UNC Chapel Hill’s Phillips Hall: redeem, renovate or ruin?

By Jess Gaul

It is the height of World War I, and tensions have risen in North Carolina.

The future of UNC-Chapel Hill is uncertain as students receive on-campus military training. It hardly seems to be the time for major campus investments, let alone the construction of a permanent building.

But UNC-CH President Edward Kidder Graham is resolute — now is not the time to ignore the university’s higher purpose of learning, and classrooms are needed to meet this mission.

At his insistent pleading, the North Carolina General Assembly gives UNC-CH $500,000 toward permanent improvements at the university. The first building to appear is Phillips Hall with a bill of $138,589.78.

And with this act, the enigma of Phillips Hall begins.

Something about Phillips attracts feelings of distress among university students. Perhaps it is due to the presence of the building’s math and physics departments or the confusing navigational experience the building provides.

Designed by Charles Christian Hook, a renowned architect based in Charlotte, Phillips is a building on the cusp of collegiate gothic architecture. Its regal face and arched entryway give it a look of importance and mystery.

Phillips is named after three men in one family who each taught at the university — James, Charles and William Battle Phillips.

Exploring the interior

Home to UNC-CH’s physics department, Phillips Hall houses hazardous materials used in student labs. “DANGER” signs alert students to the presence of these materials (Jess Gaul).

Throughout the dim hallways of Phillips Hall, bright red signs alerting “DANGER” cover doors and warn entrants to the possibility of hazardous materials.

Teal tiles line the tops of the hallways of the biomedical engineering labs and seem to mark the place of a time passed.

Completed in 1919, the basic structure of Phillips Hall has stood through almost 100 years of campus transformation, from racial integration to the full inclusion of women in the student body. It was home to UNC-CH’s first computer in the early 1960s.

In many ways, it feels like an old gentleman who has been shuffling slowly for way too long. Many students think it’s about time for that the old guy to take a breather.

In his calculus recitation, sophomore Evan Grimes experienced an uncomfortable atmosphere.

“It would either be ridiculously hot or ridiculously cold,” Grimes said. “It was like 85 or 87 degrees in this room. And the teacher was visibly sweating.”

“(Phillips is) an old man in the final stages of life in the nursing home.”

Phillips used to be the pinnacle of modern architecture. In its prime, it was home to male students of applied science, engineering and physics.

All in all, the face of the building is not objectively ugly. Made of stable brick and limestone, the university would likely pay millions to construct Phillips today.

Upon entering Phillips Hall, students can see a sign that reads in capital letters “QUIET WHILE CLASSES ARE IN SESSION” (Jess Gaul).

Clara Schwamm, a junior math minor, first encountered Phillips Hall while on a tour of UNC-CH before entering college. Knowing her interest in math, she decided to explore the building.

She was immediately intimidated by the arched front stairway and the prominent entryway sign silencing hall dwellers – “QUIET WHILE CLASSES ARE IN SESSION.”

“It didn’t feel super welcoming,” she said.

Schwamm said she found herself questioning if she really wanted to pursue math in college.

“You walk in, and it’s immediately bleak in there,” she said. “Math is not a subject that people tend to be excited about.” And the moody vibes of the interior may not be helping things.

The not-so-modern interior of Phillips stands in stark contrast with newer, brighter buildings such as the FedEx Global Education Center on campus.

Despite its physical attributes, sophomore math major Stanley Sun has positive feelings about Phillips based on his personal experience.

“The building physically is kind of a wreck, but I love it just the same,” he said.

A native of Portland, Oregon, Sun struggled to adjust to North Carolina during his first semester. He thought of home often and was trying to make connections in his new environment

“One of my friends remarked to me that (Phillips) looked like an Oregon high school in the 50s, and that’s when I really fell in love with it,” Sun said.

After declaring his major, Sun began to make friends with people in his department and see improvements in his social and academic life.

“At that time, I felt like Phillips was my only home away from home,” he said.

A building of its time

In 1919, many students lived in north campus dorms such as Old East, Vance and Steele. Much of what is located on today’s central and south campus did not exist.

“(Student life was) just much more central in terms of the experience of the campus,” Wendy Hillis, a former historic preservation officer for UNC-CH, said. “Campus kind of ended on Cameron Avenue.” Cameron Avenue is the street that runs in front of the Old Well.

Hillis, now the university architect at Tulane University, said that it is important to understand what campus life was like in the early 20th century in evaluating Phillips’ character.

“For 100 plus years of the university’s founding … so much of the early development was on the Franklin Street quad,” she said. “It took so long to build that out.”

