Fact, fiction or just plain fun? Ten things to know about historic Science Hall

March 17, 2016

Hoax or horror? Reality or imagination? The tales of UW-Madison’s Science Hall are as tall as its towering, castle-like walls at the base of Bascom Hill.

Science Hall illustration
New Science Hall engraving
Illustrations of the original (top) and new (bottom)
Science Hall, rebuilt after the fire of 1884.

The administrative home of the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies and the Department of Geography, the university’s students, faculty, staff and visitors embrace the building’s storied past and iconic architectural details.

To share this love – and lore – the Nelson Institute Student Ambassadors hosted a Science Hall Fright Night in late February, leading participants through a haunting tour of highlights. One of several community-building events held throughout the year with support from the institute’s Student Experience Fund, the event promised that visitors would never again see Science Hall in the same way.

Stephanie Dresen, a 2015 alumna, prepared the tour script, sifting through a bevy of legends and little-known details about the building as a student at UW-Madison. Nelson Ambassadors Marcus Bolles, Kai Brito, Kate Javenkoski, Rita Kawak, Brittany McPherson, Breana Nehls, Maggie Radl, Kira Ruechel, Vera Swanson and Jacques Wesley executed Dresen's script, and Brito even went so far as to recruit a crew of creative friends to produce an American Horror Story-inspired video to welcome guests.

Below, the students present ten of their favorite bits of Science Hall knowledge gleaned from the guided tour.

  1. Today’s building is the second Science Hall, completed in 1887 at a cost of $211,000 (equivalent to about $5.14 million today). The first Science Hall, built in 1875, was destroyed by fire in 1884.
  2. Science Hall was the second building in the country to be built entirely with steel-frame construction and may be the oldest all-steel-beam building standing today.

  3. A view of the 4th floor of Science Hall
    A view of the fourth floor of Science Hall during the early 1960s. This space housed the Department of Anatomy.

  4. Science Hall was originally home to nearly all of the university’s science departments. The Department of Anatomy was located in the building until 1956. (In 1974, students found an embalmed human foot in the attic, left behind by Anatomy, and a set of leg bones from a “tall man” have also been discovered.)
  5. Room 15, the present-day environmental studies student lounge, originally served as a morgue. Elevators did not exist in the building’s early years, so cadavers were hoisted from the basement morgue to the anatomy department’s attic laboratories with a pulley and winch system, located in the north turret, or tower. 

  6. An anatomical model hangs in classroom in Science Hall
    An anatomical model hangs in a classroom in Science Hall.

  7. The building’s first elevator, installed in 1924, required an operator. Passengers on the original elevator’s final ride (it was replaced in 1974) inscribed their names on a fifth floor door of Science Hall, still visible today.
  8. The fifth floor also contains thousands of names scrawled on the walls by alumni of the building – a parting tradition for graduating students.

  9. Biology laboratory in Science Hall
    Tables full of students work in a laboratory in Science Hall circa 1900.

  10. Supernatural rumors suggest that the souls of cadavers previously stored in Science Hall still roam the corridors, with building occupants over the years reporting unusual activity and sensations. The Mad-City Paranormal team spent a night in the building in spring 2012; the only reported indication of otherworldly inhabitants was an “orb” seen in a row of seats in room 180.
  11. Room 180, originally a physics lecture room, is one of only a few spaces in the building still being used for its original purpose: lectures.

  12. drafting room in Science Hall
    Men work in a College of Engineering drafting room in Science Hall, circa 1895-1899.

  13. The story line of “Don’t Look Behind You,” a mystery novel housed in the Geography Library and written by Professor Samuel Rogers, is set in Science Hall. “Moonlight streamed through high blank windows on what looked like rows of coffins supported on little frames,” a scene from the book reads. “It was the dissecting room Dave had told her of, that covered most of the top floor, and out of which, by a winding stair, you could climb to his office in the turret.”
  14. Science Hall was previously home to a spiraling fire escape slide that traveled from the building’s top floors to the basement. Until its removal in the early 1970s, students would reportedly sneak in after hours to ride the slide.

Video by UW-Madison students Kai Brito, Joyce Wu and Grace Vriezen. All historical photos of Science Hall courtesy UW-Madison Archives.