Va. Tech's Norris Hall To House Peace Center
Building Where 30 Were Slain Is Set for Change

By Theresa Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 21, 2007

Virginia Tech announced yesterday that the second floor of Norris Hall, where 30 students and faculty members were slain in the nation's deadliest college campus shooting, will be used in part to create a Center for Peace Studies and Violence Prevention.

The floor that gunman Seung Hui Cho terrorized in the spring will also be used to enhance engineering education, officials said. The decision on the use of the space was made after months of deliberation by a task force.

Provost Mark G. McNamee, who chaired the task force, said the peace center was chosen because of the general sense that it was important "something really good flow from that space."

"It sends a message that even out of the worst tragedy that one can imagine, you can build something that is very positive," McNamee said.

For many, Norris Hall and its second floor are reminders of the horrors of April 16, when the student gunman went on his rampage before shooting himself. He had killed two students earlier that day in a campus dormitory.

In the aftermath, some parents and students called for the building to be demolished or converted into a memorial. University officials decided that the building, in which most students had taken at least one class, would remain standing but that the space would never again be used for general classes.

Virginia Tech President Charles W. Steger called Norris Hall a significant resource for the Blacksburg campus and estimated its replacement value at more than $30 million. He said the task force was formed in August with the understanding of the "emotional underpinnings of Norris Hall" and "the feelings that people have or may have had about activities that would take place in those spaces in the second-floor classrooms." The 12-member panel was made up of students, faculty and staff.

The panel received seven proposals, of which three were chosen for further refinement. The final plan for the space, about 4,300 square feet, contains elements from all three.

The recommendations were submitted to Steger on Dec. 7, and he officially accepted them yesterday.

The peace center is expected to take up about 1,000 square feet. The Department of Engineering Science and Mechanics will use most of the rest of the space to create conference and seminar areas, as well as a state-of-the-art communications technology section that it will share with the center. The department will vacate space in Burruss Hall, which will then be used to create a Center for Student Engagement and Community Partnerships.

"At the center of all the proposals was the notion of student-centered learning and discovery," Steger said. "We believe that this is an important part of our recovery process."

Victims' families were asked for feedback before the plans were finalized, he said.

"We believe that all of these recommendations honor and respect the memories of those lost to this terrible tragedy and to those who loved them," Steger said. "We trust that it also honors and respects those who survived and have become part of the Virginia Tech family that seeks to invent the future, today, tomorrow and for many years to come."

The final plan should bring a "new vitality" to the building, McNamee said, whether it's engineering students working together on a senior project or a student using the peace center to foster community service, he said. The university will provide seed money to hire a director for the peace center, and officials said they hope it will become a "world-class model."

"This is not going to be an ivory tower think tank," McNamee said. "This is going to be an active learning center."

The renovations are estimated to cost $1 million. Work is expected to begin early next year.

Although students will not be required to enter the building or its second floor if they don't want to, McNamee said the general reception has been positive as people ease back in. The building has been open since the start of the school year.

"We think people are actually open and willing and, when they are ready, they are actually happy they can be part of that building," McNamee said.

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