Across Cameron Avenue, students had meals at Swain Dining Hall, cheekily nicknamed “Swine Hall.” Education students flocked to Peabody Hall to the west of Phillips and attended commencement at the original Memorial Hall just steps to the east.

Hillis also emphasized the importance of considering the time in which Phillips was built and the transformations its walls have witnessed. It was the early 20th century when women were still not allowed to fully enroll in the university, personal computers were an unknown concept and modern comforts like air conditioning were not included.

“The way students work now and the way students learn is so different than when these buildings were built,” Hillis said.

David Owens, chair of the building and grounds committee, sat in math class on a Saturday afternoon in Phillips Hall, watching people walk to football games.

Owens said that Phillips is an older building that probably needs renovation.

“It’s just a very old building that has good bones in the sense that the basics of the building are in good shape, but the interior space is very old and tired and probably needs a significant rehab,” Owens said.

The building and grounds committee is a faculty advisory group appointed by Chancellor Folt that makes recommendations to the Chancellor about when to construct or demolish a building.

Owens said that sometimes a decision is made to keep a building due to its architectural significance, such as the Campus Y. It doesn’t match the symmetry of the rest of Polk Place, but it is important enough to the community to keep it.

“We try to renovate, rehabilitate, restore where possible,” Owens said.

Today, building plans prioritize open space, natural light and large gathering spaces. Phillips doesn’t have a lot of these characteristics because they simply weren’t a priority when it was designed.

Urban legend proclaims a blueprint mix-up between UNC-CH and another school is behind its confusing design. It is unclear whether this is true, and Owens said it is likely not the case.

The survival of Phillips

In March 2016, The Daily Tar Heel reported that a committee met to discuss the closing of Phillips based on constant complaints.

Owens says, however, that this meeting was separate from the building and grounds committee and was likely part of updates for the campus-wide master plan. The lack of word over the two years following this meeting indicates that these suggestions were not incorporated into the official university grounds plans.

Despite its physical problems, recent improvements such as new math and physics help rooms show the potential of Phillips’ interior.

Schwamm compared Phillips to Lots-o, the antagonist stuffed bear from Toy Story 3.

“It was abandoned and then became evil,” Schwamm said. “But it can be redeemed!”

Edited by Megan Cain


The queens have arrived: Chapel Hill’s emerging drag queen scene

Drag queen Naomi Dix hosts Cat’s Cradle first drag show on Friday, Feb. 23. The show was sold-out. Photo by Rachel Jones.

By Rachel Jones

It’s hard to make out either side of the chalkboard around the crowd.

Facing away from Cat’s Cradle, it reads “DRAG QUEENS ARE COMING!” in big, angular letters, traced in bright blue and retraced in even brighter red.

The side facing Cat’s Cradle reads “LIQUOR,” in just one set of bold white letters with an arrow pointing to the bouncer in the doorway.

Denim and leather and lace sneak around the concrete back porch, squeezing past the rusty green rails that the chalkboard rests on. Everyone looks like they’re wearing highlighter; it lights up under the continuous camera flashes in front of the door.

Nobody is moving — the line is too congested. Boys in makeup and baseball hats laugh at each other. The girls around them wear the same, their pastels muted and dark under the evening sky.

Suddenly, a glimmer of beige cuts through the crowd. Naomi Dix is here.

Short and glamorous, the queen’s shiny latex dress clings to her frame. Her ombre wig flows to her shoulders, making her brown skin glow. Her makeup is traditionally feminine, but with a distinct drag edge; her cheeks are carved out in a bright contour, and her eyelids are swimming in stacks of fake lashes. She’s wearing a massive necklace and an even bigger smile as she greets a gaggle of barely-legal-looking students.

“Oh my god, people showed up,” she said, exclaiming in a feminine, nasally voice. She hugs tightly to fans with the bejeweled hand that’s not clutching a cocktail.

In an hour, she’ll be on stage, announcing Cat’s Cradle’s very first drag show, and one of the only ones in Chapel Hill-Carrboro’s recent memory.

The show is sold-out.

Drag queens have arrived.

Coming up in drag

A sold-out venue was never a guarantee. The night before, Dix sighed into the phone when asked about her turnout expectations.

“I’m not expecting a lot of people to show up,” she said. “Because after all, it is the first show at Cat’s Cradle that they’ve ever had when it comes to drag.”

Dix connected with Cat’s Cradle through a link between her drag family and the bar manager. The reference was bolstered by her recent win at Miss Hispanidad Gay 2017, a drag pageant run by Durham Latino advocacy organization El Centro Hispano.

Friday was her first Carrboro show, but it’s far from her first performance in drag. For her, drag is an outlet, a welcome escape from her day job.

