Hey UNC Planning Community, What’s Off about New East?

The first time I walked into New East, I was overwhelmed by the sensation that something was off.

This happens to me from time to time, usually when I am in an unfamiliar space or a familiar space that has changed. This is not normally a hair-raising feeling, but it can become bothersome – particularly if the usual suspects have been eliminated and the impression persists.[1] If left unresolved, mild annoyance can fester into madness (e.g. what happened at the Overlook Hotel in The Shining).

New East is a special case. From the awkward foyer, to the single-occupant but double-stall restroom, to the fourth-floor staircase: the entire building suffers from spatial incongruence.

5- New East north side
The north side of New East. Photo Credit: Alison Salomon

Last fall, I began looking for an explanation – a potential root cause from which all of these other bothersome (mis)uses have sprung. About two months into the semester, I developed a hypothesis: New East is backwards. Or, rather, we treat New East backwards. We primarily enter and exit through the back of the building, instead of using its intended front.

Undated photo of New East. Photo Credit: University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Image Collection #P0004, North Carolina Collection Photographic Archives, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Here is my evidence:

  1. The building’s cornerstone. Have you ever noticed it? Probably not, unless I pointed it out to you (thanks for feigning excitement). New East’s cornerstone is partially obscured by a small brick wall and is located on the northeast corner, far from the hubbub of the southeast and southwest corners. The north side of the building is closest to Franklin Street and the Planetarium. We treat it as the building’s “rear façade.” But cornerstones are usually found on front façades.
  2. Architectural features of the building’s north side. Look at how attractive it is! In particular, notice the bump out that distinguishes this side from New East’s south side (a.k.a. the “front” of the building). The current approach to New East feels very anticlimactic, in part because the southern wall is so long, flat, and uninterrupted. The north-facing wall, by contrast, draws one in. Almost as though it is the building’s true front.
  3. Old photographs of the building. I talked to a few librarians who maintain the North Carolina Collection over in Wilson Library. They showed me a bunch of archival photographs of New East. Prior to 1920, most of the images feature the present-day “rear façade” of the building. Why were people taking pictures of New East’s backside? Maybe because it was the front.
  4. The layout of campus at the time of the building’s completion. Construction on New East occurred in the late 1850s and early 1860s, at which point McCorkle Place (the north quad) was the center of campus. According to the aforementioned librarians, the buildings on campus at that time would have fronted the quad. That means the northern side would have served as the main entrance to New East.
2- 0334_New_East_circa_19001902_Scan_1
Undated photo of New East. Photo Credit: University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Image Collection #P0004, North Carolina Collection Photographic Archives, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

It is clear to me that at some point the building got turned around. Externally and internally. I suspect that the construction of Cameron Avenue precipitated these changes. Following the reconfiguration of the building’s main entrance, New East underwent a series of interior renovations. The dual doors on the north and south walls were replaced with single entryways. The staircase was repositioned to open up to the newly christened front door on the southern wall, and assumed an ungodly amount of space in the process. Many of the building’s small rooms (New East was originally used as a dormitory) were grouped together to create lab space for the geology department. Out on the north lawn, the “New East Annex” was built and promptly demolished. For a brief moment in time, the basement held cadavers.[2]

4- new east annex demolition
The “New East Annex” was built and promptly demolished. Photo Credit: University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Image Collection #P0004, North Carolina Collection Photographic Archives, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

I wish that I could say for certain that my hunch is correct. Another librarian over at Wilson is looking for archival blueprints for me. If those can be located and if I am granted access (it turns out blueprints are restricted documents), perhaps I will get my answers. In the meantime, I maintain my sanity by avoiding the central staircase, using the north door as much as possible, and reimagining the Reading Room.

If any of these things bother you, too, you might be interested in an upcoming group workshop focused on New East. The goal of the workshop is to understand how New East works and doesn’t work for its users. Your input will be compiled into a short report that can serve as a future resource in deciding how to allocate space in New East or make improvements to the building, as the need to do so may arise. The event will be on Tuesday, May 9th at 2pm in New East’s 2nd floor Reading Room.

There will be a brief introduction, followed by a half hour exercise identifying:
1. Important learning/working spaces.
2. Important social/supportive spaces.
3. Underutilized spaces or people and uses in need of space.
4. Important spaces for other functions including circulation, communication, and maintenance.

Student volunteers will be available until 5pm to hear any input you may have on the four subjects above.

[1] The usual suspects include, in order of frequency of offense: poorly arranged furniture, disproportionately-sized furniture, awkward area rugs, partitions, walled-over windows, stairways to nowhere, trap doors, and false mirrors.

[2] New East housed the medical school for a few years in the 1890s.

About the Author: Alison Salomon is a first year student pursuing a dual Master’s degree through the Department of City & Regional Planning and the Gillings School of Global Public Health. She studies the intersection of land use and health behavior and is passionate about food systems, placemaking, and active transportation. She takes pride in her buttermilk biscuits, shoe tying skills, and ability to turn anything into a game.