Pillbox

From the Archives 3: The Secrets of Wean

This week, I actually did some proper archival research to bring you the high-quality historical content you've come to expect from PILLBOX. All of the historical photos pictured here come from the University Archives General Photo Collection, and all first-hand correspondence I cite is from the Physical Plant Collection

Wean (also called "The Turtle", allegedly), was built in 1971 in the style of brutalism, the mid-20th century's most unfortunate architectural fad. Wean looks more like the FBI headquarters in DC than a building of higher education. Even so, I find it one of the most strangely compelling structures on campus. Originally called the Research-Computer building (an appropriately bland name), it was renamed to Wean Hall in 1981 after the death of Raymond John Wean, CMU alumnus (class of 1917) and industrialist. The Dec. 6, 1981 edition of the Youngstown Vindicator tells us that the building was dedicated on account of his "many honors, including a CMU alumni distinguished achievement award." He also was an alumni trustee, and received an honorary doctorate of engineering from CMU 1971.

In Henry Hornbostel's original 1904 proposal for campus, he planned to have Doherty Hall continue down the north end of the mall (mirroring the regular pattern of Baker-Porter on the south end). But the university never got around to fully implementing this plan, leaving a conspicuous Wean-sized chunk of undeveloped hillside for the better part of half a century.

Fresh off the heels of the merger with the Mellon Institute, President Guyford Stever's administration decided it was high time to complete this quad, and began constructing a new building to house the departments of mathematics, computer science, and statistics, along with labs for physics, metallurgy, and material science. A 1968 memo tells us, "GROUND WILL BE BROKEN this summer for this new $13,100,000 Research-Computer Building at Carnegie-Mellon University. The eight-story facility will be built on the side of a ravine bordering campus; thus only three stories and a mechanical equipment penthouse show in this view from the mall."

A factoid I often hear repeated is that Wean once won an award for being one of the most beautiful concrete structures in the world. In fact, the CMU KGB has a page that tells us, using direct quotes, that it was declared the "Most Aesthetically Pleasing Concrete Structure" at some point in the distant past. I was ready to dismiss this rumor entirely, as it seems like the perfect type of dubious meme that would get repeated and distorted through decades of word-of-mouth repetition. But to my surprise, the archives provided me with physical proof; a menu from the 1972 annual awards dinner for Outstanding Concrete Project, sponsored by the Pittsburgh Area Chapter of the American Concrete Institute. During this prestigious evening, they honored Carnegie Mellon's "Research-Computer Building" for being the "completed structure which best represents excellence in conception, originality, and applicability of structural concrete both in design and construction". For dessert, they had "Pecan Ball, Fudge Sauce."

Despite being a relative newcomer to our campus (it's still less than half the age of Baker, Porter, Doherty, and Hammerschlag), Wean already has some historical charm to it. If you've never had the privilege of walking down the Wean 4600 corridor, I highly recommend it. Of all the bizarre places on our storied campus, that hallway is easily one of the most confusing and unsettling. Upon further analysis, this hallway is even stranger than I realized — it burrows into the mall, stretching nearly all the way to Porter. The mall isn't even the mall. It's merely a thin layer of topsoil to conceal the gargantuan concrete roots of Wean. Historical photos reveal that the area of grass directly to the left of the entrance to Wean used to be below grade, serving as a direct entrance to the fourth floor. The front entrance also used to feature that weird orange cube statue that now lives in front of Fifth Neville apartments.

So, if you're staying on campus this Thanksgiving week, maybe spend some time exploring the secrets hidden with this mysterious concrete monolith. If you manage to find the stairwell that takes you to the forbidden 9th floor, send us a picture!