by Shaikha Almawlani
photography by Melody Blazauskas
If Miller Hall were a woman, she would be a strong, educated, empowered woman with long-braided sparkling silver hair, who is dressed in East Coast Ivy league splendor, with strong pillar arms holding her up. She has served generations of students in so many ways, all the time sporting a pearl radiating smile. And if Miller Hall could talk, she would tell the stories of countless women and men who have roamed her halls, slept and studied in her rooms, grew lifetime connections, fostered strong relationships, and celebrated receptions in her common area after “tying the knot.” She would giggle about the hundreds of women who spent their free time tanning on her roof and scoping out the football and baseball team guys under her shoulder length barriers. She would laugh at the dorm rages and the men who stood on top of her shoulders to climb in her windows. She would reminisce on campus traditions including how generations of freshmen classes would stand on her steps for a picture, while the upperclassmen crowded her balconies and poured water on them.
Miller Hall was the first building built for collegiate use by the College trustees, following the original 1891 opening of the University in the old wood hotel. The hall was named after the ninth president, Samuel J. Miller, and had its grand opening Sept. 6, 1918, with a grand ceremony. The East Coast looking building (at times, Miller Hall has been completely covered in ivy) was at first a multi-purpose area for many people; it gave legitimacy and permanence to the University and added vibrancy to the campus fabric.
Prior to the construction of Miller, the entire college was contained in the three-story wooden hotel building that was constructed by Issac Lord, original town developer, during the real estate boom of 1887. Despite Lord’s plans, the Lordsburg Hotel never held a single guest, and he sold it to Church of the Brethren affiliated individuals with the understanding that they would open an academy. (After the University’s existing Founders Hall building was opened in 1926, Lord’s hotel structure was torn down the same year.) Upon its opening in 1918, Miller Hall initially supported student services, including dorm rooms for women, the library, bookstore and dining hall in the basement (with the head maiden supervising staff). Later, with the razing of the hotel building, Founders Hall offered academic classrooms plus faculty, staff and administrative offices.
Up until the late 1940s, male students lived off campus and would commute or live with local families in the city. In 1948, Woody Hall was built and opened as the men’s dorm, serving in that role for several decades. Nevertheless, the men would find their way into Miller Hall, and stories abound of their pranks. Once, they mischievously flooded the top floor and turned it into their own slip ’n’ slide, says Benjamin Jenkins, ULV archivist and assistant professor of history, who has collected many anecdotal stories on the hall.
Brooke Martinez was a freshman at La Verne College in 1969. (The school changed its name from college to university in 1977). At the time, most incoming freshmen wanted to live in Studebaker-Hanawalt Hall because it was new and more modern. (Stu-Han opened in 1956.) “A lot of people did not want to live in Miller,” Brooke says. Nevertheless, the rustic look did not deter Brooke, who lived in Miller Hall all four years of her stay. During her freshman year, she stayed on the first floor of Miller in the windowed porches. “It was kind of fun our freshman year to live on a porch with glass windows,” Brooke says. “When I found out I was living in Miller Hall, the minute I laid eyes on that dormitory, I fell in love with it and ended up staying there all four years.”
Brooke recounts that she and friend Sue Houg met their two best friends, Becky Long and Kathy Soden, while staying in Miller Hall. The women met four Phi Delta friends, Fred, Dave, Larry and Richard, whom they have been married to for the past 40 years. She says they and their La Verne husbands are all friends to this day and enjoy spending their retirement days going to the movies and dining together. “Miller Hall really made us friends for life,” she says.
Glass window rooms and tanning beds on the roof were not the only perks Miller offered. The women enjoyed an active basement atmosphere, living in the heart of campus, with support services close at hand. Miller Hall was truly the heart of campus. “The bookstore and ‘The Spot’ were the only places to hangout in La Verne, and they were in the basement of Miller Hall,” says Brooke. With the opening of Davenport Dining Hall, a fast food area—serving burgers and milk shakes—was opened in Miller Hall. “Davenport only served three meals a day, and there were no snacks all day, so you could always go down to ‘The Spot’ and get a bag of popcorn or snacks.”
Phyllis Soto lived in Miller Hall during her freshmen year in 1965-1966. “My roommate and I had a long end room, second or third floor, with windows all around,” says Phillis. “It was really special.” She recalls the times she shared with her sister, who was a senior at the time, as her favorite memories in Miller, while she adds that her study abroad experience to Spain was a highlight too. She cites the friendships she made and the sense of community in the building as forefront in her memory. “It is amazing that it’s 100 years old,” Phyllis says.
Miller Hall figuratively was a resilient mother who swayed but stayed firm to the ground protecting her children during the 1933 Long Beach, 6.4 earthquake and 1971, 6.6 San Fernando earthquake. Nevertheless, the latter quake caused Miller Hall to be ostracized, and she face a demolition death sentence in 1977 because of seismic and restoration cost issues. Her historical value was dismissed, and she was about to be stripped of her landmark status. Some students with poignant memories of Miller were heart broken. After nearly a decade of being shunned and used for general University storage, Miller was slated to be razed in the 1980s.
