Murphey Hall

“However My Philosophy is, to bear the ills of life with Patience, and when I sustain a Loss, to exert myself to repair it. If fortune has been unkind to me in one way, she favours me in Another”

– Archibald DeBow Murphey, letter to his wife Jane Armistead Scott Murphey, 4 May, 1810[1]

Photo courtesy of University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's North Carolina Photograph Collection

Image of Saunders, Manning and Murphey Halls (left to right), 1924 [2]

On June 27, 1827, the day before University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill commencement, Archibald DeBow Murphey gave an oration to the graduating class’ Philanthropic and Dialectic Society. He said, “In all free States, eloquence has preceded poetry, history and philosophy. By opening the road to wealth and fame, it subserves the purposes of avarice and ambition; society is led captive by its charms, and sometimes bound in fetters by its powers.” Murphey warned of the lure of money and recognition; however, it was history and philosophy and poetry that captives him throughout his life. Murphey’s idealized dream of his ability to improve the infrastructure and resources available to North Carolinians moved him forward.[3]

Murphey Hall is home to University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Classics Department and named for North Carolina’s “Father of Public Education,” Archibald DeBow Murphey. Murphey aimed to improve the state public education and make internal improvements, which were state sponsored public works especially the enhancement of transportation infrastructure. As an educator, a politician, a judge, a historian, and a father, Murphey invested his work in North Carolina’s future. However, his dreams of solving the issues North Carolina faced in the 19th century were never fully achieved because of lack of funding and personal debts. Like the man who gave the building its namesake, Murphey Hall has struggled to be a functional and effective academic building suitable for all students and their studies. The building has needed many renovations since its construction. However, due to lack of available budgets, Murphey Hall has often been left in major disrepair until the needed renovations are made. Archibald DeBow Murphey and UNC’s Murphey Hall both find their roots in noble intentions for improvements, but both find their aspirations thwarted.

Archibald DeBow Murphey’s Family and Early Life

Image courtesy of "The papers of Archibald D. Murphey" by Archibald DeBow Murphey, William Henry Hoyt, William A. Graham, and Joseph Graham

Portrait of Archibald DeBow Murphey [3]

Archibald DeBow Murphey was born in Caswell County in 1777.[4] His parents Archibald Murphey and Jane DeBow were married in 1769.[5] His father was involved in the American Revolution as part of the Committee of Safety for Orange County and a Colonel in the Caswell County militia.[6] After the Revolution, Archibald Murphey was a businessman and was considered very wealthy for the time, acquiring over 7,000 acres of land by the time of his death.[7]

Archibald Murphey and Jane DeBow Murphey had seven children, Archibald DeBow Murphey being the fourth child. Archibald DeBow was their only child to ever leave Caswell County. He went to primary school in Guilford County at a school run by Dr. David Caldwell, and received a classical education including Greek and Latin, mathematics, and philosophy.[8] In 1796, Archibald DeBow Murphey started at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and graduated in 1799 “with distinction.”[9] He immediately became a professor of Ancient Languages at his alma mater.[10]


Murphey: Beyond Education

In 1802, Archibald DeBow Murphey left his job at UNC as a professor and moved to Hillsboro, NC. He passed the bar and started a law practice.[11] In 1812, after years of practicing law, Murphey served as an Orange County state senator. [12] He then was appointed the Judge of the Superior Court.[13]

Vera Millsaps writes of Murphey:

“Murphey had the power to dream and conceive great plans, but not the engineering ability to execute, and so having to depend upon others with lesser intellectual ability, his scheme was doomed to failure for lack of men with sufficient foresight and intellectual grasp to transform his dreams into realities.” [14]

Murphey had many goals for North Carolina, especially to improve the transportation system through internal improvement. Murphey did not want North Carolina to be dependent on other states, financially or politically.[15] Murphey thought that a better infrastructure for transportation would provide connectivity throughout the state, boosting the economy and flow of ideas between people.[16] Murphey’s project of internal improvements consisted of creating more canals and turnpike roads, providing more ports for ships and means people and their products to reach farther markets, thus helping the economy by increasing commerce.[17] However, due to the newness of the engineering practices for the early 1800s, the project consumed more time and drained more money than Murphey had expected. The the impracticality of the massive project resulted in a bankrupted and incomplete execution of the new transportation infrastructure.[18]

