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Rearview Mirror: Freedom to do...Something?

With Tech left to wander the wilds of independent life outside the SEC, Edwin Harrison got back to work, well, doing his actual job.

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Well, in classic mid-century Tech form, it seems they were building something again.
Georgia Tech Archives/Georgia Tech Photography Collection (

EDITOR’S NOTE: This was begun in February. Anything that refers to “this week” refers to the week in which it was written. Apologies for the delay.

A note before we begin: This week, Tech lost a great icon of its history with the passing of Ford Greene at the age of 76. We covered the story of him, Lawrence Williams, Ralph Long, and Robert Yancey earlier in the fall when discussing the integration of Georgia Tech and the erection of two statues commemorating the first steps of the three man who integrated Tech, as well as its first graduate. In Greene’s own words,

“It’s important to look back and see your history, measure yourself and see what progress has been made, and also look at what progress needs to continue to be made and move forward.”

Georgia Tech has moved quite a long distance forward since that day. In no small part, this school looks like what it does today because of the actions of this man, and other brave men and women like him. It is a fortunate thing that he was able to see the unveiling of the statue dedicated to him in September. In many cases, commemorations like that happen too late. Tech has a rich history, full of great men and women, pioneers and reformers, leaders and legends. It is only fitting we honor them in as fitting a way possible. Thank you, Ford Greene, for your legacy of resilience and inspiration at Georgia Tech, a place we all hold so dear.

While digging back through some links to reflect on Greene, I came across this anecdote in the Daily Digest. Perhaps the other fellow mentioned by name will be recognizable:

Greene recalled his first class on campus: Army ROTC, then mandatory for all students. “I was placed in the front rank,” Greene said. “There were numerous ugly remarks coming from the rear of the rank.” When the platoon commander heard the other students’ comments, he shut them down. It didn’t hurt that the commander was Chick Graning, the football team’s star running back. “I can’t repeat what Chick told them, but it had something to do with severe bodily harm,” Greene said. “His final threat was, ‘I will put you out of ROTC.’ ROTC was a requirement for graduation. So, never again did I hear that.”

You may remember Graning, a man held in seemingly unwavering universal respect, from his own indelible part in the history of Georgia Tech. It’s fairly easy to argue that he, too, would leave just as apparent of a mark on the Tech we see today, after one play of one game at Legion Field in Alabama. The Graning Hit was a key straw that broke the camel’s back that was our relationship with the Southeastern Conference.

We’re back to some vintage Rearview Mirror this week. Building construction, campus politics, and the nitty-gritty details of what exactly Edwin Harrison and the rest of his campus administration was up to in the years following the highly eventful early 1960s succession of the integration of Tech (1961), the 75th Anniversary of the Institute (1963), and the departure of the school’s athletic programs from the SEC (1964).

One topic we have yet to cover in this space is the growth of campus westward in the years following the death of Blake Van Leer. It was well established, by this time, that Georgia Tech was a rapidly expanding place. The first age of physical plant expansion had seen parcels to the immediate east and north of the original hill get acquired, and growth continued to the north from there, eventually totaling about 50 acres. It would be the next push, to the west, that would round out campus to the shape it has today.

My best attempt to get some of the important roads on there without making it took cluttered. This was attempt three. (green = new, red = removed, yellow = still extant in some form, blue = land acquisition)

That expansion, 128 acres to the west of Atlantic Street into the neighborhood surrounding Couch Park, would probably be impossible today. It involved the bulldozing of nearly everything to what is now Northside Drive, thanks to a unique alignment of federal, state, and local power. Ivan Allen, mayor of Atlanta at the time, and a Tech man himself, helped make this a comprehensive, rather than piecemeal, approach. The master plan posited at the time largely came to fruition. The residential area in the northwest corner of what is now West Campus, the new Tech Parkway replacing the major thoroughfare Hemphill Avenue, the cluster of GTRI buildings on the periphery of the Marietta Street corridor all were present in that initial proposal. However, aspects like moving Bobby Dodd Stadium and the rest of the historic district onto new land failed, unsurprisingly. It’s a little hard to fathom that there is an alternate timeline with a new stadium, a new Tech Tower, and perhaps no historic district on top of the Hill. Somewhat shockingly, all of this development went relatively without a hitch.

