A Brief History of the Cullen Building
March 28, 2019
March 28, 2019
- © 2017 Lance Holt
When you walk through Hugh Roy and Lillie Cullen Building, the floorboards groan beneath your feet. The wood is old and has been well weathered by the soles of students, faculty, and staff for more than a century. There’s history in the hallowed halls of Cullen, and if you listen closely, you can hear it over those creaky old floors.
A spirit of community and generosity has been infused into the building’s foundation since its inception. Construction of what was originally dubbed the Administration building began on September 8, 1898, and was completed in the spring of 1900. Despite the building’s speedy assembly, the construction process proved taxing. After completion of the building’s first floor, funding ran low, and there were concerns about completing the project. A number of individuals devoted to the University, including teachers, trustees, and friends, altruistically lent the necessary funds to finish the building’s construction. However, having spent every penny on construction, the University had nothing left to furnish the building’s interior. Forced to make do with what they had, the University’s teachers descended on some of the other buildings around campus at the time to scavenge for spare and unused furniture.
Once completed, the building was said to be the finest educational structure in the South and became the anchor around which the rest of Southwestern’s campus developed. Today, Cullen is the oldest surviving structure on Southwestern’s campus and plays host to an array of University operations and administrative offices, classrooms, and the office of the President. Moreover, it’s more than just a building. As the symbol of Southwestern, Cullen represents the University’s long history and commitment to providing quality education.
If you could travel back in time and walk across the building’s floorboards in 1900, you’d probably wonder whether you were even in the same building. The layout of Cullen has changed considerably in its 119 years, most notably during a renovation in 1975. Infested with bats, lacking air conditioning, and partially shut down, the Administration Building was in poor shape after 75 years of use. Thanks to a $1 million donation from the Cullen Foundation, the Administration Building was updated and rededicated as the Cullen Building on October 14, 1977.
Over the years, a number of tales have surfaced about strange pranks and ghost stories occurring within the building. According to legend, some students at one point used a ladder to climb to the roof of Cullen with mischief in mind. Armed with paint and brushes, they set to work painting a smiling face on one of the building’s ventilation turbines. Confirmed by several staff members, evidence of the masterpiece can be seen in various photographs of Cullen taken through the years.
The Cullen Tower holds a special place in the hearts of Southwestern’s graduates, serving as the site of passage from students to alumni.
One of the building’s more famous and revered structures is its tower. The Cullen Tower holds a special place in the hearts of Southwestern’s graduates, serving as the site of passage from students to alumni. For more than a century, seniors have ascended the tower’s hidden staircase and signed their names along its walls. The oldest known signature in the Cullen Tower belongs to Hal Corry and dates back to 1912. However, the origins of the tower-signing tradition are undocumented and open to speculation. According to Southwestern alumnus and Associate Professor of Communication Studies Dr. Bob Bednar ’89, signing the Cullen Tower hasn’t always been a University-sanctioned tradition. He reports that during the 1980s, when he was enrolled at Southwestern, signing the tower was an illicit activity that only a select few rebellious students ventured to do.
However, within the last 20 years, Southwestern created the Tower Society in order to make signing the tower an official University tradition. Today, gaining membership to the Tower Society remains something to look forward to for graduating seniors like Marissa Morin ’19. Reflecting on her tower-signing experience, Morin reports, “It felt really special to sign the Cullen Tower because it is such an established symbol of Southwestern. Looking at all the signatures of students that came before me was really exciting,” she notes. “I recognized the names of many friends that have since graduated, and now I get to share membership in the Tower Society with them.” As members of the Tower Society can attest, this tradition further connects graduating seniors within the Southwestern community. Despite their imminent departure from campus, signing the tower symbolically connects all students—past, present, and future—to the University.
Signing the tower not only marks the celebration of graduation but is also a way for seniors to leave their mark on campus. Recent graduate Katie Rouse ’19 recalls how “signing the Cullen Tower was very surreal. It is one of those traditions that you hear about before you are even a part of SU, and getting to be a part of such a long-lived tradition is really amazing.” But for Rouse, the best part of signing the tower was the vast quantity of names haphazardly scrawled across every available space. “It is so cool to see all of the names, find some people you know, and place your name in a spot where you know you will remember,” she comments. Rouse’s vision of coming back to campus and finding her name again is an example of how the tower-signing tradition generates a greater sense of attachment to the school and inspires alumni to come back.
As the cornerstone of Southwestern’s campus, the Cullen Building has stood as witness to more than a century of academic achievement and prosperity. The floorboards may strain and groan and creak underfoot, but those sounds just echo the milestones and traditions Cullen’s history.