated, found student rosters dating back to the beginning of the department, old laboratory light fixtures, and photographs of and letters from some of the department’s early faculty. Roberts hopes some of these items will be displayed as reminders of the department’s history.