President David Bancroft Johnson and many of Winthrop’s more activist students started a long campaign in 1902 to raise money for a separate student activities building. Because it was not considered a necessary structure and because of its associations with religion and women’s suffragette agitation, the activities building was only 20% funded by the State Legislature. Johnson solicited $50,000 from John D. Rockefeller on the condition that Winthrop would match his money from other sources. A design was completed in 1917 by Edwards and Sayward of Atlanta, who were simultaneously working on the Roddey Dormitory and Joynes Teachers Dormitory. In 1919, plans were modified with a reinforced concrete design to satisfy Rockefeller’s desire for a fireproof building, and Rockefeller donated $10,000 to make this possible and another $5,000 when prices for building materials escalated after World War I.
Winthrop’s YWCA, the main sponsor of the building, had been organized in 1896. It had 140 members in 1897- the largest college chapter in the South. (Most early YWCA’s were for working girls in large Northern cities.) The Winthrop chapter had Bible study groups and religious services, and sponsored progressive social causes such as a free kindergarten for mill children, finding jobs for college girls, missionary and food programs, and helping homesick girls adjust to the campus. The YWCA was aided by the Alumni Association and other college organizations to raise money for the building.
The main portion of the building was completed in 1920 after a delay of about a year during World War I, when Woodrow Wilson froze public non-mobilization construction projects. General contractors were the Southern Ferro-Concrete Company of Atlanta, and the final cost was around $125,000. Winthrop students lobbied President Johnson to name the new building in his honor. Johnson relented to their wishes despite the fact that there was already a Johnson Hall on campus. The former Johnson Hall was renamed Bancroft Hall, President Johnson’s middle name, and the YWCA building was named Johnson Hall.
The two story masonry building had an “H” shaped plan and flat, built up roof. A floor for dormitory rooms was originally planned, but was deleted because of cost. The roof was made flat in case money for the extra floor became available in the future.
Originally, the roof had a wood balustrade around it. This was replaced because of its deterioration with masonry and stone parapet in the 1950s. An impressive projecting two story entrance portico with heavy wood boxed cornice is supported by six massive, fluted stone “Tower of Wind” columns. Its wide porch has cast stone steps and a floor which extends to the wings, forming an open patio across the entire façade.
Three French window entrance doors are under the portico with matching first floor windows all around the building. These doors and matching double windows are transformed with 4/4 sash sections in wood frames. They each have semi-circular masonry arches with prominent keystones and voussoirs of stone. Within the arches are terra-cotta medallions commemorating the YWCA. The second floor windows are 8/8 sash with plain wood frames.
Moulded cast stone belt courses align with first floor window sills above the foundation, and brick belt courses form continuous lintels and sills for the second floor windows.
In 1928, a projecting stage auditorium was added to the rear. This was another part of the original plan deleted because it became too expensive. The auditorium is continuous with the main building in design and details. It was built by the T. C. Thompson & Sons Co. of Charlotte, NC for $34,000.
The entrance from the portico leads to an impressive lounge covering the entire front of the main section. Four large Ionic columns in the back of the room separate it from a symmetrical, curved staircase to the second floor and steps beneath them to the basement. The auditorium with full balcony and 373 fixed seats was entered from the lounge through doors between the symmetrical stairs. Its stage (19’ x 51’) had full theatrical props and lighting, with dressing rooms, scenery workshops, and storage areas in the basement beneath it and under the east wing. On the east, auditorium side of the lounge, there was a kitchen, the ticket office, and a narrow, enclosed “fireproof staircase.” Separate fireproof exit stairs were on each side of the auditorium.
Opposite the lounge, on the first floor, are restrooms, small offices, and an enclosed staircase to the balcony. Above the lounge, opening from the second floor hall, are offices, classrooms, restrooms, prop storage rooms, a one room chapel, and entrances to the balcony. The wings have two large rooms on each floor. Originally designed as meeting rooms for student clubs and government, these rooms are now used for classrooms, storage, and theater.
