The House that MC Escher and the Marquis de Sade Built
This article was originally published on the history blog Tropics of Meta.
Kell Hall was not the first building I taught in at Georgia State University, but it was almost definitely the worst. (Kell’s mangled fraternal twin Sparks Hall is only a little better.) I was assigned to teach Twentieth Century U.S. History in the dreaded 111, a claustrophobic, windowless, somehow trapezoid-shaped room with terrible acoustics on what was arguably the first floor of Kell. It was not super conducive to learning, but we did our best.
By the time you read these words, Kell will be not much more than a mesothelioma cloud. It is being razed to make way for Georgia State University’s future; though a few folks groused that the building’s historic significance merited continuing its weird, ungainly existence, it is also true that a search for “Historic preservation and Kell Hall” or “Save Kell Hall” on Google brings up… let’s say, modest results. More likely to be found are wistful memories of everyone’s least favorite Southern-fried No Wave band, Kell Hell and the Rat Factory.
When first built in 1925, the Bolling Jones Building was regarded as a cutting-edge “automobile hotel,” described with characteristically Atlantan understatement as “the most modern structure of its nature in the world” by the Atlanta Constitution. It was acquired by Georgia State in 1946 to serve as classroom space, to accommodate its swelling student population (bolstered by veterans on the GI Bill).
I won’t belabor the details of the history of Kell, which are very well explained here. But think about that: a parking deck converted into classrooms. It seems that the university bought it because it was big, cheap, structurally sound, and available at a time of urgent need. But the interior had to be retrofitted to look something like what a human person would think of when they think “school” or “college.”
The result was an 11th-dimensional jigsaw puzzle of a building, with blind turns, hallways that led nowhere, oddly shaped classrooms jutting out of corners, and, most remarkably, a baffling system of floors. More than one wag has compared Kell to the building in Being John Malkovich with the 7½ floor. I liked to say it was designed by MC Escher and the Marquis De Sade—though sometimes I’d throw BF Skinner in there for good measure. Or Stanley Milgram? It was almost like it was deliberately designed to test the limits of a subject’s patience and cognition by placing the cheese at the center of a logically impossible maze.
Yet many mourn Kell Hall. For one thing, the retrofitted postwar building retained the ramps that used to connect floors of neatly parked cars, giving rise to the university yearbook known as Rampway. It was also inadvertently semi-ADA compliant long before the ADA was passed in 1990.
And it was just weird—like an ugly outfit you dig up in the closet after twenty years, or a weird old friend you used to smoke salvia with. They remind you, “Wow, I used to be a really different person.” For better or worse.
I like humble, inadequate, eccentric things, things that are drably functional if far from perfect. (My coworkers think I’m joking when I say I’m a Stalinist at heart, at least when it comes to architecture.) Kell Hall is gone, or close to it. The university’s leaders have grand designs for Georgia State, downtown Atlanta, and probably Mars colonization. Part of that ambition is to replace the cramped jenga of Kell with an open green space that connects otherwise noncontiguous public spaces—and, most importantly, looks more like what people think of when they think of a college campus.
Being a gritty urban university has always been part of Georgia State’s charm and its pitch: much more NYU than Emory. But moms and dads and doms probably want to see something more verdant and college-y when they come for a tour. What they will find is the university’s aspirational self, not its awkward teen self with an either awesomely or terribly Cubist haircut. It also keys into Atlanta’s own relentless mythology of death and rebirth, self-destruction and self-invention. In the end, Kell was a mystifying yet charmingly awful symbol of Georgia State’s long ramp from the swamps to the stars. As they say, ad asbestos per aspera.