Archibald DeBow Murphey aimed to write a history of North Carolina because he thought that the people in the state lacked historical information and an understanding of their past. Because of this personal endeavour, Murphey is known as the first native historian of North Carolina.[19] However, this goal proved overly ambitious and with lack of time the vision never saw fruition. However, despite his frequent setbacks and ultimate failure to accomplish his mission, Archibald DeBow Murphey seemed to remain hopeful that his dream would not die. In a letter to Joseph Graham on July 20, 1821, Murphey wrote of his legacy would continue and grow:

“Amidst the cares and anxieties which surround me, I cannot cherish a hope, that I could do more than merely guide the labours of some man who would take up the work after me, and prosecute it to perfection”[20]

However, even Murphey, a lover and believer in the state of North Carolina, wrote his friend Thomas Ruffin: “I am getting disgusted with North Carolina; and things do not change for the better, I shall quit the state as soon as I get my debt paid off.”[21] He became disillusioned with the state and with the dreams he could not achieve.

Archibald DeBow Murphey died on February 1, 1832. He was indebted to the state and to his friends. Murphey had been a successful politician, but he made too many poor business decisions and died in debt.[22]

Primary sources of Archibald DeBow Murphy’s correspondence display either excitement or discouragement over time for his project endeavors. Master theses and academic books written on Murphey provide more insight and analysis into how Murphey fit into the his time period.

Murphey Hall Construction

Image from construction plan of exterior of Language Building, which was later named Murphey Hall, 1921 [25]

Image from construction plan of location of Language Building, which was later named Murphey Hall, 1921 [25]

Murphey Hall has struggled to remain a functional building. It was one of the many buildings constructed during the 1920s on the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s campus. Construction began in 1922 and was completed in 1924.[23] The university was responding to an increase in enrollment and needed to provide sufficient space and facilities for the students. In 1921, the Alumni Review reported:

“The University of North Carolina, through its regular constituted authorities, has asked the State Budget Commision and the General Assembly for the five-year building program presented in detail on the preceding page. In making this request it has proceeded on the basis (1) That it is the state’s duty to provide educational facilities for its citizenship; (2) That inasmuch as 2308 North Carolina boys and girls were turned away from the colleges of their first choice in 1920-21 the state is not performing its duty; (3) That in view of the fact that more seniors are enrolled in North Carolina high schools this year than last, the demand for accommodation at the University will be greater next September than last; (4) and that on account of its present frightful congestion, nothing short of a radical comprehensive building program will enable the University to house and feed and provide class rooms for the present student body of 1,400, and the student body of 3,000 which will be knocking at its doors for admission by 1925-26.”[24]

Image from construction plan of interior of Language Building, which was later named Murphey Hall, 1921 [25]

These updates to UNC’s campus were to include new dormitories, dining hall, classrooms, lab rooms, libraries, and a Women’s Building.[26] In February of 1921, the General Assembly was instructed to carry out the full building program proposal and given $5,585,000.[27] The Alumni Review wrote, “Theirs also is the duty to show the necessity for annual maintenance which will provide adequate equipment and instruction, without which the university cannot hope to perform its splendid mission of service to North Carolina.”[28]

Construction underway, the June 1922 Alumni Review reported the naming of Murphey Hall and its purpose as the Language Department.[29] The classrooms were fully functioning by 1924.


Renovations of Murphey Hall

Image of Murphey Hall from the Alumni Review, 1925 [30]

Murphey Hall, however, soon started to fall into disrepair. In a Daily Tar Heel article on May 13, 1953, Al Harrison reported on the terrible state of the main lecture hall. He wrote, “When one enters the “dank tomb-like room, he is forced to wonder if Archibald Murphey, the great 19th century advocate of public education in North Carolina for whom the building is named, would have supported higher education if he had been able to visualize such a classroom at the University of North Carolina.”[31]

Dr. Harland had taught in the lecture hall in Murphey since it had opened. He recounted:

“‘The seats are too close together and the only way one can sit in them is to slant his legs sideways or to drape his legs over the shoulders of the person sitting in the row in front of him. In neither case is the posture conducive to learning… On occasions the more energetic student will stand and hold his notebook against the wall while he takes notes. Too, there are the less energetic students who use the floor as a writing platform.’”[32]