Interesting Art Nouveau metal lighting fixtures, like those originally in Rutledge Hall were at the entrance, and in the main lounge. These were added in 1928 with the auditorium addition.
After construction of the Dinkins Student Center in 1968, Johnson Hall was taken over by various academic departments for offices and classrooms. The auditorium is used by the Theatre Department for stage productions. Several of the meeting rooms on the first floor have been partitioned for small offices and clinics.
No changes to the exterior, other than replacement of the balustrades, were made to the building until the major renovations in the early 1990s. Beginning in 1991, this $6,000,000 project doubled the size of the building from 30,000 square feet to 60,000 square feet and the auditorium added 120 additional fixed seats. The $6,000,000 was appropriated through $3.2 million in state capital improvement bonds and $2.8 million in tuition bonds. The $6 million renovation cost covered permanent equipment, architectural fees, and construction. The project was completed in 1993 and Johnson Hall was officially rededicated on April 23, 1994.
The architecture, planning and interior design was done by Craig, Gaulden and Davis Inc. of Greenville. The structural, electrical, and mechanical and plumbing engineering was done by Cary Engineering Inc. of Greenville, Burdette Engineering of Greenville, and Peritus Engineering Inc. of Greenville respectively. The theater consultant was Robert Long of Theatre Projects Consultants Inc. of Ridgefield, Connecticut and the acoustical consultant was M. David Egan of Egan Acoustics of Anderson, SC. McCrory Construction Co. of Columbia, SC served as the general contractor.
Architects were restricted to the original width of the auditorium stage, but were able to add to the rear of the building to add much-needed performance space. A total of 70 feet was added to expand the stage (now 36 by 38 feet) and create a scene shop. The backstage area now boasts a fly loft with 24 lines and pulleys, a 12-foot loading door, a large makeup room, dressing rooms with restrooms and showers, and scene and costume shops.
The renovations also expanded the number of offices and classrooms in the building which houses portions of the College of Visual and Performing Arts and the Mass Communications Department. Also, the Johnson Studio Theater (for student and faculty directed productions) was renovated and now includes flexible space, a catwalk on three sides, and around 100 seats.
Effort was made to incorporate and preserve the Classical Revival style (which is still evident from the front exterior) of the original building into the 1993 addition to Johnson Hall. Along with this effort to preserve the original look, additions were made to accentuate it as well. The architect incorporated materials that would enhance the building’s appearance at night, since it is used quite often for night performances. The glass wall used in the Green Room, where actors wait for their next entrance on stage, is opaque so no one can see in, yet it sparkles at night with the light shining through, and serves as a source of light in the day. The brick arches in the exterior walls can be seen throughout the interior of the building to add perspective. Aluminum grillwork on the exterior of the dance studio windows in the 1993 addition are an abstract interpretation of the plaster medallions of wreaths and ribbons in the half-moon space above the windows of the old building. The architect also added gray brick to break up the large mass of red brick that lines the exterior of the building. Another shade of gray brick was incorporated around the base of Johnson Hall to simulate the limestone water table on the exterior of the building.
Johnson Hall is a significant example of classic revival architecture in the state and a distinguished building in design, construction, and the use of architectural details for maximum effect. Fortunately, the third floor was never added. This would have ruined the scale of the building and diminished the effect of the porch. The quiet, pastoral tone is enhanced by the growth of large trees on the front lawn. The transition from the porch to the lounge is a very effective transition from exterior space to interior space.
Historically, the building is significant through its associations with women’s social and political liberation in the early 1900s. The Winthrop YWCA was probably the most progressive force on the campus. The date of the building’s completion is same as the date of the 13th and 14th Constitutional Amendments affirming women’s right to vote and for national prohibition. Prohibition, whether or not it was practical in retrospect, was an earnest attempt to create a better society. It was a prime cause of the YWCA and John D. Rockefeller, the building’s patron. The classic revival style with modern construction is appropriate for the YWCA in the 1920s- a composite of traditional values and progressive causes.