Remembering the Days — High-rise hijinks, life in the Towers

Remembering the Days podcast - episode 47

Pranks and pratfalls are part of life in any college residence hall, but one now-demolished dormitory complex at the University of South Carolina seemed to have more than its fair share. Stories about life in the Towers, also known as the Honeycombs and the Veilblocks, have become almost the stuff of legend.


Today you’re going to hear about a runaway snake, a vindictive squirrel and a wardrobe malfunction. We’ll mention a few pranks perpetrated by mischievous students, and you’ll hear about an experiment involving a high-powered stereo that made an entire building vibrate so much, the cops showed up to investigate.

I’m Chris Horn, your host for Remembering the Days, and all of these stories have a common thread. They took place in a set of  dormitories on the University of South Carolina campus that no longer exist, but which live on in the memories of thousands of former Carolina students. Some people called them the Towers and others called them the Honeycombs or the Veilblocks because of their unusual facade — I think we can safely call them some of the university’s most memorable dorms because of everything that happened there.

Before we get to the fun stories, here’s just a little background. There were six towers altogether — two were built in 1958, two more in 1962 and the final two in 1965. They were bounded by Blossom, South Main and Sumter streets and situated across from the old McBryde Quadrangle and the Thomas Cooper Library.

Each dorm was seven stories tall and accommodated about 270 students, so more than 1,600 students altogether in the Towers complex at any one time. Initially, they were just for male students, but two of the Towers were later designated for women. When they were first built the buildings were identified by the letters H, J, K, L, M, N, but you probably remember them by the names they were given later — Douglas, LaBorde, Moore, Snowden, Baker and Burney. All of them were named for former professors and presidents at Carolina. The last two, Baker and Burney, became women’s dorms.

These were no-frills dormitories, made of concrete block and not much else. Twenty rooms on each floor, each room with a tiny patio covered by the veilblock exterior. There were two students per room; the resident advisor on each floor got a room to himself or herself and there was one big bathroom for everyone on the floor to share — a row of sinks and a few toilet and shower stalls.

Spartan would a good word to describe the Towers.

Eve Blaikie moved into Baker as a freshman in fall 1989. Her first impression of her new home away from home was how little sunlight made it inside her dorm room because of the building’s veilblock exterior.

Eve Blaikie: “It was almost like a cave, which is great for sleeping. But there wasn't a lot of light, and I found out later that my mom cried on the way home because she felt like she was leaving me in jail. And it wasn't — it didn't feel that way, but it was just dark, and I think she wanted something a little lighter.”

So the Towers were not bright and sunny inside, and those veilblock patios seemed a little like jail cells to some. But the buildings were sturdy. About a month after Eve moved in, Hurricane Hugo made landfall on the South Carolina coast and roared through Columbia in the middle of the night.

Eve Blaikie: “We were one of the few dorms, like the Honeycombs themselves, that did not get evacuated because with the Honeycombs, the cement barrier, we were hurricane proof, if you will, and there was other dorms that had been evacuated. So that was a crazy evening to see that type of wind.”

Bob Holdeman came to Carolina as a freshman in 1975 and lived six years in the Towers, the first four as an undergraduate and the next two as a graduate student. He came to work for the university a few years later and for a while he was the University Housing manager for the same dorms he had lived in. As you might imagine, Bob saw a lot of mischief in the Towers, both as a student and as a housing manager. One example involved students who would stop up the drains in the shower rooms and block the shower stall openings with doors or some other material to turn the shower space into a makeshift swimming pool.

Bob Holdeman: “It happened on my floor when I lived there on seventh floor Snowden, somebody used a couple of doors and the showers were just, you know, it was four feet high, easy, with water. And you know, when those doors come down, that water goes somewhere. Of course, it goes straight down, and you would have an entire side of one of the buildings just flooded out. And it's, you know, see it coming down through the walls and coming out the patios in some cases. Having lived with it and through it also, as an undergrad, it didn't shock me, didn't surprise me. I just figured, OK, this is part of college, just kind of cool, you know?”