McMath et al note that, as of their writing in 1985, the attempts to unify campus as part of this expansion and make it more visually appealing were only partially realized. This is where things like standard branding and a comprehensive landscaping master plan are quietly vital. Even today, the idea of a unified brand is pretty new. Theoretically, we have one, at long last, but with websites having just recently gone white and gold, rather than a hodgepodge, mostly black and “buzz gold” - better known as yellow - mess, but things like wayfaring signage are still wildly different from each other, let alone aligned to that brand. Point is, sure a lot of this plan was seen through, but much of it took twenty, thirty, or fifty years, if not longer, and probably would have happened in some form or fashion regardless. While having a need to build and a cohesive vision mattered, by far the most important ingredient to growth was simple: land.

Shockingly, there is no record of any of the displaced residents or private businesses organizing against the takeover. Granted, some of this might be due to the lower income bracket of residents, and the taller order taking place on the other side of town sucked up a lot of oxygen.

An aside: the causes, effects, and legacy of the Atlanta Freeway Revolts are fascinating. I just spent an hour reading about them. They’re probably worth a column on their own, at least for context. For a taste, Tenth Street was originally supposed to feature not one, but two cloverleaf interchanges, between it and the not-yet-complete Northside Drive/Tech Parkway complex in the west and Monroe and Virginia Avenue in the east. Weird.

Anyways, the plans proceeded, as the lower levels of Tech’s administrative hierarchy assuaged fears of residents. In the end, most of the first phase of the plan proceeded with a demolition of the structures, complete rewriting of the roadway map, and effective clean-slating of the neighborhood. However, the second phase really only saw the major addition of Tech Parkway, which itself was largely built to accommodate the salting of the earth that took place between what is now Ferst and what used to be Hemphill before 1972. In this area, the street grid remained more intact, and the most important landmark of the area, J. Allen Couch Elementary School, the neighborhood school, remained in place. This gives Tech the curious distinction of having repurposed not just an old local elementary school, but a high school as well, as Daniel O’Keefe High School, which, despite being tightly enveloped by campus and the Downtown Connector around this time, still offered classes through 1973. On West Campus, Couch became the home of the music department, later the center point of a residential neighborhood, while O’Keefe features Facilities, Planning, GTAA, and ROTC facilities.

Meanwhile, on East Campus, the freshman housing quad of Field, Matheson, Perry, Hanson, and Hopkins, named for two Institute presidents, two prolific professors, and the man who thought up the idea of Tech in the first place, were completed. This was phase one of construction that would see their era counterparts on West open towards the end of the decade, when Folk, Caldwell, Fulmer, Armstrong, and Hefner came online.

Now little more than a dirt field between Marcus Nanotech and the North Parking Deck, the middle of the 1960s also saw the development of the Neely Nuclear Reactor. Later famously deactivated due to Olympic concerns, the reactor was part of an onslaught of research construction started in the heady years of heavy government subsidy, complemented by the inaugural work on the outer expansion of the Engineering Experiment Station and the Space Science and Technology Buildings, which are purportedly three different structures, though they all blend together in a very 60s melange. However, the crown in the jewel, and probably the most significant physical legacy of Edwin Harrison’s drive to better the student experience at Georgia Tech was the Fred Wenn Student Center. This building, which will be extensively covered in a future column, represented everything the early years at Georgia Tech were not. Extracurriculars finally had lodged themselves in a home not sponsored by an outside organization across the street from campus.

As for life in the lead-up to that, well, examination shows that the problems of today are reflected in the problems of the past. While the organizations that dominated the scene back then have less or non-existent sway over the affairs of campus today, the era of Edwin Harrison also happened to coincide with the time that fraternities and the YMCA were at their zenith. With no focal point of a student center to be the social pole star for campus, fraternities filled that void socially, while the YMCA filled it organizationally. Both offered living space, as the residential building boom previously described was a reactive measure, rather than a proactive one. As veterans, eager to complete their studies and move on, gave way to traditional students, focused more on their social life and camaraderie than academics, the campus was caught in the philosophical crosshairs. Much as is true today in the rise of the Common App era and ballooning bureaucracy, students saw the rapidly increasing academic standards as impartial and eroding the character they - and by extension their organizations - were building. The “City too Busy to Hate” may have been the prevailing mindset in Atlanta at large at the time, but, on campus, students were hardly aware of it. They were there to enjoy themselves, learn, and get a good job. That meant they were also too busy to get involved with the general protests affecting the nation. While the east side was fighting freeways, the campus was busy in their studies, or, often, lack of it. The Technique editions of the era bely the extent of domination by fraternities. They had control over SGA, Reck Club, and, most likely, non-full time positions at the YMCA. Whether dances, intramurals, or things like houses burning down, fraternities were usually the source of the news. Social life didn’t flow through the small amount of women who were on campus as much as Emory, Agnes Scott, and whomever the houses had brought in on a given night.

