PULLMAN, Wash. — It’s quiet now in Johnson Hall. The only sounds are the footfalls of workers clearing out the last few bits of equipment from the laboratories and classrooms that until recently had occupied the sprawling building.
Gone is the bustle of students, scientists and teachers who cultivated curiosity, puzzling through the problems that farmers worldwide face.
Along the way, they created a roadmap to the future of agriculture.
Perched on Washington State University’s campus, Johnson Hall is facing its end. Engineers say its structure is too outdated to repair or rebuild. Over the next year or so, the now empty building will be dismantled.
Ironically, it will cost more to demolish Johnson Hall than it did to build 60 years ago. A shiny new building will replace it in the lineup of research facilities on campus.
Johnson Hall cost $7.5 million to construct in 1961 and will cost $8.5 million to bring down, said Rich Koenig, chairman of WSU’s Department of Crop and Soil Sciences. Researchers, teachers and students all would agree that the value of the research and teaching that took place there was immeasurable.
When it opened, Johnson Hall marked a new era in agricultural research. Within its walls, WSU and USDA Agricultural Research Service scientists made revolutionary discoveries for farmers raising wheat, barley, canola, chickpeas, apples, potatoes, hops, tree fruit, turfgrass and forests. Organic production and soil science were also studied.
They helped battle the diseases, weeds and insects that plagued crops and made progress in agricultural education and technology, producing generations of farmers, ranchers and researchers.
Beginning in space
Credit the “space race” between the former Soviet Union and the U.S. for the impetus to build Johnson Hall. It was one of many “knee-jerk” buildings constructed nationwide in response to the Soviets’ launch of the Sputnik satellite in 1957, said Tim Murray, professor and WSU Extension plant pathologist.
“The U.S. felt like we were behind in science, and all of a sudden there was this rush to build science buildings, and so they put them up fast and cheap,” Murray said.
Johnson Hall also fulfilled the university’s long-running goal of adding a new plant science building devoted exclusively to agriculture.
WSU took the unusual step of naming the building after someone who was still living: Edward C. Johnson, a longtime dean of the college of agriculture and director of the state’s agricultural experiment stations. The board of regents had accepted Johnson’s retirement “reluctantly” and unanimously approved a resolution that the new building be named for him.
The 195,000-square-foot building was state-of-the-art when it opened — “a showpiece of the campus,” according to a WSU document on the history of the building.
But it has outlived its usefulness to modern science, due to its aging structure and high operating costs.
In 1998 and again in 2014-2015, an engineering firm found Johnson Hall “on the verge of failure” in many areas. Because of the high number of deficiencies, renovation would be “prohibitively expensive,” according to the university.
It will be replaced by a federally funded building that will house USDA and WSU plant bioscience researchers. The new building will cost nearly $105 million. It will open in the winter of 2025-2026 and will be the fifth in a cluster of six interconnected research and education biological science buildings.
Johnson Hall will be demolished over the next year to 18 months, beginning in November, Koenig said.
Several longtime researchers gathered July 21 for a final walkthrough of Johnson’s halls and shared their memories: Koenig, who was a graduate student in 1990 to 1994 and returned as a faculty member in 2003; Murray, who arrived in 1978 as a graduate student and became a faculty member in 1983; crop and soil science professor emeritus Bill Pan, who arrived in 1984; USDA ARS plant pathologist Tim Paulitz, who arrived in 2000; and weed science professor Drew Lyon, who arrived in 2012.
Without the research conducted in Johnson Hall, they said, wheat farms today would be riddled with weeds, disease and insects, have lower yields and lower quality. They’d also be vanishing, victims of rampant soil erosion.
They also reflected on the passing of researchers who were “icons.” Among them: USDA club wheat breeder Bob Allan, wheat breeder Clarence “Pete” Peterson, WSU emeritus professor and mycologist Jack Rogers, barley molecular geneticist Andy Kleinhofs, barley breeder Steve Ullrich, and husband-and-wife team Bill Johnston, emeritus professor of turfgrass management, and Ellen Johnston, who worked in plant pathology’s mycological herbarium.
Each made profound contributions to the region’s agriculture, and many were fixtures around Johnson Hall. For example, Allan continued to work for 25 years after retiring in 1996.
When it opened, Johnson Hall had 42 research laboratories, 19 teaching laboratories, seed and soil testing laboratories, a fruit and vegetable pilot processing plant, an X-ray machine for genetic research, four plant growth control chambers, two insect rearing chambers, 30 cold or frozen storage rooms and a classroom wing.
But the building had many shortcomings, too.
The systems in the building were designed during a time when agriculture was not laboratory-based, Murray said. To handle more research, the university constantly needed to bring in more electricity conduits and upgrade ventilation.
