American Univesity of Beirut

If the walls of West Hall could speak…

​Silvana Bartlett, ​​​​​​​​Office of Communications,

If the walls of West Hall could speak, they would tell a fascinating story of student life at AUB from its opening in 1914 to the present day. West Hall has been a central gathering place for generations of students, the “heart" of campus, changing over the years but always remaining “a mighty house for the happiness of students."

It was a group of enthusiastic young staff who came up with the idea for the new building one rainy winter night in 1906 and started to fund the project themselves. At that time boarding students lived in Fisk, Bliss, and Jessup Halls, went out to Dodge Hall to get their meals and then returned to their cold and bare dorm rooms. The staff realized that leisure activities and the development of friendships are essential for “an ideal college career."

Designed for the pleasure of both students and faculty, West Hall was planned on a generous scale to accommodate many student clubs and recreational facilities. At the opening in 1914, the three-story building provided a large student common room, game rooms, a roller-skating rink, billiard tables, bowling alleys, a handball court with shower facilities, photographic dark rooms, a restaurant, offices for staff and student activities, lecture and conference rooms, a 600-seat auditorium, and quiet rooms for reading. Many of the features of West Hall were firsts in the Middle East and significant in the development of the region. During both World War I and II, West Hall was sometimes the only place on campus that had electricity!

West Hall was mostly MWF (males without females) during the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, but the few women on campus were well treated in West Hall, according to old articles and photographs in the AUB archives. Starting as guests in the early days, women gradually took more active roles in clubs and events as their numbers increased on campus.

The main floor was most impressive with a magnificent grand staircase, flanked by the Mahmoud Malhas Common Room on one side, a games room with billiard and snooker tables, and a faculty lounge and small eatery in the corridor that now houses the Student Affairs offices. The Common Room was “as beautiful as the campus outside" with green and red leather walnut wood couches, copper tray tables, Kilims, Damascus prints, and Bokhara embroideries at one time. The Soda Fountain was one of the first in Beirut to serve American-style soft drinks. British soldiers enjoyed the same drinks and the casual setting but changed the name to Milk Bar during their stay in World War II. Cozy and intimate, it remained a popular spot for students to meet up with friends for many years.

Gone now, two bowling alleys in the basement were the first in the Middle East and were in constant use. There were numerous bowling tournaments and competitions as this remained one of the most popular sports for many decades. Another part of the basement was a communication hub with student lockers and the University Post Office where messages for students and faculty were left in individual mail boxes before email. It also housed the university bookstore, the offices of the yearbook, and photographic dark rooms.

“The jewel of the second floor" from its opening in 1916, the West Hall auditorium saw many gala opening nights, often with ladies in evening gowns and men in tuxedos. The theater served for both dramatic performances and musical concerts. During the 1920s it became the first cinema in Ras Beirut when projection machines were installed. The first grand piano at AUB (maybe in Beirut) was brought by French pianist Alfred Cortot for his recital in the mid-1920s. In 1944 the first woman performed in a student play and the new AUB Student Orchestra and Choir was directed by a woman.

On the third floor, alumni and friends of the university could stay in small hostel rooms for a modest fee at one time, letting them re-live the university days of their youth.

The top of West Hall originally comprised a partially enclosed roof garden, restaurant, and skating rink with a central atrium open to the grand staircase on the main floor. The floor was fixed with asphalt/cement tiles in order to make the metal wheels of the skates roll better. The enthusiastic roller skaters were responsible for shaking the whole building with their games of “crack the whip." This all disappeared when the fourth floor was enclosed in 2003. The skylight remains today but the roller skaters are long gone.

West Hall keeps changing as students change. Remembering his student days in the 1940s, when students roller-skated, bowled, and played billiards, Nabeel Ashkar, AUB graduate and Honorary University Marshal,​ lamented that students in 1994 were now squatting on the ground and playing cards. He sagely predicted that as times change, people will always miss what they had in the past.

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