Murphey Hall had bad heating and ventilation systems; the ceilings leaked and the water ran down the walls and formed puddles on the floors.[33] However despite the known ineffective learning environment due to cramped quarters and professors standing in puddles, it was not until 1962 that the University of North Carolina made its first renovations on Murphey Hall.[34]

Cartoon of Dr. J.P. Harland teaching in Murphey Hall in 1953 from the Daily Tar Heel [35]

In 1958, the University of North Carolina asked the Board of Capital Improvement of Chapel Hill for $16,847,399 for campus renovations.[36] By 1960, $95,000 was the estimated need to renovate Murphey Hall.[37] The lecture hall was updated so its facilities provided a better learning environment. However, during their reconstruction of the building, the heating vents were blocked, creating a need to once again renovate the building.[38]

The Alumni Review detailed the shift purpose for Murphey Hall in January of 1962. The Department of Romance Language had substantially grown from 2,100 to 3,100 undergraduate and from 30 to 65 graduate students within that year. [39] Therefore, Murphey Hall could no longer hold all of the students as enrollment and interest in particular majors grew.

In January of 1968, a quiz in the Alumni Review addressed the changing needs of the University campus structures: “The shortage of campus office space, fast-growing student enrollment, and the great amount of new and recent construction has brought about an “identity crisis” in buildings.”[40] In this matching quiz of purpose to its respective building, Murphey Hall was paired with the subject of religion.

In 1975, the University of North Carolina made another renovation to Murphey Hall. Offices were shifted up stairs, walls were partitioned, blackboards were replaced with new green ones, AC units were installed in the windows and the ceilings were lowered in order to accommodate for an air conditioning system that was never installed. A library was also established, and the lecture halls were equipped with TV projectors.[41]

In 1991, reports that Murphey Hall was in need of repairs once again surfaced, but due to budget cuts, these needed repairs could not be made.[42]

Rehabilitation of Murphey Hall presented extra preservation challenges because it is a historic structure. In order to be renovated buildings had to uphold regulations placed by the University’s Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation. These Standards regulate that the renovations and additions to the historic buildings maintain the original characteristics of the original purpose. Continuity of construction techniques and craft, structures be repaired rather than replaced, new additions not destroy what is already there, and other guidelines help to preserve the “historic character of the property.”[43]  However, these strict guidelines led to the lack of desire to undertake the renovation project because it was to be extensive, thorough, and needed to meet the standards.

The Alumni Review wrote in 2000, “In the case of historic sections of the campus, aesthetic considerations dictate renovations rather than replacement, such as with the high priority on upgrading Murphey Hall in Polk Place.”[44]

It was difficult to draw donors’ attention to the restoration process with the trend of building more new spaces on campus:

“Archibald Murphey (class of 1799) was one of UNC’s early builders and shapers, but few donors are to the very un-sexy things needed in the classroom named for him – wiring, heating and air conditioning, access for the disabled. The business school wows like a silk hat, and Murphey Hall decays, waiting in a long line to get its britches pathed.”[45]

The 2001 renovation construction of Murphey Hall interfered with daily routines of those on UNC’s campus through closed sidewalks and dust in the air. Student reporter Geoff Wessel wrote in 2001 on the intentions of the university, “we have to believe those changes will bring enough good to the University to be worth the temporary evils of creating them.”[46] While students were upset over how the renovations disrupted their routes to class and the air was littered with dust, the university believed in the long term goal of updating the building into a better and more useable space.

The documentation of the change of Murphey Hall through the Alumni Review and The Daily Tar Heel displays the involvement of UNC’s community for both the support for  and the aversion to the rehabilitation projects. These sources give insight to the way construction was presented to them and their reactions. Sources of the guidelines and restriction display the logistics to the success and complaints of the community.

Often the idyllic sense of progress and preservation of the past get muddled in the reality of feasibility. Finances burden the ability to move forward in building and rebuilding. Both Archibald DeBow Murphey and Murphey Hall struggled and continue to struggle to achieve their goals and to stay afloat. Today Murphey Hall sits on Polk Place, home to the Classics Department, and the building holds the spirit of Archibald DeBow Murphey by providing a resource for public education.



[1]   Archibald D. Murphey, William Henry Hoyt, William A. Graham, and Joseph Graham. The papers of Archibald D. Murphey (Raleigh: E.M. Uzzell & Co., State printers, 1914), 38.

