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Welcome to the “New” West Hall

By Lynn Mahoney

After 25 months of extensive renovations, West Hall reopened its doors in February to its original long-time tenants—the students of AUB. MainGate finds that the words of the first West Hall director Bayard Dodge, “West Hall is continuously pulsing with life,” still ring true today.

Robert Haldane West and the West Family
West Hall was named in honor of Robert Haldane West (1862-1906), an American who arrived in Beirut fresh from Princeton at the age of 21. The various positions he filled during his 23 years of service to the Syrian Protestant College (SPC) between 1883 and his untimely death in 1906 show remarkable versatility. Beginning as a staff member, he soon became professor of astronomy and mathematics, then director of the Lee Observatory, principal of the Preparatory Department, treasurer of the College, and finally dean of the School of Arts and Sciences. Over the years, he taught moral philosophy, ethics, science, geography, mathematics, geometry, astronomy, and logic. Robert West was so admired by his colleagues and students that the young staff members who drew up plans for the large student center in 1906 decided to name it in his honor.

Robert West belonged to the austere period of the early missionary establishment of the Syrian Protestant College (renamed the American University of Beirut in 1920). Though not himself a missionary, he was an altruistic man who possessed an intense personality and was devoted to securing the best academic and spiritual education for the
students. He was extraordinarily attuned to the changing needs of the diverse student body at the turn of the century. In a 1914 issue of Al-Kulliyeh, Franklin T. Moore wrote that West “pondered the problems arising from diversity” among the students and “diligently sought” to bring the young people “into oneness with the modern world of student-thought and student-purpose…He was singularly free from selfish ambition, singularly devoted to the welfare of his students and to the interests of the College.” That West Hall carries his name is most fitting—throughout the decades and to this day, it has served as an unfailing daily magnet on campus, drawing students of divergent ethnic, social, religious, and political persuasions together to experience the “oneness” he envisioned.

The members of the West family who flew in especially from the United States to attend the rededication of West Hall included Professor Allen West, Professor David West and his wife Lindsay with daughter Susan Marmagas, and another great-grandchild, William Fitzhugh. Their presence spoke of the lasting connection between the West family and AUB and of how deep it runs in the history of the University. At the ceremony, Allen West presented President Waterbury with a photograph taken in Damascus in 1891, showing members of the West and Crawford families, their arms intertwined in familial affection. David West, pointing to the men in the photo—his grandfather Robert West and his great-uncle James Stewart Crawford—remarked that the two together had given a total of over 70 years of service to SPC and AUB.

Meeting with MainGate at the close of the ceremony, Professors David and Allen West, who are the grandsons of Robert through their father William (a professor of chemistry at AUB from 1923 to 1959), talked about their associations with West Hall during their years at the University. They remembered the student clubs and their activities, the many student performances and concerts held in West Hall’s auditorium, and especially the Shakespearean plays staged in the days of Professor Christopher Scaife and his troupe of British Council actors. Allen West also recalled that during World War II, whenever the city was closed down and deprived of electricity, West Hall “was the place to be.”

All the visiting members of the West family registered simultaneous embarrassment and pleasure at being recognized at the Main Gate as “the Wests of West Hall.” Susan Marmagas, in voicing the meaning West Hall held for her, said: “I always knew about West Hall, but today I really feel proud of this place, of what my great-grandfather was and what he did. I was also struck by the strong air of excitement on campus…of the students being in a challenging region in a challenging time. It’s so wonderful to see them so alive and energetic…and to know they’ve got a place that’s home to them.”

The “heart of the University” is beating once again.
West Hall, hidden for 25 months behind scaffolding and stone dust, is now open. Student clubs and societies, along with the Offices of Student Affairs and Financial Aid, moved back “home” after spending more than two years living in makeshift accommodations scattered all over campus. Fittingly, it reopened on February 24, 2003, just 89 years to the day after it first opened in 1914.

Hala Shakaa, a senior chemistry major attending the Palestinian Cultural Club’s first event in the Hall (a showing of documentary films), said enthusiastically, “It’s amazing. Our gathering place is back again. And it’s not just our club…Everyone feels the same way.”

“All and all, it’s perfect,” said Wadad Husseiny, Director of Student Activities. “I am so much attached to this building. Everything is so fresh and alive…Understandably, we are still sorting out minor problems, but that was to be expected.” At first glance, the new West Hall looks much the same. Praising the bright new colors glowing on every floor, Husseiny remarked on the architect’s success in preserving the old, familiar space and design, while at the same time refurbishing and introducing modern state-of-the-art technology.