“I have to be a little more kept to myself as Carlos because I work a full-time job. I can’t act like that every single day. So, to be able to work a full-time job from 8 to 5 and then get off, go home and put on makeup for two hours… and look outstandingly gorgeous for the next eight hours,” Dix said. “Who in their right mind wouldn’t mind wouldn’t want to do that?”

Dix is ingrained in Durham’s drag scene, performing and hosting regularly at the Pinhook. It’s normally a concert and event venue, featuring indie bands like Girlpool and Screaming Females alongside activist talks like the Bible Belt Abortion Storytelling Tour.

While drag has entered the mainstream with VH1’s hit show “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” that hasn’t necessarily translated to great financial and social success for local drag queens. Like 26-year-old Dix, many of these queens keep a normal day job and set ambitions for a statewide tour, not a national one. This holds especially true in North Carolina, a state better known for basketball and barbecue than its thriving LGBTQ community.

Dix grew up around Raleigh, arguably the hub of drag in the state. It’s home to Legends, a sprawling gay club with drag nights that once hosted Porkchop, North Carolina’s first and only contribution to “Drag Race.”

But Dix didn’t pursue the Raleigh scene, which she perceived as closer to an old-school, man-to-woman form of drag. Instead, she chose Durham.

“What was alluring to me about Durham drag was the free spirit,” she said. “When I started drag, I definitely had this feeling of acceptance and this feeling that I wasn’t being judged as harshly as I may be judged if I’d been doing drag in Raleigh.”

As a beginning queen, she was taken under the wing of Vivica Coxx, one of the pioneers of the Durham scene as a refreshing and more genderqueer alternative to Raleigh drag. Dix’s surname alludes to her drag “family,” the House of Coxx. Led by Vivica, the group often takes gigs together and holds a weekly home-cooked dinner for its members. Now, Dix has drag children of her own, two of whom performed with her Friday night.

One of those queens was Margaret Snatcher, a big queen with even bigger hair. She’s an undergraduate at Duke University, where Dix frequently plans student events and performs.

“Having fun, Chapel Hill-Carrboro?” Snatcher said, hearing screams from the crowd in response.

She had just finished a number to Adele’s “Water Under the Bridge.” During the lip-sync, she reached out to the crowd for volunteers. These brave souls were then gently pointed to motorboat Snatcher’s fake breasts, which were made out of a half-gallon of cooked rice.

“And it’s a snack after the show because it is already cooked,” Snatcher said to loud applause.

Every time a head went under, the crowd roared.

“This is a sold-out drag show,” she said, still out of breath from the song. “You’re in the right place if you’re here right now and nowhere else tonight.”

First-year Nick Tapp-Hughes, who came with his boyfriend, was in the right place. It was his first drag show and his first time at Cat’s Cradle.

“I didn’t think it would be that fun to watch someone lip-sync, but it was really fun,” he said. “I hope that more drag shows happen. Hopefully.”

On stage, Snatcher is still heaving.

“You are lucky, you are lucky, and I want to get lucky tonight! Let me ask — Naomi, are you ready? Now, the queen of the night, Miss Naomi Dix.”

Looking ahead

Dix has been doing drag for four years, and for the past year, her schedule’s only gotten busier. She’s begun thinking about a long-term strategy and vision for her drag career.

She knows she’s popular with students and young crowds, something that Chapel Hill and Carrboro have in droves. Now she’s choosing these towns, the same way she chose Durham.

“I mean, this actually might be something that I can go ahead and take under my wing,” Dix said. “As of a month ago, Chapel Hill and Carrboro have become my new baby, and everyone that lives in Chapel Hill and lives in Carrboro now knows that they are a part of my family, and they are now my children.”

Edited by Megan Cain

Individuals with disabilities: a benefit to the workplace and workforce

By Chris Cotillo

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – If you happen to stop by the Joe Van Gogh coffee shop at the Timberlyne Shopping Center, the employee who may make the biggest impact on you will do it without saying a single word.

Owen Davis, a 23-year-old with non-verbal autism, has worked at the shop for about a year. He washes dishes, cleans tables and sometimes makes coffee or serves customers.

Working at Joe Van Gogh is one of Davis’ two jobs, with the other being a custodial position at Reality Ministries, a non-denominational Christian gathering space for young adults with intellectual disabilities in Durham. He works at least one of those jobs (and sometimes both) five days a week, establishing a routine that his mother, Patty Davis, says has been extremely beneficial.

“He has a routine, and it keeps him busy,” Davis said. “And I’ll tell you what, the work ethic on these young adults with disabilities… I would say 95 percent of them never miss a day of work.”

