SPARTANBURG - The walls are talking in Converse College's Pell Hall.
Sounds of construction, sawing and drilling, and the crackle of debris falling through open shafts among its four floors recently filled the 123-year-old shell of the building.
Construction crews have gutted the entire 16,842-square-foot building, stripping modern Sheetrock and angular door frames to reveal bead boarding, arched brick doorways and wallpaper, painted and stamped by hand, original to the 1891 structure.
"You can almost see the girls coming up the stairs, in their dresses and hats," said college spokeswoman Beth Lancaster as she toured the building, referring to the students who were among the very first to attend the women's college more than 120 years ago.
Kipp Cox, project manager for Harper Corp. General Contractors, said an historic building like Pell speaks during major construction projects like these.
"It's almost a living creature," he said. "It tells you what it can and can't do."
Molly Duesterhaus, Converse's vice president of student life and dean of students, said you could place a golf ball on the floor of Pell and watch it roll before the work began.
"You could see the sag in the floor," she said.
Cox said the fourth floor was six inches lower before the start of construction. Tie rods were installed, and the building was jacked up gradually, 1/8 of an inch at a time. What began next was almost like an archaeology project into the earliest history of Converse. During past renovations of Pell, it was modernized to include sheetrock and carpeting. Hardwood floors, their wide planks currently covered in construction dust, will be preserved, and wide ceiling beams will be salvaged and used in restoration, said Rhonda Mingo, assistant dean of students. Under the wall coverings, workers found decorative vents for gas heat. Pell also had gas lighting when it opened as a residence hall, the second building on campus, in 1891.
The original Pell included two calisthenics rooms - areas for indoor exercising that was becoming popular during the late 1800s. Though those gym-like rooms had long been converted to living space, the original beams for them were found during demolition on the first and second floors.
The original plan for the renovation was all Sheetrock, but the bead boarding, along with chair rails and base boards, will be preserved or restored along the stairwells. Another surprise find was a square brown liquor bottle hidden in the floorboards. Retired history professor Jeffrey Willis, now the college's historian, said the bottle probably dates back to 1945. Could it have been hidden on purpose, by a student or faculty member perhaps?
"Very likely," Willis said, with a smile.
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