George Mason University

News at Mason

Alumni share memories of Original Building, as innovation escalates on Arlington Campus

February 27, 2020   /   by Mariam Aburdeineh

Law students ride the escalator in the original building, 1983. Photo from "By-George," George Mason University Yearbook.

Many people are familiar with George Mason University’s Arlington Campus, but fewer know its unique history, including how it became the only law school with an escalator when the university moved into the old Kann’s department store in the early 1970s.

The Original Building will soon be coming down to make way for an innovative new space. Students will still rise to new levels—sans the physical escalator—at Mason’s new School of Computing and Institute for Digital InnovAtion. Mason already produces the most tech talent of any university in Virginia, and with the commonwealth’s recent commitment to Mason of $235 million as part of the Tech Talent Investment Program, the number of graduates in computer-related fields who will support the region’s digital economy will only grow stronger.

Before saying hello to the highly anticipated space, we asked alumni to take us on a stroll down memory lane and share their memories of the Original Building:

Students study in the library in Arlington in 1981. Photo from George Mason University yearbook.

LAW & LOVE

“I grew up in Arlington so I remember shopping at Kann’s with my mother and being excited to ride the escalator. My husband (William Brewer) and I met during law school when we worked on the ‘Urge to Merge’ campaign to convert the International School of Law into a state school as part of George Mason University. We were part of an active group of students lobbying the Virginia legislature and working closely with Til Hazel to make the dream come true. One evening when Bill and I were taking a study break in an open area on the second floor of the building, he asked me to marry him. We were married during our third year of law school. We graduated from GMU School of Law in 1980, having taken all our courses in the old Kann’s department store building. After graduation, we moved to Morgantown, West Virginia, where we have had successful and active law practices and raised our family. Little did I know when I started law school that the Kann’s building would help chart out the rest of my life for me!”

— Susan (Slenker) Brewer, JD ’80

John T. “Til” Hazel and students in front of the George Mason University School of Law, July 31, 1987.

BRIGHT FUTURES

“As a 1990 graduate of the law school and someone who has the opportunity to visit the existing structure from time to time, I know that the expansion will only serve to stamp the Arlington Campus as a go-to spot for future lawyers, innovators and public policy wonks.”

“It was definitely interesting and memorable to have attended law school over four years at night in the old department store. 

“Truth be told, you kind of forgot what the physical plant was once you had to opportunity to interact and learn from incredible legal minds, both as professors and fellow classmates. I am definitely proud of my degree from the Scalia Law School, nee George Mason University School of Law, and am excited about the direction the school has taken since my graduation and wouldn’t trade those years for anything.”

Jeff Kramer, JD ’90

Students study in the law school library in 1981. Photo from George Mason University yearbook.

SHADOW OF SEGREGATION

“As one who would later go on to practice civil rights law, I distinctly remember on the bottom floor there being two men’s and two women’s rooms, all right next to one another; a constant reminder of how far we had come as a nation, and the gravity of the endeavor we had undertaken.”

Mark D. Dix, JD ’98

Metro escalator, 1981. Photo from George Mason University yearbook.

MONKEYING AROUND

“All of my classes were in the Original Building, the former Kann’s department store. It was full circle for me.

“I grew up near Merrifield and my mom used to take me to Kann’s on a regular basis to buy two things, which apparently were only available at Kann’s. The first was Cub Scout uniforms. The second was Stride Rite shoes. So why does that third-grader remember this 49 years later? Because the Kann’s shoe department was unique. The second floor shoe department (yes, up the same escalator) boasted a large glass window cage/display with live spider monkeys. Whenever I’d complain about making the trek, I’d be reminded of the opportunity to see the monkeys.

“Little did I know that 25 years later I’d be back at Kann’s for a different purpose.”

— Steve Andersen, ’97

SECURING A LAW SCHOOL

“I understood at the time, circa 1982, that the Kann building was leased, with an option to buy. Dean Ralph Norvell reached out to his former student Joseph Allbritton to sign and guarantee the note that purchased the Kann Building, whose property included the space upon which the later and current law school was built. The deal with Virginia provided that the state would get ownership of the Kann building property for one dollar, and in turn, Virginia would finance the yearly operation of the law school.       

“During law school I got acquainted with an administrative clerk at the Supreme Court of the United States. He worked a second job at the library. On his own initiative, he invited me to visit him at the Supreme Court. … [I also remember] that the then-sitting Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. came to the law school for a ceremony that started a Phi Delta Phi fraternity chapter in his name.”

James R. Becker, JD ’82

Dean Ralph Novell stands at the north side of the George Mason University School of Law shortly after the building was acquired by the university in the late 1970s. Photo by George Mason University.

A STRANGE BUT COMPELLING LINK

“I have many vivid memories of the old Kann’s department store, having been a small child growing up in the ‘60s in the Clarendon section of Arlington County. I used to ride my wagon, and then bike, all around the parking lots of the Virginia Square Shopping Center. There was a Woolworth’s 5 & 10 right across the green from Kann’s, and a People’s Drug Store on the corner. These were magical places for an eight-year-old, especially at Christmas time! I remember being so surprised when Kann’s became a law school for a local university, and even more surprised when I graduated from that same university several years later. The law school building is a strange but compelling link to different periods of my life, and one I will always remember with great fondness.”

Bill Pittman, BS Business Administration ’80

Mason law classroom in 1980. Photo from George Mason University yearbook.

FLOORED WITH MEMORIES

“I was a student at the law school from 1980 to 1983 in the old Kann’s Department Store. My first year the school only occupied two floors of the building. We did not realize there was a third floor to the building until they ripped down the wall board around the escalator going up there in the spring of that year. The paging system of the department store was still in use when I was a student to page the maintenance staff when needed.

“My graduation in 1983 was held in the large open area of the second floor of the building.”

—Judy Drazen Schretter, JD ’83