Walking into the main hall, you immediately notice how the first floor’s immaculate new paint and shiny, patterned stone floors set off the familiar grand staircase leading up to the second floor. Behind the stairs is a totally refreshed Auditorium B with the newly configured Office of Student Affairs and other administrative offices to the left in the east wing. As in the past, the west end of the ground floor is entirely taken up by the Common Room, open day and night for casual student lounging and socializing—and for more formal exhibitions.

Along the wide upper balcony on the second floor is space for serving coffee and refreshments during theater intermissions. To the east is the renovated Lecture Hall, with a moveable partition and bright red amphitheater-style seating.
But the jewel of the second floor is the totally refurbished theater, the Suhail R. Bathish Auditorium, made possible by a generous donation of $440,000 from the family of the 1959 engineering graduate whose name it now carries (see box).

To access the third floor, the visitor can take the new elevator, installed primarily for the disabled, or a new free-hanging marble staircase leading to a complex of offices and rooms
for student clubs and societies, conferences and meetings. In contrast to the muted maroon and off-white décor of the first and second floors, a rich blue dominates the third floor.

The main attraction of the fourth floor, a new addition to the building, is a huge room illuminated by a large skylight. The room affords more than enough space for table tennis, aerobics, and dancing. Completing the facilities on that floor are several meeting rooms bordering a small atrium that opens to the sky.

The new basement of the building, harbors the offices of the university yearbook Campus, a music room, photography darkrooms, and a large room for martial arts.

Since its formal opening ceremonies (see box), West Hall has been swarming with activity. Poster boards and stands ranged
in front of the wide front terrace advertise lectures by visiting novelists and politicians, the performance of a locally written version of “Waiting for Godot,” the student a cappella group Mouth Music, a film series, Day of the

Land celebrations, concerts, film shows, acting workshops, drama-production auditions, and anti-war demonstrations. Students are busy
selling tickets and food, painting posters, and passing out flyers and brochures. And as of this writing, the 16th Annual Islamic Book Fair was drawing hundreds of visitors each day to the Common Room.

Requests to reserve the new lecture rooms and auditorium flood the office of the director of student activities. “In less than two weeks after the reopening,” Dean of Student Affairs Maroun Kisirwani reported, “West Hall witnessed two receptions, three cultural exhibitions, and six public lectures. And children from orphanages in Beirut enjoyed a long day of fun, pleasure, meals, and entertainment offered by the Education Students Society.”

David Kurani, coordinator of performing arts and senior lecturer in the Civilization Sequence Program, said, “Clearly, the students have been very excited about the opening, and everyone has been fighting to schedule space and time to use the facilities, especially the stage. Now it’s being used day and night, every hour…for lectures, video shows, film shows, plays, dances.” The new equipment, he added, “allows flexibility and all kinds of effects that enhance every one of those events with different devices…In terms of a working place, it’s very exciting, but it’s also a bit frustrating; there’s so much demand on it,
we often can’t manage to rehearse on stage. Everyone suddenly feels very possessive about the new West Hall.”

Naturally, not everything is perfect. As with the 1914 opening, some
of the work is still incomplete and delays feed frustration, causing some to despair about small offices and others to complain about the distribution of those offices.

Sharif Abdelnour, stage coordinator and Civilization Sequence Program instructor, expressed a more serious problem having to do with maintaining the new facilities, saying: “They gave me a stage worth a million and a half, and they gave me zero for the fine tuning. It needs $50,000 to fine tune the equipment, and I don’t have an account to take care of that.”

A History of West Hall is a History of AUB Student Life
The new West Hall is tightly bound to the old through a long history steeped in the traditions of the founding fathers, in the close relationship between AUB and the cultural life of Ras Beirut, and in the greatly expanded social, cultural, civic, and political events of the last century.
On a rainy winter night in 1906, young staff members of the Syrian Protestant College, warming themselves at the fireside of a friendly
professor’s home, began talking about the College’s boarding students confined to their bleak dormitories and obliged to stand in line in the cold rain to get their meals at the college refectory in Ada Dodge Hall. In their imaginations, they began to construct “a mighty house for the happiness of students.” Seven years later, that dream moved closer to reality when the cornerstone for a spacious student activities building was laid. A year later, in 1914, the finished building opened. And as had been decided from the start, it was named West Hall, in tribute to Robert Haldane West, a much-loved professor who had died in 1906 (see box).

At first, the determined young men “proposed that their building should be a gift from the Staff to the College for the social benefit of students.” Thinking they could fund the building themselves, they managed to collect $6,000 in donations from students, former and current staff and professors, and alumni. But it was only when Cleveland H. Dodge, son of founding Trustee William E. Dodge, visited the College and pledged the sum of $53,000 for the completion of the project that construction could move forward.

