Newly renovated Norris Hall has become a more inviting place to live

March 31, 2023 — In October 1960 during the College’s annual Homecoming Weekend, a dormitory was dedicated at the far end of North Campus, honoring generations of the Norris family who attended Grinnell College. 

With its gray facade and long strips of rectangular windows, the three-story dorm – brickwork, limestone, and a fourth story were added a few years later – didn’t feel as charming as its neighbors. It was the designated home to first-year students and later to those who didn’t do well in the room draw. If there was a beauty contest for Grinnell residence halls, Norris, located at the corner of 10th Avenue and Park Street, wouldn’t have much chance of winning.  

Norris Hall Exterior
  Norris Hall after renovations

But those days have changed. A renovated Norris was unveiled in November 2022, the result of a six-month long, award-winning project that added light, space, and comfort to a place often described as cold and dark. 

Highlights include a new, bumped-out tower of glass on the front of the building, containing an elevator, stairwell, and huge social lounges on each floor. A four-story stainless steel art wall was installed on the south side of the building, with patterns of prairie plants perforated into the steel. 

“What’s made a huge difference is that before renovations, these corridors were devoid of natural light,” says Rick Whitney, a mechanical engineer and the College’s assistant vice president for facilities management, who oversaw the renovation. “Now there are new windows at each end of the corridors, and where every lounge is cut in there’s natural light, where we had none before.” 

Every room has been renovated and the entire building is ADA compliant. Windows have been replaced and there are colorful furnishings in each lounge, along with new, neutral-colored furniture in every room. 

Bathrooms were re-designed and accessible restrooms were added. The small, dark kitchen on the first floor has been replaced with a large open kitchen space, and landscaping will be completed this spring, along with the addition of black granite and stonework to match other building materials on campus. 

“It’s a completely different building, inside and out,” said Brian Goodell ’24, who lived in Norris Hall part of his first year with track and field teammates. “It was a different experience because there were few people on campus [during the pandemic], but we had a tight-knit community, and it was fun. The fact that there’s an elevator now is really nice, and the bathrooms are super-nice too, with frosted glass doors to let light in. The lounges are massive with floor to ceiling windows and fancy chairs, kind of like a tech start-up.” 

Connor Heagy ’26 says it is fun living in a renovated building. 

Students study inside a newly renovated Norris Hall lounge.
Students study inside a newly renovated Norris Hall lounge. The lounges have floor to ceiling windows and new furniture.

“The air conditioning is a plus, and the floor lounges are very well-furnished,” Heagy says. The lounges are such a good place to hang out with friends and do homework. They are spacious, comfortable, and quiet. Each floor lounge also lets in a lot of natural light, due to the large glass panels, making it a great place to relax.”

Despite Norris’s pre-renovation inferior reputation, alumni have fond memories of their time living there, often citing lifelong friendships made there. 

“There was no place to hang out – there was a lounge room on the first floor that was very drafty, cold, and unwelcoming,” recalls Ellen McDonald ’81, who met her future husband, Dave Buck ’81 in Norris. “So people had their doors open and it was one big family room. Everyone had to get along because it was one long hallway.” 

“It was just so big, and it was dominated by freshmen and sophomores because no one else wanted to live there,” says Jim Bickal ’82, who lived there for part of his second year after he and his freshman year roommate, Scott Shepherd ’82, got last choice in the room lottery. “But it had a distinctive feel of young exuberance.” 

Two students collaborate sitting in a renovated Norris Lounge.
Norris Hall lounges have been transformed from cold and unwelcoming to a popular place to do homework, meet in groups, and socialize.

Jennifer Wilcoxsen Rosenfeld ’82 lived in Norris “when I got the last, or close to last, number in the RA room draw for 1979-80. No one wanted to live there: it was on the edge of campus, barely a part of North Campus with no character.

“Soon after George Drake ’56 was installed as the new president of the College that year, I made an appointment to see him to discuss ideas on how to better connect Norris with the rest of the campus,” Rosenfeld said. The two came up with the idea of some type of plaza/meeting place. “Every time I saw George Drake in subsequent years, including five years ago when I visited campus, he would reminisce about that meeting.”

The award-winning renovation should change the dorm’s reputation. 

“I have a feeling that more people will be requesting to live there because it’s nicer,” Goodell said. “I like what they did, keeping the historic and slightly nostalgic Norris look, but adding to and improving it. That was a nice compromise.” 

Heagy says Norris could now be a first-choice residence hall. “It has a lot to offer. The new renovations are a good incentive to live in Norris.”

The renovation was a collaboration between Grinnell College, the Weitz Company, CPMI, and OPN Architects. The project won the Masters Award at this year’s Master Builders of Iowa winter conference. The annual award recognizes exceptional efforts of a construction team in executing the process of completing a project. 

“After seeing the hard work that all of the collaborating teams put into this project last summer, it is great that everyone involved is getting well-deserved recognition,” Whitney said. “Ultimately, we are most thankful that the renovations have made Norris a more comfortable and accessible space for students.” 

— by Anne Stein ’84

For your information:

Norris Hall houses 105 students. It was named after multiple generations of the Norris family, including D.W. “Fritz” Norris Jr. 1892, who founded the Scarlet & Black newspaper, and his brother, Judge Paul Gifford “P.G.” Norris 1899. Their father, David W. Norris Sr. 1872, was part of the first generation to graduate from Grinnell, and he founded Lennox Machine Co. in Marshalltown, Iowa, which originally manufactured coal-fired furnaces. David’s sisters, Emma and Anna, were also 1872 graduates.

Fritz’s sons, Dana Norris 1923 and John W. Norris 1923, and their sister Loraine Norris ’28 were the third generation. John became president and chair of the board for Lennox International and eventually a Trustee of the College. Both of John's sons – John Norris Jr. ’58 and Robert Norris ’60 worked at Lennox International, John Jr. as president and Robert as director.

PG’s grandson David U. Norris ’55, a former Trustee, and his wife, Jane North Norris ’56 also attended Grinnell. As did Richard W. Booth ’54, the great-grandson of David W. Norris, and Richard’s wife, Anne Booth ’56. Richard was elected to the College’s Board of Trustees in 1982 and became a life trustee in 2002 before retiring in 2015. 

Richard and Anne’s granddaughter, Carolyn Booth ’11, became the fifth generation to attend Grinnell when she arrived in 2007.

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