Those changes required drilling into the concrete foundation.
“No matter where you were in the building, all you’d hear was this (drilling sound)” — usually while class was going on, Murray said.
There were enough holes in the concrete that water from one lab would occasionally shower down onto the lab below, Pan said.
“Everybody got to design their own lab, so every lab was custom, and that is not efficient from an architectural point of view,” Murray said. “There’s no two labs in the building that are alike, I don’t think.”
Treasures and trash
Moving from Johnson Hall is like “vacating a 200,000-square-foot home that you’ve lived in for 50 years and everything that’s accumulated,” Koenig said.
“Just entire rooms of things that, I’ve been here 18 years and didn’t know existed,” he said. “Or just a file cabinet somewhere contained things that were hugely valuable or of historic importance.”
Researchers had to sort “treasures from trash,” Pan said.
They found old seed collections and rock and mineral collections, which are now used in teaching or have been relocated to other parts of the university or sent to storage.
Murray found two large collections of plant disease specimens, including large fruiting bodies of fungi that parasitized trees. Some samples date back to the early 1900s.
“We’ll never see some of those again, that size, because we don’t let trees get that old any more,” he said.
Many are slated to be digitized and archived in university libraries.
Least favorite things
Ask researchers what they disliked about Johnson Hall, and a list quickly forms.
“Probably the ventilation, the fact there was no air conditioning in the offices,” Paulitz said. “You had a radiator for the wintertime, but in the summertime, we had to put fans in the door and take air from the halls. ...”
Portable air conditioning units also lined the windows to keep the offices “habitable” in the summer, Koenig said.
Even so, parts of Johnson were “just miserable,” Murray said.
The building’s layout could be confusing.
“When I first got here, I’d find myself in a hallway wondering where the heck I am, because every hallway looks the same,” Lyon said. “It took me probably six months to really feel, ‘Oh, I’m on the second floor on the west side.’ Until then, I’d have to sit there, (thinking), ‘Which direction do I go?’”
Layered beneath the complaints, though, is begrudging fondness for the old building.
As a graduate student, all of Koenig’s classes were there.
It was “a bit surreal to come back and teach in those classrooms that I took classes in as a student,” he said.
The building’s floor plan put some offices together.
“That enabled so much interaction,” Paulitz said.
“We’d see each other — it felt like a very active place,” Murray said. “It was very full of life, because everywhere you went in the building, there was activity.”
One lab was the unofficial meeting place for coffee and lunch.
“We would have big groups of people, and it was really great, because you would get together and have a conversation,” Murray said.
“That closeness is something that’s missing now because we’re all scattered all over the place,” Paulitz said.
Johnson’s offices and labs were relatively large, Pan said. Many researchers will move into significantly smaller, but more efficient, spaces.
The Department of Plant Pathology is now distributed among four different buildings. Even when the new building is completed they’ll remain separated, Murray said.
That will make it challenging to maintain social cohesiveness, which has been further complicated by two years of separation due to COVID-19, he said.
The Department of Crop and Soil Sciences will be spread among five buildings, grouped by common laboratory needs, Koenig said.
“The days of a building this size that will house so many different departments, units, people, I think are gone,” he said.
“I think it’s really important that they’re able to walk around and see and engage with faculty of the department,” Murray said. “I can’t say it’s going to be better or worse, but we know it’s going to be different.”
But overall, it will be “a positive,” Koenig said. “We needed some change.”
Johnson Hall’s legacy
Farmers often tell Murray they remember taking classes in Johnson Hall and reminisce about professors they loved.
Some families now have a fourth generation attending WSU, Koenig said.
“The people in agriculture ... who came through here and were trained as students — they’re leaders, and their kids are leaders, and their kids were trained here,” he said.
Washington State Magazine, published for alumni, solicited current and former students for their memories of Johnson Hall.
Responses included stories of students meeting their future spouses, all-nighters to meet deadlines and wrangling temperamental computers and lab equipment.
Alumna Nicole Snyder wrote that she took her first agricultural education class in Johnson in the fall of 2018 and her last in the fall of 2021.
“I’m so thankful to have gotten to finish my AgEd education there,” she said. “It was bittersweet having my first and last AgEd class in the same building, same room, and with the same people.”
“I know it wasn’t the fancy or trendy building on campus, but I appreciated the homey classrooms and labs where you knew that messes had been made before and would be made again with leaves, soil, potatoes, apples, seeds, etc.,” said another alumna, Jody Strom.
It was, she said, “a reminder that the research and learning that was happening in all those labs, offices and classrooms was part of a long and rich heritage of agriculture in Washington.”