When the doors of West Hall first opened, the building was heralded as unique of its kind in the area—even surpassing similar student facilities in the United States. Articles in the March 1914 issue of the college alumni magazine, Al-Kulliyeh, described the character of Robert West as well as that of the planners of the building, the layout and facilities, the opening day, and the moral and spiritual significance of the building to the students. The issue also contained the text of a sermon, “God’s Plan for West Hall,” that had been delivered by President Howard Bliss in the college chapel two weeks before the opening.

The building, “dedicated to the sweet business of making students happy, comfortable, contented, acquainted,” boasted lecture and conference rooms, game and reading rooms, photographic dark rooms, offices for staff and student activities, and in addition, to the delight of the students, billiard tables, a roller skating rink, bowling alleys, a handball court with shower facilities, a large auditorium, and “a great ‘common’ room, with fire-places and comfortable chairs; a room to be used for all in common.” The building also offered meeting rooms for religious organizations and overnight accommodations for visitors and returning faculty and alumni.





The ceremony that reopened West Hall on February 24 began with a solemn procession of administrators and faculty members in full academic regalia leading representatives of student clubs and societies from Ada Dodge Hall to West Hall. There, a large crowd had assembled to hear formal addresses delivered by Dean of Student Affairs Maroun Kisirwani, President Waterbury, and Professor Allen West of the West family. The AUB Choir then sang a piece of music specially composed for the occasion by choir director Paul Meers, with lyrics by Elias Abu Saba (’56).

The Bathish Auditorium also received a formal opening, at which a memorial speech in tribute to Suhail R. Bathish (’59) was given by his stepson Fawzi Farah, who spoke in the name of his mother, Mrs. Bathish. The new auditorium’s stage was then christened with the presentation of a lively program of dance, song, gymnastics, and a fashion show—all produced and performed by the students under the direction of David Kurani, AUB’s coordinator of performing arts. And on display throughout the week in the Common Room was an exhibition organized by Jafet Library’s Department of Archives and Special Collections that highlighted the history of West Hall and the West family in memorable photographs, documents, and posters.

 

Over the years, West Hall brimmed with student activities from dawn till dusk. From the beginning, the game rooms and billiard tables remained constantly occupied, and advance reservations had to be made for the handball court and the bowling alleys.

Many West Hall activities were “firsts” for both AUB and the cultural community of Ras Beirut. The 1929 West Hall display of the paintings of Mustafa Faroukh was the first solo exhibition of a Lebanese artist held in Lebanon. The popular bowling alleys were the first in the Middle East. The Hall offered the first cinema in Ras Beirut and perhaps possessed the first grand piano in Lebanon. West Hall saw the birth of the Institute of Music and the AUB Drama Club, and in 1944 an AUB choir and orchestra first performed in West Hall.

The spacious auditorium, state-of-the-art in its time, drew large audiences from the College and the local community for numerous concerts and theatrical productions. “In those days,” wrote Nabeel G. Ashkar (BBA ’45 and now Honorary University Marshall) in a 1994 issue of the AUB Bulletin, “opening nights were something special, with all the ladies in evening gowns and the men in tuxedos.”

In wartime, West Hall served as something of an oasis, offering electric light and cultural refreshment against the dark austerity of the city and country outside. During World War II, London actors came out to entertain the British troops; and during the dark years of the Lebanese civil war, in 1977, a group of students, faculty, and friends mounted a production of the operetta composed by history professor Kamal Salibi, “The Marchioness of Saden Saden,” which had first been performed in West Hall in 1954.
Social, cultural, and political activities remained high on the list of West Hall events throughout the years. As student clubs sought to reach out into the community, debates, lectures, and exhibitions became increasingly oriented toward issues of intellectual and public concern. International celebrities frequently appeared on the auditorium stage. In the 1960s, a reading by the popular post-Stalin Russian poet Yevgeni Yevtushenko packed the auditorium to overflowing, as did an informal discussion in 1998 with Palestinian spokesperson Hanan Ashrawi, herself an English literature graduate of AUB (BA ’68; MA ’70).

But the constant activity took its toll on the building. Early memories recall students “whizzing around the roller skating rink in games of crack the whip,” activities which frequently set the whole building shuddering. Clapping and foot-stamping caused the wooden balcony at the back of the auditorium to sway perceptibly, prompting renovations in the 1950s. And by the 1990s, the extent of widespread deterioration had resulted in leaking ceilings, falling plaster, shattered cement balusters, and weakened infrastructure, which led to the massive renovation and refurbishment of West Hall that began in mid-January 2001.

