The Rise and Demise of Cincinnati’s Sander Hall

 [uc.edu]

[uc.edu]

You’d never know it by looking at campus today, but a massive dormitory used to lord over UC’s southeast corner. Completed in 1971, Sander Hall stood 27 stories tall and served as the school’s first co-ed dorm. While it wasn’t as tall as downtown buildings like the Carew Tower, Clifton sits on a hill, which made Sander Hall the highest point in all of Hamilton County. For comparison’s sake, Sander reached nearly 300 feet into the sky, meaning it was virtually the same size as the P&G towers downtown.

 The southeast corner of UC campus, with the (approximate) location of Sander Hall highlighted in red. [Google Maps]

The southeast corner of UC campus, with the (approximate) location of Sander Hall highlighted in red. [Google Maps]

Right from the start, the dorm caused problems. Calhoun Hall is 12 stories tall and is home to plenty of its own rowdiness due to the simple fact that it houses 680 students, most of whom are freshmen living without parents for the first time. Imagine Sander Hall, which slept roughly 1,300. There’s a reason nobody makes dorms this size. It was chaos.

Here is a brief summary of some shenanigans that went down at “Sander Zoo”:

  • A neighborhood woman became angry when she learned she wasn’t allowed to use the laundry rooms. “I’m a taxpayer,” she said.
  • A local 15-year-old was caught tampering with a vending machine. When a supervisor tried to apprehend him, he tore through the lobby and ruined a $600 set of draperies.
  • During the spring quarter of 1974, an arsonist snuck in and set four small fires.
  • During the 1973–74 school year, 194 criminal offenses were reported.
  • Someone threw a rock through an $1,800 window.
  • A common prank was emptying the fire extinguishers located around the building. There were 107 of them, and they had to be checked––for safety reasons––every Monday. Generally 15–25 of them were found empty, according to a university official.
  • People used to take pride in simply punching holes in the walls, according to a former resident.
  • A student who was expelled after flunking his finals threw a five-pound dumbbell through a window.
  • Students threw M-80s down the trash chutes, which “sounded like a cannon.”
  • A resident on one of the upper floors had a beach party complete with kiddie pools and sand. The following morning, he dumped all the sand down the trash chute and it went everywhere.
  • In 1981, there were a reported 47 false fire alarms in the first 45 days of winter quarter.
  • A runaway kid took refuge in Sander and was rumored to have been fed by students for a full week.
  • The mirrored windows on the building’s exterior were installed backwards, meaning it was difficult to see out, but very easy to see in, especially at night.
  • Students discovered the change machine in the lobby wasn’t very fancy, so they photocopied dollar bills and emptied it.
  • Someone stole all of the furniture from the 26th floor within weeks of opening.
  • Residents hosted a “Death To Disco” party, complete with kegs and a genuine casket filled with crushed disco records brought by partygoers.
  • Someone tried to push a Coke machine down an elevator shaft. It got stuck. The fire department had to come get it out.

A common theme became the false fire alarms and bomb threats, an event which happened multiple times per week, according to the Enquirer. How funny it must have been to watch 1,300 students slowly stream out onto the road in the middle of the night. Eventually, some students (including most athletes, per a former resident) stopped responding to alarms. It became a game to hide in your room and avoid the RAs doing a safety sweep. This obviously became an issue when real fires occurred.

The building was approved in December 1968 and opened in 1971. In its first year, it failed to pass a fire inspection. The design was poor, with tight stairwells and unreliable elevators concentrated at the building’s core. Getting masses of students out to safety in a hurry was nearly impossible. According to a report, evacuating the building from the 11th floor took 40 minutes. Sander endured fires in 1973, 1974, 1975, 1977, and 1981. In the final fire, a student sustained minor injuries, probably when she hurled a chair through the (backwards) window to allow smoke to escape. It was a safety nightmare.

 Sander Hall floor plan from 1982, showing the concentration of escape routes in the building’s core. [Enquirer illustration by George Longfellow]

Sander Hall floor plan from 1982, showing the concentration of escape routes in the building’s core. [Enquirer illustration by George Longfellow]

According to a state auditor report, the dorm was deemed a “fire trap” and “unsafe” due to a “deplorable lack of supervision.” Despite all of the chaos––or perhaps because of it––the dorm was one of the most popular on campus. According to a 1976 report in the Enquirer, the dorm had an occupancy rate better than 90%. It was the most requested dorm on the east side of campus, and had fewer transfer requests from residents than neighboring dorms. In a June 2016 story by UC Magazine, most former residents sharing stories looked back on their time at Sander fondly.

It should be noted that the life of Sander Hall wasn’t all fun and games. The building was home to at least one rape, multiple sexual assaults and armed robberies, and several suicide attempts. Due to its size, location, and the age of its residents, the building was always a haven for crime.

 Sander Hall crumbles, June 23, 1991. [uc.edu]

Sander Hall crumbles, June 23, 1991. [uc.edu]

Following the 1981–82 school year, the university spent $2 million to add sprinklers and improve stairwells, hoping to mitigate fire safety concerns. Part of the renewed focus on safety included plans that would have required Sander residents to sign a waiver stating they had read a safety pamphlet. However, UC enrollment declined the following school year and the university repealed the rule requiring sophomores to live on campus, so the building was left vacant. It sat unused until the late ’80s, when it became an earthquake testing center. It was put through stress tests to see if it could safely survive a quake. The university announced final plans to level the structure in May 1991. One month later, they brought it to the ground with 520 pounds of dynamite.

The school turned demolition day into an event, and spectators packed Clifton on the morning of Sunday, June 23, 1991. Camera crews were everywhere. UC student government sold $1 raffle tickets to students for the chance to push a ceremonial (read: fake) detonation button at the same time as the wrecking crew. The university even made a postcard to commemorate the event.

In a way that was fitting, the implosion of Sander Hall didn’t go perfectly smoothly. Following a thunderstorm the night before, demolition crews had to make adjustments to their wiring on the building, which delayed detonation. When the structure finally came down, the dust cloud was larger than expected, the wind shifted, and asbestos dust spread for blocks. (There are multiple great videos of the implosion. Check Google or YouTube.)

 [University of Cincinnati]

[University of Cincinnati]

Sander Hall cost $12.5 million to build and $3 million to demolish––mostly due to the removal of asbestos. Throw in the millions of dollars spent on safety upgrades, and that’s a large chunk of change to spend on the 11 years of headaches UC endured while students lived there. On the bright side, the demolition got the school in the history books. At the time of construction, Sander was the second-tallest dorm in the country. At the time of demolition, it was the tallest building in America to be imploded. It was also the youngest.

The dorm was the last building constructed prior to the implementation of the university’s Master Plan. The demolition of Sander signaled a change in mentality at UC, with a shift towards “humanizing” the environment, turning it into what we know today as one of the world’s most beautiful campuses (according to Forbes Magazine). Sander was completed in 1971. The next dormitories to be built were Turner and Schneider in 2002, and those embody a totally different philosophy. Sander Hall was a disaster front to back, but perhaps we can appreciate its place in UC history.

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I couldn’t have done this without help from the UC Historical Walking Tour (a fascinating resource that summarizes stuff like this well), this June 2016 piece by John Bach in UC Magazine (which gave me most of these anecdotes and photos), and about a dozen different issues of the Cincinnati Enquirer. This is a very brief (but hopefully thorough) summary of Sander Hall. If you want more, there is plenty available at those links or elsewhere online.