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Students pass pillars of EWU’s past into their futures

The Pillars of Hercules are commonly considered to be those large promontories in Spain and North Africa that flank the entrance to the Strait of Gibraltar. But Cheney has its own Herculean pillars – though not as large, they are every bit as important to the history of the region in which they reside.

The pillars are at the bottom of the walkway leading to Showalter Hall, the main administration building at Eastern Washington University, located right where College Avenue ends at Fifth Street. They are square, approximately 12-feet high and with 20-foot-long walls off each pillar having curved sections containing a seat, thus creating a gateway. They serve as the ceremonial entrance to the campus, according to Charles V. Mutschler, university archivist. They used to be the actual entrance, as arriving students would walk up to campus along College Avenue (formerly Normal Avenue) from the train station in Cheney just down the hill from where the pillars are located.

And these pillars have quite a history. Three buildings have been located where Showalter Hall, built in 1915, now stands. First came the Benjamin P. Cheney Academy, a wooden structure erected in 1882 and which burned to the ground in 1891, one year after the newly created state of Washington located a normal school at the site, making the former privately endowed teacher training institution a state school.

Washington State Normal School was located there in a new administrative building in 1896, a three-story composite structure with a stone foundation and wooden framing, but having a brick exterior and granite trim around the doorways and windows. Early in the morning on April 24, 1912, a fire broke out in the administration building, and it was gutted. The nearby Training School building was spared, and school functions were relocated there.

The state legislature approved funding for a new administration building – this time made of steel reinforced concrete with a brick exterior – and in 1915 the three-story Showalter Hall opened, and it remains in service today. That year students and alumni raised money to have a formal entryway to campus constructed. And they came up with an idea for it.

When the demolition contractor wrecked the remains of the burned-out Cheney Normal School Building, the granite facings from the doors and windows were available for sale. They were purchased by the group planning the entryway and, along with other stone from the building, were used to construct the Pillars of Hercules. Mutschler said the pillars, which contain bronze plaques noting their date of construction, were intended to send a message of hope and renewal in the aftermath of the fire.

By about 1940, more and more students began arriving at the campus by auto, and gained entry to campus through different access points – no longer up the pathway from downtown Cheney. Movement away from arrival by rail was pretty well completed by the end of World War II, Mutschler said.

But the pillars wouldn’t languish as mere symbols. They have taken on a new role, uniting the past with the present. Lisa Poplawski, director of alumni advancement at EWU, explains: “It was a tradition once to pass through the pillars on the way to campus. That’s simply how you got there. We thought it would be a good tradition to bring back to the university.”

So since 2005 during orientation week in the fall, entering freshmen participate in a formal ceremony in which they walk through the entryway and up what is now known as Hello Walk, where they are greeted and welcomed by university staff, faculty, administration and other students. “It seemed like a natural fit,” Poplawski said, “to honor our history and establish a new tradition.”

And when they graduate, they formally walk back out through the pillars – and out into the world.