COVER Next for Norris: What happens to places where horrors happen?
On Monday, Virginia Tech officials announced that Norris Hall– site of 31 of the 33 deaths in the worst school shooting in American history– will never house another class. Still, the building is the site of offices and laboratories, mostly for the engineering science and mechanics department. But the future use and even existence of Norris Hall remains undetermined, and while no precedent exists for what transpired within its granite walls, many situations have required people to decide what to do with buildings where the unthinkable happened.
Before April 16, the most fatalities from a single shooting incident on an American college campus happened August 1, 1966 at the University of Texas at Austin. That's when a student barricaded himself in the observation deck of the 307-foot Main Building Tower and killed 13 people with a sniper rifle while wounding another 31.
The university re-opened the tower two years later, only to close it again in 1974 after it became the site of nine suicide jumps. It was only on November 11, 1998, that UT's Board of Regents decided to open the tower's doors again, ending a 25-year period when it was off limits to everyone except an occasional special guest. Starting in September 1999, visitors could take regular tours– until the events of September 11, 2001. Since that time, the tower has been open only for paid tours ($5 per person) on special occasions, and visitors must pass through a metal detector.
To this day, signs of the standoff with police and armed citizens remain. At least a dozen patched-up bulletholes are visible on the south side of the Tower alone.
While Texas decided to maintain what some say is a building with a tainted legacy, officials in Jefferson County, Colorado– where two students killed 13 people and wounded 24 more on April 20, 1999– decided to rebuild.
Instead of renovating the Columbine High School library where most of the fatalities occurred, the school decided to replace it with a glass atrium. Completed in August 2000, it allows sunlight and a view of the Rocky Mountains from the cafeteria where more of the shootings happened. A year later, construction finished on the new HOPE Columbine Memorial Library on the grassy area where the massacre's first casualties occurred. Inside the library is a memorial bearing the names of the 12 unarmed students and one teacher who died.
Most recently, a 32-year-old man killed five female students inside West Nickel Mines School, a one-room Amish schoolhouse in Bart Township, Pennsylvania on October 2, 2006. Members of the surrounding community boarded up the school immediately following the shootings, and a mere 10 days later hired a bulldozer to demolish it. The Nickel Mines community says the site will remain a quiet pasture.
But such atrocities haven't been limited to schools and colleges. On July 18, 1984, a 41-year-old man opened fire inside a McDonald's in San Diego's San Ysidro neighborhood, killing 21 and wounding 19. That September, McDonald's tore down the restaurant and in 1985 built a new one two blocks away. After debate over what to do with the site, the state of California erected the Southwestern College Education Center at San Ysidro there in 1988. In front of the school, the dead are memorialized in 21 granite pillars, each equal to the height of one of the victims.
The Luby's Cafeteria in Killeen, Texas was not so eager to abandon its site. Five months after October 16, 1991, when a 35-year-old man rammed his truck into the structure and opened fire on a lunchtime crowd– killing 23 and wounding at least 20 in what had been the deadliest shooting incident in American history until this month– the restaurant re-opened its doors to patrons. It wasn't until September 11, 2000 that the Killeen Luby's went out of business for good– part of the scheduled closure of 15 of the chain restaurants. Nearly 16 years after the mass murder, the building still stands, now the home of Yank Sing Chinese Restaurant.
Decisions about the fate of houses where horrific deaths occurred also vary. Less than a month before the UT Tower killings, a drifter raped and murdered eight student nurses in a townhouse used as a dormitory by South Chicago Community Hospital; the structure still stands. So does the Boulder, Colorado house where Jon Benet Ramsey was slain in 1996, and the Los Angeles condominium where Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman were murdered in 1994.
The Hollywood-area house where pregnant actress Sharon Tate and four others were slain in 1969 stood until 1994, and the San Diego mansion where 39 members of the Heaven's Gate cult committed suicide in 1997 was also demolished.
Randall Bell is a California-based economist and real estate consultant specializing in such damaged real estate. He says the one constant is that these buildings were all assessed at only slightly below market value within a few years of the tragedies that made them infamous.
"In the typical 'guy gets murdered' scenario," Bell explains, "in terms of property values, it's forgotten within three to seven years, and the discount is only 10 to 20 percent. The Sharon Tate house even sold for full market value in 1989. So things get back to normal over time."
However, he says that in the case of Norris Hall, normal is not likely to be the case. "I would expect the stigma to remain for the rest of our lifetimes," says Bell.
Local social commentator and Virginia Tech alum Waldo Jaquith believes a name change will be necessary– at a minimum.
"I expect the name Norris will be tainted," says Jaquith, "but I don't know that it's worth tearing the building down, since those don't come cheap." Jaquith says he'd rather not see a memorial on the site, but he'd like to see one somewhere.
"It's not a well-trafficked building, and it would unintentionally do a disservice to the two people who died in West Ambler Johnston," he says. "I would hope they would put it some place where people could see it."
The University of Texas' Main Building Tower is open for tours on special occasions, despite the fact that 14 people were killed by a student shooting from its observation deck in 1966.
COURTESY OF LARRY MOORE