Secret Rooms and Artifacts: The Clayton University Center at Packer Hall Renovation Yields Surprises

Workers dismantling the interior of the iconic structure find old drawings, fossils and other items from the past.

Story by

Christina Tatu

Photography by

Christa Neu

On the fifth floor of the Clayton University Center at Packer Hall, in an area thought to be sealed up for decades, workers renovating the iconic structure found portraits etched into walls that seemed to hark back to the building’s early days.

One etching appears to capture the downward twist on Professor Hugh Wilson Harding’s signature mustache. Harding was a physics and mechanics professor who in 1883 helped establish Lehigh’s electrical engineering program, one of the first in the United States.

Another drawing seems to depict Henry Coppee, Lehigh’s first president, with his billowing white beard and mustache. Scratched into the wall alongside the pictures are ham radio codes and presumably students’ initials and first names.

It has been fascinating to be shown some of the hidden gems that have been uncovered during the renovation.

Carol Hill, director of student center facilities and operations

It’s not clear when the drawings were made or who made them, and the mystery adds to their intrigue. The drawings are among the relics workers have been uncovering as they undertake an extensive renovation of the Clayton UC, originally known as Packer Hall.

“It has been fascinating to be shown some of the hidden gems that have been uncovered during the renovation,” said Carol Hill, director of student center facilities and operations.

A small brick fireplace was uncovered under layers of material removed from the first floor. Above the fourth floor ceiling, the handcrafted wood railing and stairs leading up to the original fifth floor were discovered. The original south exterior stone walls were exposed after being covered up during a renovation in 1956, Hill said.

Items discovered inside walls and air intake handlers as workers dismantled the interior of the building include glass soda bottles and old beer cans, a logbook from 1961 where students listed who last used a projection screen in the building, bulbs for the projector, sterling silver cutlery adorned with the letter “L,” old student ID cards and hand-cut nails from the 1800s, said Jim LaRose, project manager.

Clayton UC Secret Rooms

Items found inside the walls and air intake handlers during the renovation of the Clayton University Center at Packer Hall.

Also in the area where the drawings were found, workers discovered two fossils thought to once have been displayed in the Asa Packer room when it housed a museum. One appears to be a fossilized tree trunk impression that was likely collected in the anthracite coal fields north of the Lehigh Valley in Pennsylvania.

The Clayton UC’s fifth-floor rooms were once used as dormitories. When Lois Black, director of Lehigh University Library’s Special Collections, visited the space during renovations, she was reminded of the Tenement Museum, a former tenement house in New York City’s Lower East Side that had been closed for more than 50 years when building codes in the city changed.The historians who founded the museum discovered personal belongings of the families who had lived there between the 1860s and 1930s.

Black wonders whether modernization and building codes had also impacted the dormitories once in the Clayton UC.

“I try to imagine the students who may have slept there,” said Black, who was fascinated by the opportunity to make a tangible connection to Lehigh’s early history. She wondered whether Miles Rock, a member of Lehigh’s first graduating class, and the subject of the spring 2024 exhibit in Linderman Library, might have climbed the stairs to the top of the Clayton UC.

Items discovered during the renovation were handed over to Special Collections to preserve. Special Collections plans to have a team of student workers investigate who may have created the drawings. So far that has proved difficult.

It’s hard to find information about them. The area where the drawings are located consists of two 20-by-20 windowless rooms. It is believed to have been closed up for decades and only occasionally used for maintenance access, LaRose said. The rooms will be closed up again, as there is no way to make them compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, he said.

In addition to student housing, it’s thought the rooms were once home to the campus radio station. A rendering from 1954 labels the space as “faculty suites.”

For those who didn’t know the fifth-floor rooms and images existed, opening the rooms is like opening a time capsule, said Ilhan Citak, archives and Special Collections librarian.

