Demolition of Jacksonville State University’s Merrill Hall officially began Monday, July 29 at 10 a.m. following a brief ceremony where faculty, staff, alumni and students gathered in front of the nearly 50-year old facility to say goodbye.
The ceremony offered attendees a brief history of Merrill Hall, which was constructed in 1970, and offered a glimpse into the future of the new School of Business and Industry building, which is set to be completed by 2021.
JSU President Dr. John Beehler, who opened the ceremony, referred to the demolition as a bittersweet moment.
“While we are sad to lose this university landmark, it’s a relief to move forward from one of the most visible reminders of the March 2018 disaster,” said Beehler.
The “March 2018 disaster” Beehler referred to was an EF-3 tornado that damaged almost two-thirds of the facilities on campus, including Merrill Hall and the surrounding community, on March 19, 2018.
After the building sustained heavy damage, the School of Business and Industry moved into the old Kitty Stone Elementary School. The old school building was named the School of Business and Industry Complex.
SGA President Ulises Herrera, a marketing major who closed the ceremony, fondly remembered the facility as it was, saying he recalled the days when students “would walk through the atrium looking at the colorful tickers keeping up with the markets all around.”
Herrera said he can only imagine the connection that the alumni, students, faculty and staff feel toward Merrill Hall and that he believes these connections will always be cherished.
Merrill Hall was constructed in 1970 for $2 million and was named in honor of Rep. Hugh D. Merrill of Anniston, who was instrumental in helping change JSU from a teacher’s college to a state college.
The JSU Board of Trustees approved a plan on July 16 to build a new 108,151 square-foot facility for the School of Business and Industry. The facility is set to cost $50 million to construct.
After factoring in assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and later insurance settlements, JSU is only expected to foot $10 million for costs associated with the new School of Business and Industry facility.
Demolition is projected to be complete in just a few months and according to a statement on the JSU website, it is estimated that the new facility will open in January 2021, but an exact date has not been given yet.
The roof of JSU’s Patterson Hall lies in ruin after the March 19 tornado ripped through Jacksonville. (Matt Reynolds/JSU)
Taylor Mitchell, Chanticleer Reporter
On Monday, March 19th, the first day of spring break for Jacksonville State University, an EF-3 tornado tore a line of destruction through the city of Jacksonville, leaving heartbreak in its wake. The damage was mostly along Alabama Highway 204 and north of Mountain Street. This included Jacksonville State University’s campus and its immediate surroundings. The Reserve apartments were damaged beyond repair, and The Gamecock Village apartment complex was also heavily damaged. The storm also tore through the neighborhoods east of Church Street, a large number of homes were damaged or outright destroyed. The Dollar General on 204 had the entire front wall blown into the store while the employees sheltered inside. The Alumni House lost its roof, Merrill Hall was turned into a ruin, and JSU’s library lost part of its roof. The Avenues, the neighborhood east of Church looked as if a war had been fought and lost. By Tuesday morning a large portion of Jacksonville lay in pieces under trees and rubble.
With the morning, came the clean up. The morning air was alive with the sound of chainsaws cutting trees and hammers attaching tarps to roofs. Police set up checkpoints in affected neighborhoods to keep out looters, and JSU’s campus was completely closed off from the public until it could be deemed safe. Over the ensuing days and weeks volunteers poured into Jacksonville, working piece by piece to shift through the rubble and rebuild buildings. President Trump approved FEMA assistance for Alabama on April 27, opening up federal aid for affected residents.
As for JSU, it was initially announced that campus would reopen on April 2nd. At first, there was much confusion as to what this actually meant. Would classes start back then? Would there be housing for displaced students? Would students even finish the semester? In the coming weeks, all of these questions and more were answered. Dr. Timothy King, JSU’s Vice President of Student Affairs, reached out to students through email and social media and clarified many concerns. Students started back classes on April 9th, and were given the option to take their current grade in a course, take an incomplete, or finish the course normally. Additionally, a “one stop shop” was set up on April 6th and 7th to advise students on what option to take and future plans. On May 4th, only 45 days after the storm, JSU awarded 724 degrees at its spring commencement ceremony. The storm may have affected students in more ways than can be imagined, but it did not stop a single one of them.
A JSU student particularly affected by the storm was Senior Sydney Sorrells. Sorrells lived and worked at the Reserve Apartments. She was at home on the night of the storm with her dog, roommates and boyfriend.
“About five minutes before the storm actually hit everything went dark, the power went out” said Sorrells. The power outage caused people to be locked out of their apartments, which used electric keycard locks. Sorrells began rushing those without shelter into her own apartment. During this time she told me she saw a man pulled from the second floor of an apartment building and thrown to the ground. She and her boyfriend got him into her apartment and as the tornado hit everyone hunkered down in bathrooms. Sorrells had managed to fit several people into her apartment.
“I had about thirty people and two dogs sheltering in my apartment,” reports Sorrells, who sat in her bathroom as she heard her apartment getting ransacked by the storm. After it was over The Reserve gathered the residents in the main office. Sorrells and the other employees tried to help the residents into the office, only to notice the roof was buckling in.
“I was the last one out before the roof collapsed,” said Sorrells. After that she went to her boyfriend’s house and Gamecock Express buses came for students. The next morning Sorrells found her car hit by a dumpster that had flown from somewhere nearby. She also found out she was losing her job due to the closing of the Reserve Apartments. Yet that isn’t the end of the story, Sorrells found a new home and a new job. She, like JSU and the city of Jacksonville, is rebuilding. Jacksonville will rebuild.