Students building makeshift swimming pools in the bathrooms didn’t faze Bob. But when they started playing Spiderman, climbing up the sides of the Towers like rock climbers — he never got used to that.

Bob Holdeman: “We had a number of students who wanted to be, you know, like superheroes and they would scale the side of the building. You would have Spidermen, going up the side and and you'd see that sometimes, mostly at night. But, you know, even in the daytime, you know, a student crawling up the side of the building and you look at you and go, ‘What is going on with this person?’ But you know, so that, that surprised me all the time.”

The Towers were built fairly close together, and Bob often saw the men in one tower shooting bottle rockets and roman candles through the veilblock openings of their outdoor patios, hoping the firework projectiles would make it through the veilblocks of the adjacent tower.

Suffice to say there were a fair number of students misbehaving in the Towers, but it wasn’t just humans — squirrels got in on the action, too. They liked climbing the veilblock exterior of the Towers in search of food or, in this case, adventure.

Brian Gambrell was a freshman in 1991, living in Douglas, and he had a close encounter with a squirrel one afternoon. It all started when he went out on his patio to get a few cans of Coca-Cola.

Brian Gambrell: “And there was a rabid squirrel who was — I walk out there and he starts hissing at me. Well, I kind of back up, reach into the room and grab a broom. So I started to use it to defend myself. And I don't know if you've ever tried to whack a squirrel with a stick end of a broom, but they're quick and they're hard to get to. So I flipped the broom around and just used it like a hockey stick and and shot the squirrel out the hole of the portico. So I thought it was funny and didn't think any more of it.

"About a day later, I go out to the balcony to get my bicycle, I had a 10 speed bike that I would use to ride back and forth to Gambrell Hall. And so I go get my bicycle, and as I pick it up to carry it out the door, I noticed one of the brake lines had been cut. And so I started investigating it. I noticed there was these two little teeth prints on my bicycle, so it was very obvious the squirrel had been chewing on my bicycle to the point that he had chewed through my back brake line. So the squirrel is trying to do me in.”

The story actually gets worse. Two days after the squirrel apparently chewed through the brake line on his bike, Brian walked into his dorm room and noticed a disgusting odor. Turned out the squirrel had come in through the open patio door and relieved himself all over Brian’s desk. After cleaning up the mess, Brian and his roommate resolved to never leave that door open again.

Now, I’ve found that many people who lived in the Towers had their encounters with squirrels, but this is the only snake story I came across. It involved a boa constrictor who was illegally residing in a student’s room.

Here’s Chip Harvey, who lived in Douglas from 1982 through 1986.  

Chip Harvey: “So we had a friend who lived in the girl's dorm. She lived in Baker or Burney, I don't remember which one. And so when they said they were going to do inspection, she said, ‘Hey, can you guys take care of my boa constrictor while while they do inspection?’ So it wasn't my room, but it was some guys on the hall. And so they said, ‘Sure, bring it over.’ And so she brought the snake over while they were doing inspection. And well, these guys, you know, fooling around in there didn't pay any attention to the snake and pulled it out of its aquarium with the lid. And so it's going around the room and that sort of stuff. And again, they weren't paying much attention to it.

And next thing you know, one of them says, ‘Hey, where's the snake?’ And then they looked and in the wall, these were cinder block walls, where there happened to be a hole there where they had removed a thermostat or something. And so they saw the tail of the snake going. So that's the last thing they saw of the snake. And so it's up in the walls. Well, the girl whose snake it was, after inspection, started to put up signs, you know, in the Towers: ‘Hey, have you seen my snake?’ Well, you can imagine the parents' phone calls to the university — what are you doing? So long story short, the snake was inside the walls of the building, and it actually came out in one of the other rooms on the hall through the vent.”

The snake had been inside the walls of the Tower for a week before it decided to re-emerge in another room on the hall.