“The archivists’ job is without any judgment, without prejudice, without any discrimination to preserve evidence of the university’s history,” he said. “In this case, in a moment of time, at a certain point of time, a group of people were there and they sent a message to the future generations without knowing.”

The 'artists' crafted a message that they were there. Why is this important? Because it shows us every single, possible inch of our campus is full of history and the stories of our members.

Ilhan Citak, Archives and Special Collections Librarian

Citak compares the discovery to prehistoric cave paintings. He and colleague Alex Japha, a digital archivist with Special Collections, looked through old pictures of Lehigh administrators, faculty and staff and were able to identify several of the drawings with the portrait photographs, such as Coppee and Harding.

“The ‘artists’ crafted a message that they were there. Why is this important? Because it shows us every single, possible inch of our campus is full of history and the stories of our members,” Citak said.

To acknowledge the Clayton UC’s extensive history, Lehigh plans to install a time capsule in the West Lobby when the renovation is complete. The time capsule will be opened in 2075, 50 years after the Class of 2025 graduates. A survey of faculty, staff and students was conducted during the spring semester to gather recommendations of what should be placed inside.

“This stone building reflects the influence of Asa Packer and the impressive craftsmanship of the time,” Hill said. “This is a reminder of how important it is to preserve this and other iconic buildings on campus to continue the legacy for future students to connect with. For many people, this has been a building on campus where they cultivated lasting memories and created their space of belonging.”

Clayton University Center

The Clayton University Center at Packer Hall during renovations.

Though the needs of Lehigh’s students and campus have evolved, the renovation ensures that the integrity of the building remains while reimagining dining, social and interactive spaces, she said.

The project is in step with Lehigh’s strategic plan, which aims to create innovative spaces on campus, inspire diverse perspectives and promote gathering as a community among other goals and initiatives.

“This majestic building continues to have an allure for our visiting alumni,” Hill said. “There is a sense of identity as other parts of campus change and a sense of permanency.”

Designed by architect Edward Tuckerman Potter (1831-1904), Packer Hall, or the Clayton UC, was the first structure built for Lehigh in 1868 by university founder Asa Packer. Potter was a follower of John Ruskin, an English writer, philosopher and art critic who viewed art as an expression of morality, identifying “good” art with medieval architecture, according to the Ruskin Museum.

“Potter not only responded to Ruskin’s call to reexamine the medieval sources, thereby favoring constructional polychromy and Italianate decoration, but he developed and had carved some of the most remarkable historiated capitals and naturalistic ornament of the period,” according to the article, “The Speaking Architecture of E.T. Potter at Lehigh University” by Nicholas Adams and Janet Temos.

The Clayton UC is one of the first examples of Ruskinian architecture in the United States. It combines English architectural style and contemporary French Second Empire architecture and is embellished by one of the most elaborate of Potter’s decorative schemes, Adams and Temos wrote.

The Clayton UC was expanded and renovated in 1956. Launched by a donation from Kevin L. Clayton ’84 ’13P and Lisa A. Clayton ’13P, significant renovations began last year to reconfigure the building into a dynamic new environment for undergraduate and graduate student life while preserving the building’s historic grandeur.

The original building housed the president’s office, classrooms, a chemical laboratory, a library and chapel, all of which were later relocated on an expanding campus. A gym was added to the building in 1874. As part of the extensive 1956 renovation, the interior was gutted and a three-story stone addition went up on the building’s south side, facing South Mountain.

It's anticipated that the latest renovation project will be finished by the Fall 2025 semester, LaRose said.

The new renovation aims to restore the Clayton UC as the heart of campus, as it was when the university was first established more than 150 years ago. Shepley Bulfinch, a national architecture, planning and interior design firm, is leading the redesign. The university also partnered with construction manager Skanska USA to better engage minority, women and disadvantaged business enterprises in the project construction.

Read more stories on the Lehigh News Center.

Learn more about the Clayton UC renovation.

Story by

Christina Tatu

Photography by

Christa Neu

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