North Hall finds new purpose

Rosa Woolsey, News Reporter

North Hall continues to be a generous source of rumor-spreading and fascination for Whitman students. After the hospital-turned-residence-hall was closed two years ago, it has found a new purpose as a drill location for the Walla Walla Fire Department.

Nancy Tavelli, Associate Dean of Students and Director of Residence Life and Housing, clarifies the background of the mysterious building.

Amara Gariban
The Walla Walla Fire Department currently uses North Hall, formerly the Walla Walla Valley General Hospital, to run drills.

“[It was the] Walla Walla General Hospital, that’s what it says above the door,” Tavelli said. “Whitman purchased it in 1978, several years after [the hospital] moved to Second.” 

A headline from the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin from Sept. 27, 1981, read “Fall enrollment at Whitman hits record high.” The article states, “To accommodate the student overload, Whitman is using North Hall, the former Walla Walla General Hospital… as additional housing.”

As for why it was recently closed as a residence hall, Tavelli explains that the building was simply too old and therefore was replaced by Stanton.

“We built a modern residence hall meant for a residence hall. Whitman hadn’t built a residence hall…since 1969,” Tavelli said. “We built Cleveland Dining Hall and Stanton which opened last year, so we no longer needed North. [It] really wasn’t meant to be a residence hall, it needs a lot of work [and] it wasn’t designed for interaction.”

On April 16, 1990, a memorandum was written to the Whitman College Faculty and Staff from the Office of Housing and Food Services. 

It read, “We will be continually experimenting with different ways of utilizing the facility.” A proceeding list of potential uses did not include the ongoing training of firefighters. 

Walla Walla Fire Captain John Knowles — who was actually born in North — credited the history of communication between the school and the fire department as the beginning of this arrangement. After hearing that Whitman would no longer be using North as a residence hall, they simply contacted Matt Stroe, former Director of Security, and were approved to use the space.

Amara Gariban
North Hall is made up of long hallways and a variety of rooms that make it a useful training location for the fire department and SWAT.

Knowles explained that the Walla Walla Fire Department uses North for hose deployment drills, having firefighters practice bailing out a second or third story window via ladder and turning the space into an SCBA confidence course. 

The SCBAs are the tanks we wear on our backs. So on the first floor… we have a confidence course set up in there right now where you put your SCBA on, breathe in air, we black out the masks and it’s really fairly small, you just crawl through,” Knowles said. “It’s got different obstacles… you’ve got to get around without being able to see.” 

He adds that the Walla Walla Fire Department is not the only group that uses the building.

Amara Gariban

“We’ve been out there at least a dozen times this year so far, training with not only my department within the city but also with the districts and College Place,” Knowles said. “Plus…  we’ve done some active shooter training there with the cops… just simulating an active shooter type [event].”

Whitman’s new Director of Security Marvin Viney explained how the Walla Walla SWAT team runs drills in North Hall as well. Viney intends to allow the fire department to utilize the space until otherwise needed. 

Knowles is on the same page, planning on continuing to use North for drills until Whitman has other plans for it. He says this arrangement between the school and the city has been helpful for the department.

“I just appreciate Whitman letting us use it. It offers opportunities that we can’t get at our drill ground: long hallways, multiple rooms, multiple floors, so there’s just a lot of training opportunities there that we can’t get anywhere else,” Knowles said. “Our drill tower was built in the early seventies and it’s showing its age so we haven’t been able to use it that much. So with [North Hall] becoming available, it’s allowed us to continue training on stuff we have to do every year anyway.”