Owen’s job is an example of a growing trend in which businesses are becoming more likely to hire individuals with developmental disabilities. People closely involved with the special needs community, like students with UNC’s Best Buddies initiative, are working hard to raise awareness about the benefits of a diverse workplace, attempting to end the prevailing stigma about hiring employees with disabilities.

“I think people hear ‘disability’ and quite literally, the word means, the inability to do something,” said Caroline Folz, a UNC senior on the executive board for Best Buddies. “That’s not true at all. It’s just that individuals have different needs, difficulties and strengths.

“There’s the idea that individuals who have disabilities are worse employees and maybe wouldn’t be worth the investment of an employer, but honestly, that isn’t the case. Having individuals who have disabilities in the workplace actually has a ton of positive effects on the work environment,” Folz said.

Benefits of workplace involvement

For individuals with developmental disabilities, the benefits of having a job extend beyond receiving paychecks. Owen doesn’t make much money, but his mom says he likes having just enough to take his grandmother to lunch.

“That’s not what it’s about,” Davis said. “It’s about having self-worth. It’s just having money that you don’t have to ask for all the time.”

In addition, the social impact of employment for individuals with developmental disabilities is unmatched by other opportunities. Unlike schooling, which is largely segmented, being a part of the workforce gives these individuals a chance to make friends that have rarely existed in other aspects of their lives.

At Joe Van Gogh, the employees view Owen as a friend, taking him to the zoo, movies and other excursions throughout the last year. Although he is non-verbal, he’s able to communicate via sign language and writing, which his mom said isn’t a barrier once people get to know him.

“There’s no place that these kids get to meet people,” Davis said. “[Owen] wants so badly to find a girlfriend. I asked him today, what’s your favorite thing about your job? What’s the most important thing? And he said it was just seeing all the beautiful girls.”

Scott Lambeth, a clerk in the UNC mail room, is in his 19th year at his current job. The Chapel Hill native is a self-described hardcore Special Olympian. He competes in basketball, kickball, track, swimming, soccer and flag football. Lambeth says his job keeps him moving, even when he’s not practicing for sports or at one of his beloved Zumba classes.

“That’s a big reason why I don’t look my age,” Lambeth said. “No one would ever guess I’m 41. I have so much energy. I’m moving like I’m a planet.”

“It’s really important for the supervisor, or whoever the boss is, to be patient with whoever they’re working with,” Lambeth said. “People have different disabilities, as opposed to others.”

Performance, retention and perception

Research has shown that individuals with developmental disabilities aren’t the only ones who benefit from being in the workforce. Businesses that hire from this specific pool of applicants benefit in three specific areas – performance, retention and perception – according to UNC senior Cait Rosica, who is completing an independent study on neurodiversity in businesses.

According to Rosica’s research, employees with autism perform better at data-driven tasks and problem-solving than those who don’t have intellectual disabilities, largely due to their strong attention to detail. In terms of retention, the difference in average turnover rate is stark, with the average turnover rate for people with intellectual disabilities equaling just 7 percent in comparison to the national average of 49 percent.

The lack of turnover means businesses add stability and save money, as the cost of replacing employees can vary from $3,000 to $8,000. In addition, businesses benefit greatly from hiring those with developmental disabilities in terms of perception, with a staggering 92 percent of people surveyed stating that they “regard companies who employ people with disabilities more favorably than their competitors,” according to the “Return on Disability Group” report from May 2016.

Rosica said her passion for helping people with intellectual disabilities and the business world has made her see the gap between the services that people receive in the education system and getting to the actual job world.

“I think it’s beneficial for both sides,” Rosica said. “Many companies are taking advantage of the talent pool, but for others, I think the link is still missing. That’s what I’m trying to address some of it with my project.”

Demonstrating their ability

Locally, there are plenty of programs designed to help individuals with developmental disabilities enter the workforce. Project SEARCH, a national program that helps individuals transition out of high school with interview training, life skills and a job coach, was instrumental in Owen landing his two jobs. UNC has a similar program, called PATHSS (Project Achieve for Transitioning High School Students).

To create the link between individuals with intellectual disabilities and potential employers, organizations like Best Buddies are attempting to be more active. Folz, who serves as the Community Buddy Coordinator on campus, said that the organization is hosting a LinkedIn-themed art showcase at the Student Union on March 2 aimed at highlighting the individual accomplishments and interests of those associated with the program.

“We’ll highlight their hobbies, their interests and the work they do around Chapel Hill,” Folz said. “We want to show the professional side, but also the extracurricular side of what our buddies like to do.”

“The purpose is to showcase the important role that individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities play in our community,” Folz said, “and also to give our members a way to be recognized for all the work that they do.”

Edited by Megan Cain