[2] “Saunders, Manning and Murphey Halls, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, N.C. 1924,” in North Carolina Photographs (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill)

[3]   Archibald D. Murphey, William Henry Hoyt, William A. Graham, and Joseph Graham. The papers of Archibald D. Murphey (Raleigh: E.M. Uzzell & Co., State printers, 1914), 341.

[4]   Vera Millsaps, “Educational theories and influence of Archibald D. Murphey” (master’s thesis, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 1924), 17.

[5] Herbert Snipes Turner, The Dreamer Archibald DeBow Murphey, 1777-1832 (Verona: McClure, 1971), 4.

[6] Ibid, 5

[7] Ibid, 5

[8] Ibid, 8

[9] Ibid, 9.

[10]   Vera Millsaps, “Educational theories and influence of Archibald D. Murphey” (master’s thesis, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 1924), 18.

[11] Ibid, 18.

[12] Herbert Snipes Turner, The Dreamer Archibald DeBow Murphey, 1777-1832 (Verona: McClure, 1971), 53.

[13] Ibid, 121.

[14]   Vera Millsaps, “Educational theories and influence of Archibald D. Murphey” (master’s thesis, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 1924), 48.

[15] Ibid, 36.

[16] Ibid, 42.

[17] Ibid, 42.

[18]   Archibald D. Murphey, William Henry Hoyt, William A. Graham, and Joseph Graham. The papers of Archibald D. Murphey (Raleigh: E.M. Uzzell & Co., State printers, 1914), xxix.

[19]Ibid, ii.

[20] Ibid,  211.

[21]   Vera Millsaps, “Educational theories and influence of Archibald D. Murphey” (master’s thesis, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 1924), 26.

[22] Ibid, 19.

[23]  “Murphey Hall History,” UNC Department of Classics, accessed October 09, 2017.

[24] “Why This Five-Year Program Is Necessary,” Alumni Review 9, no. 4 (1921): 121-122.

[25] Aberthaw Construction Company, “The Construction Program of the University of North Carolina,” in Aberthaw Construction Company Report (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill), 1921.

[26] Ibid.

[27] “Trustees Work for the Whole Program,” Alumni Review 9, no. 5 (1921): 160-161.

[28] Ibid.

[29] “Some Facts and Figures You Should Know in the President’s Report,” Alumni Review 11, no. 5 (1923): 126.

[30] “University Asks for Completion of Six-Year Program,” Alumni Review 13, no. 4 (1925): 102.

[31]  Al Harrison, “Harland Vs. False Economy, A Running Battle With South,” Daily Tar Heel (Chapel Hill, NC), May 13, 1953.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Ibid.

[34]  “Refurbishment of Murphey Hall,” UNC Department of Classics, accessed October 09, 2017.

[35]  Al Harrison, “Harland Vs. False Economy, A Running Battle With South,” Daily Tar Heel (Chapel Hill, NC), May 13, 1953.

[36] Associated Press Wire Reports, “Over 16 Million Dollars Asked By Board For Capital Improvement At Chapel Hill,” Daily Tar Heel (Chapel Hill, NC), November 1, 1958.

[37] “Bynum, Hill, 4 Other Halls To Get Face-Lifting This Fall,” Daily Tar Heel (Chapel Hill, NC), September 28, 1960.

[38]  “Refurbishment of Murphey Hall,” UNC Department of Classics, accessed October 09, 2017.

[39] “The Changing Campus,” Alumni Review 1, no. 1-4 (1962): 46.

[40] “Campus Quiz,” Alumni Review 56, no. 4 (1968): 21.

[41]  “Refurbishment of Murphey Hall,” UNC Department of Classics, accessed October 09, 2017.

[42] Shea Riggsbee, “Budget cuts delay state-funded construction,” Daily Tar Heel (Chapel Hill, NC), September 13, 1991.

[43] Department of Facilities Planning and Construction, “Chapter 1: General Principles,” in 2007 Design and Construction Guidelines (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2007): 10-12.

[44] “21st Century on Hold,” Alumni Review 89, no. 1 (2000): 22.

[45] “Carolina’s $3.1 billion bond referendum to go before NC voters,” Alumni Review 89, no. 4 (2000): 28.

[46] Ibid.