Tech in Retrospect

Lane Hall: A "game cock" of a building by Clara B. Cox
Lane Hall

When Brig. Gen. James Henry Lane, professor of military tactics, natural philosophy, and general chemistry, traded punches with the president of Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College (VAMC)--today's Virginia Tech--during a faculty meeting in March 1878, no one who witnessed the fisticuffs would have predicted that Lane's name would one day grace a building on that very campus. But in the mid-1900s, Tech renamed Barracks No. 1 in memory of Lane, who, in addition to his teaching duties, was the first commandant of cadets.

The building

Like its namesake, Lane Hall has led a sometimes-feisty "life." Upon its construction in 1888, it revolutionized campus amenities with bathrooms containing hot and cold running water. Students, accustomed to forming bucket brigades from water pump to building, heaped praise on the new facility. But the new amenities spurred creative mischief-making. Upper-floor residents dropped water-filled paper bags on the heads of unsuspecting passersby. And upperclassmen, particularly sophomores, initiated a decades-long tradition of marching freshmen, or "rats," back and forth between warm and cold showers.

In fact, hazing rats seems to have blossomed in Barracks No. 1. The arrangement of halls, rooms, and stairways encouraged visiting and created an environment for upperclassmen to develop "extra-curricular controls" over the rats. Over time, cadets came to believe that these controls were necessary to achieve the objectives of the military program.

In later years, the building became the scene of some wild sophomore nights, which occasionally left the barracks sporting wagons on its rooftop and farm animals in its hallways.

The man

Such inanities would have infuriated Gen. Lane, a Virginia Military Institute graduate and Civil War veteran who viewed military life as a way to improve conduct. A stern disciplinarian, he expected students to toe the mark, both in the classroom and in the ranks.

A college professor with four degrees, Lane ultimately joined the first faculty at VAMC, where he taught and oversaw the military program, after the Civil War. Cadets called him "Old Baldy" and "Game Cock." On one occasion, students in his Latin class wrote unflattering poetry on the board about his bald head. Lane ignored their verses until the end of class, when he announced their homework: translate the English on the board into Latin. The difficulty of the assignment precluded any future verses about his personal features.

During VAMC's first year, Lane and President Charles L.C. Minor disagreed about the level of military training at the school. Minor viewed it as a teaching aid; Lane wanted to follow the military organization of VMI. Over the years, their differences mushroomed, resulting in physical blows.

The fight eroded public confidence in the school, and enrollment plummeted. Forced to take action, the board of visitors reorganized under a new strict military discipline policy and replaced Minor, vindicating Lane. Yet when the commandant faced a reversal of that policy in 1880, he resigned in disgust.

The future

Lane Hall, which today houses offices, is scheduled to be renovated in 2008-10, when it will become a modern administrative building and return somewhat to its roots, housing corps administrators and the corps museum.

No doubt, Lane himself would have been pleased at this turn of events.

Clara B. Cox is director of publications and outreach communications.