That Unique West Hall Spirit
Throughout the long life of West Hall, the emphasis has been on enhancing the quality of student life on campus. Early opinions attributed to the building a singularly uplifting, almost spiritualizing influence destined to shape the character and personality of the students. Writing about Robert West and West Hall in 1914, Franklin Moore said West Hall “shall be primarily a social force. It too shall minister to the human, friendly side of life; it shall deal with the warm spirit, not the intellect of youth.” Bayard Dodge, first director of West Hall, wrote, “What West Hall stands for is plentiful life, brim full with happiness, physical strength, and love for one’s fellows.” It will “produce bodily strength, powers of companionship and habits of helpfulness.”

Even today, students as well as faculty and administrators recognize the “uplifting” force of the West Hall experience. At the rededication ceremony, Dean of Student Affairs Maroun Kisirwani said, “West Hall comes next to academic programs in fostering values and in developing students’ personalities and in preparing them to face the hurdles of life.” Sharif Abdelnour commented that while AUB may have “one of the best equipped stages in the country, we’ll have to live up to our new facilities.”

First-year medical student Mohamed Elfakhani, Debate Club president for the past two years and its current secretary, who is also member-at-large of the UNESCO Club and staff writer for Outlook, spoke of the importance of such clubs in the context of West Hall. “During those two years of renovation, a large number of students, including many who had never experienced West Hall, gathered to socialize on the steps of the Main Gate. Maybe they will move to West Hall now.” He hopes the reopening of West Hall will prompt more student interest, awareness, and participation.
Student clubs and societies have, over the years, turned more and more frequently to serious confrontation with social, community, and political issues. In his comments during the rededication ceremonies, President Waterbury, citing President Bliss’s description of Robert West as possessing “a noble discontent,” said, “What a wonderful phrase—a noble discontent—we should all possess such a quality. It is that quality that has made AUB great in the past, and it is that quality, and that quality above all, that will make us great in the future.”

The importance of friendship figures frequently in reflections on the West Hall experience. Assistant Dean of Student Affairs Talal Nizameddin agreed, saying, “West Hall represents a history of creativity, talent,
performance, and hot political debate among AUB students…It is a place where students can socialize and make new friends.”

West Hall is viewed as the great catalyst bringing individuals of diverse backgrounds together. Robert West was skillful in solving student “problems arising from diversity.” Fawzi Farah, speaking for his mother, Mrs. Suhail R. Bathish, at the rededication ceremony, described the wish of his family to dedicate the new Bathish Auditorium “to
creative thinking, freedom of expression, dynamic pluralism, and deep tolerance…as the driving ideals of this building, campus, and nation.”

And President Waterbury, in his official address, expressed the hope that West Hall would be “a crucible for friendships across all lines and barriers that have sometimes plagued Lebanese and Arab society, but, failing friendship, I hope it will be a crucible for mutual respect.”

Judging from the spirited activity in the building since it reopened, West Hall has indeed resumed its role as the “heart” of AUB.

(Unless otherwise indicated, all quotes are from Al-Kulliyeh, March 14, 1914, pp. 125-139.)

 

West Hall Renovation Facts

Contractor:
Internationale de Dévelopement et Construction

Architect:
Nabil Alar
Builders Design Consultants

Funding:
American University of Beirut
American Schools and Hospitals Abroad
Mrs. Suhail R. Bathish (auditorium)
Anonymous donor
Other contributions

 

 

The New Suhail R. Bathish Auditorium

It is not any larger than it ever was, but what it may lack in seating space is more than made up for by the visible air of cachet and comfort that now pervades the newly renovated Suhail R. Bathish Auditorium. Upholstered in stately royal blue, its 264 new chairs are not only supremely comfortable; they also rise up row after row on a carefully calculated slope that affords optimal viewing from all locations.

The stage, now slightly widened at the front, has been equipped with a revolving turntable and motorized pulley system for changing scenery, curtains, and lighting. And backstage, rehearsal and changing rooms have been either added or expanded.

As for the audiovisual equipment now in place, the application of advanced technology was the guide. The auditorium’s audio capabilities include a two-way surround speaker system and a variety of microphones (including gooseneck, hanging, and wireless). The new visual system, meanwhile, is equipped with an LCD projector installed on an automated elevator, along with a motorized projection screen located on stage. Stage lighting is also state-of-the-art—a complex of zoom profiles, spotlights, and dimmer panels all orchestrated from the new control room installed at the back of the auditorium.

Funding for the renovation of the auditorium, in the amount of $440,000, was provided by Mrs. Suhail R. Bathish in memory of her husband, a 1959 engineering graduate of AUB.