Craig Brandhorst might have felt like hiding inside the walls of his Towers dorm after an embarrassing incident that happened his freshman year, 1989. He was on his way to take a shower.

Craig Brandhorst: “It was probably about 10 o'clock in the morning. I walked out of my room and closed the door and immediately realized that I hadn't A) unlocked the door from the inside. And B) I didn't have my keys. So I didn't have a roommate, so I hadn't even taken a shower yet. You're like, Oh. Turn the knob, knob doesn't turn. I'm standing there in my towel. There's nobody around. My R.A. whose room was right next to mine. He's not home. I'm wondering, how do I get back? 

And I thought about my options, I thought, well, I need to get a replacement key or somebody's got to let me into my room. The only option was to go down the elevator to the main lobby, walk all the way across the main lobby in my towel. There were, you know, a good many people hanging around down there, guys, girls, whatever, I'm there with this towel around my waist and just sort of march into the housing office where, you know, in my mind's eye. I picture, probably a middle-age woman sitting behind her desk. And I walked in and had to explain, ‘Hey, I'm locked out of whatever it was, you know, 522 Douglas.' The thing about it, though, as I recall, I remember being very —when I first first went down to the lobby — being pretty self-conscious of the fact that I was essentially naked. It wasn't the largest towel, walking through a fairly crowded lobby. Being a little self-conscious about that. But then also, you know, just at some point just kind of embracing it, being like, well, — it was just hold tight, basically hold tight to the side of the towel.”

Craig recalls that the woman in the housing office who gave him a spare key for his room was nonplussed by his skimpy attire. He reasoned that in the Towers, the housing staff had probably seen similar things and maybe a whole lot more.

There are so many more stories that former residents of the Towers shared with me. Cris Hudson told me about a crafty student in the Towers who figured out that a blue blanket matched the background used on student ID cards. You can guess where this is going. They used Polaroid cameras to create new IDs that allowed them "age up" and enjoy the nightlife in Five Points bars. 

Myra Morton talked about the lifelong friendships she forged living in the Towers and how those community bathrooms — a concept that today’s freshmen would probably not adapt to very well — were actually the incubators for meeting people and learning how to get along.

We’ll end our lookback at the Towers with another anecdote from Brian Gambrell. The room advisor on his floor had an awesome stereo that could come close to matching the sound level of a Led Zeppelin concert. They played the theme from 2001, A Space Odyssey — the same music that’s played when the football team takes the field at Williams-Brice Stadium — and, well, I’ll let Brian explain what happened.

Brian Gambrell: “And so we did some research to figure out how well the stereo could be versus how loud an airplane was. So we set the we set his stereo on that setting and we put mirrors around the hall. We experimented with his remote and got to where we were around the corner and we put in my disk of 2001 A Space Odyssey. And we hit play. And of course, it starts to go off in the middle of USC's campus. And when it hits the crescendo part, the water was jumping out of the water fountain because the entire building was vibrating. The building was built out of cinderblock. And so apparently we found its harmonic frequency with playing 2001. Glasses were vibrating, doors were vibrating, everything was vibrating. And so by the time we got it all turned off and everything put up, that's when the cop showed up wanting to know if we had heard it and we said, ‘Well, yeah, we heard it, but we didn't know where it was from.' And so we we managed to avoid suspicion as being the people who quite dramatically disturbed the peace.”

As I mentioned at the beginning, the Towers are no more. Two of them were demolished in 1996 to make room for the Center for Graduate Science Research. The remaining four were torn down in 2007 and were replaced by the Honors Residence Hall.

If you’re interested in learning more about life in the Towers, I’m going to include a link in the show notes that will tell you a lot more. Just type in to find the notes for this episode.

On the next episode of Remembering the Days, we’re going to observe Memorial Day with salute to University of South Carolina alumni who made the ultimate sacrifice of service to this country.

I’m Chris Horn, and I appreciate you listening. See you next time and forever to thee.

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