The news of Miller Hall’s pending demolition came as a shock to the campus’ student body. Even though Miller was able to survive the 1971 San Fernando earthquake while freeways in the local valleys were crumbling, the earthquake incident heightened concerns about the building’s construction. Brooke recalls being in Miller during the earthquake. “I lived on the second story, and that building just swayed; it did not crumble as many other buildings in the area did,” says Brooke. “That building was a rock.” Despite the testimonial strength of the building, after a stress test, Miller Hall’s exquisite yet forbidden unreinforced architecture was deemed not earthquake safe. The structure was built following the construction methods of its day where unreinforced concrete was poured into wooden molds. The building had no foundation, and to bring it up to code, the structure required the installation of post tension cabling, but the price tag was too high for the college leadership at the time.
The ULV alumni rallied. Community activists, who had recently formed a city directed “Save Old La Verne’s Environment” organization also weighed in. A crucial donation was received with the stipulation that “the heart of campus, Miller be saved.” Consequently, Miller Hall underwent substantial retrofitting and remodeling.
It re-opened in 1991, newly transformed into an academic Arts and Sciences building, complete with classrooms and faculty office space. University administrators were proud of its new look. They placed the Admissions Office on its second floor so that prospective new students would be impressed with the now “new” best looking building on the University campus.
Gary Colby, ULV photography professor emeritus and former chairman of the Photography Department, witnessed the installation of the post-tension cabling. He says that in order to preserve Miller and bring it up to seismic safety code, workers dug enormous holes under the corners of the building and loaded it up with reinforcement steel and poured concrete on it; then, they pulled huge cables up to the roof in order to compress the concrete so when the building shakes it does not fall apart. “I watched them build that,” Gary says. “That was just the most amazing interior engineering construction I’d ever witnessed.” Gary and his Photography Department moved into the basement of Miller Hall on its grand opening. The process was very costly to the University, with more than $950,000 spent in the rejuvenation
process. “For the amount of money we paid for it, I bet you we could have gotten a much more efficient building,” Gary says.
“There are documents in the archives documenting the millions of dollars that had to be pumped into the building to keep it running,” says Benjamin Jenkins, the University archivist, who attended the University of La Verne starting in 2007. Benjamin remembers he had his first writing class in Miller Hall at 8 a.m. His first impression was the size of the classroom—a small intimate space—a safe and homely environment. Now heading the archives, Benjamin takes a close look at the history of Miller Hall and the evolution of the University. “The University feels more modern; we have a better reputation, the education and professors are more thought of, and the University degree is valued more,” he says. “Today, graduating from La Verne feels more special and accomplished than it did then. Buildings like Miller Hall remind us who we were, and how much we have changed as a University. Students should be proud to carry La Verne diplomas for the rest of their lives,” he says.
Nevertheless, Benjamin notices a change in the dynamics of the student body, which resulted in a shift in the culture of the University. It was the intent of early administrators to ground the University as a residential campus. Hence, one of the first buildings was the Miller Hall dormitory. The rapid growth of the University and the lack of enough affordable on-campus housing has led to many students living off campus. Nevertheless, the University has recently added new residence halls so about 1,000 students live on campus. Citrus Hall, the newest addition to the University dormitories, houses approximately 400 students; Vista La Verne houses approximately 378 students in suite styled dorms; and The Oaks Hall, currently the oldest dormitory at the University, houses 250 students in six buildings. “The college is bigger and has a more diverse student body,” Benjamin says. “Some people don’t have the sense of community they had back then; some commuting students just come to learn in a building and leave.”
The recent razing of two dormitories, Brandt Hall and Studebaker Hanawalt Hall, has moved the center of campus, he says. “Miller was at the heart of Campus, even Stu Han came close to being at its heart. Putting these new dorms on the streets or at the corners of the University takes away the sense of community on campus and has shifted the center of the University toward the Campus Center.”
Unlike Miller Hall, the demolition of the two dormitories did not face any resistance. “If that did not happen when we were about to demolish Stu-Han or Brandt Hall, I don’t think it would happen to a building like Founders,” Benjamin says. “It comes as a surprise since people typically have an emotional connection to where they live.”
Some alumni did voice their sadness in regards to the demolition of Stu-Han; however, it did not register as historical as Miller Hall, Woody Hall or Founders Hall. “It is sad to see the demolition of Stu Han,” says Becky Long, 1973 ULV alumna. “Miller and Founders Hall are the backbones of La Verne. They give it its charm and history. Tearing down that would be destroying that backbone.” She says there is an importance toward maintaining close relationships within the University and fears that changes that accompany the title of a bigger school mean that the University will lose its historic small class offerings and personal educational touch. “We knew our professors, and they knew us,” Becky says. “If we missed class, they knew it and would comment on it if they saw you on campus. It was a very different feeling than most big colleges.”
“I thought it was a school that was willing to change, and I think that is one of the reasons why I enjoyed living in Miller Hall all four years,” says Brooke. “It was very liberal, and I loved that. People are always looking forward to improving themselves, being progressive of their vision, and staying current.” ■