In 1960, administration “issued an absolute and unenforceable rule against the drinking of intoxicating beverages at any student functions.” This was the peak of the student-administration discontent, for obvious reasons, but, really, student protest didn’t really reach issues relevant beyond the highway, North, Tenth, or Marietta, and their involvement in service didn’t go much farther than Atlanta projects. Yet, at the same time, the administration was pushing for greater freedoms for the student body in quashing the T-Cut and mandatory Rat Cap rules, attempting to crack the stranglehold fraternities had on power and opinion, and delegated more power to the Student Government and freedom of opinion to the student press.

We’ve touched in the past on the power struggle that’s pretty much always been inherent at Tech between the school culture and the shop culture. This was as true in the 1950s and 1960s as ever, as seen in the Mason debate. Independent of that, as it pertains to engineering in particular, though, Tech was in need of a curricular overhaul, philosophy be [Duran Duran]ed. This started with a set of core classes. Before Harrison, and even lasting past him, every school and major had seemingly a different option for the same classes. There was no unified system teaching things like statics and deformable bodies. This is the root of the “COE” class designation, since, in this time, the administration also pushed to have a general “engineering” degree. The degree is since gone, as is the independent mechanics curriculum, but the college of engineering core, as well as other significant unified courses, remain. Additional humanities and social science classes would help to round out the industrious, calculating engineer to a more worldly college graduate. While the engineering college fought over the fate of the ratio of theoretical vs. hands-on learning, the theoretical content that was taught returned more to the principles than rote memorization of further topics, to build more holistic students. Courses were redesigned to match liberal arts schools by transitioning from finals taught during class periods to a traditional exam schedule. Thus, the concept of dead week or reading week can’t really have predated 1958-59, about 70 years into the school’s existence, which is an interesting thing to digest. However, as McMath notes,

“The dominant pedagogical orientation...was extremely traditional and rigid. Many faculty members seemed to believe that simply by forcing students through a series of academic hurdles, a sort of academic variant on boot camp, graduates would be produced who could deal with the “real world.” In curricular terms, Georgia Tech throughout the sixties continued to be somewhat insular, perhaps most accurately described by its student nickname, ‘The North Avenue Trade School.’”

I always assumed that nickname was derisively applied by outsiders. Go figure. As with the humanities and social science push, increasing scrutiny was being applied to allow students to pivot classes from particular technical courses to free electives, and ease the number of classes required in total.

Of course, this all sounds great in theory. In practice, it wasn’t touched with a ten foot pole, let alone implemented, until a guy named Arthur G. Hansen - not to be confused with John Hanson, an early champion of manufacturing education in Georgia and namesake of the aforementioned dormitory - showed up as Den of Engineering in 1966. For that, we can thank, in no small part, the ever-controversial Jesse Mason, who, despite his lasting legacy as the loudest of the “old guard” of shop culture, proved on the wrong side of history in this debate, too.

Despite the strides made in sheer volume of research and graduate education, Tech still lagged behind in these two critical parts of its mission during Harrison’s tenure. Its stated academic peers were, in reality, head and shoulders above Georgia Tech. There was no fighting between professors who taught solely undergrads and had no interest in research at these well-heeled schools. It was the powerful, traditionalist and conservative minds in the engineering school that brought any change that touched their fiefdoms to a grinding halt. Again, these men were exemplified best by the philosophy of Mason. And it would be these men who saw their power wane as champions of change like Vernon Crawford and the leader os the physical sciences waxed. Those who embraced change would become significant cornerstones of the growth Tech was already encountering. Those who didn’t would find themselves rendered as useless as the Shop Building, which would be demolished in 1968.

It would be Hansen who brought took up the mantle of reform in the fallout of the Revolution of the Jesse Masonites, and it would be Hansen who cemented Tech’s path towards its modern era. That would seem to imply he deserves something like a statue. In practice, things are never quite that simple.

A special thanks to Dress Her in White and Gold, Engineering the New South, and the Georgia Tech Archives for the background information and images used in writing this column.

If you have any events or ideas you would like to see investigated, leave a comment below and I will be sure to look into adding it to the schedule. What is old is new again, or at least liable to be featured in the future. Thank you for reading this latest edition of From the Rumble Seat’s Rearview Mirror. To those that have suggested events post-1960s over the last year - I promise we will get there soon! They’re on the schedule!