Friday, October 31, 2003

The Legend of Smith Hall

(Here it is--my ghost story. Unlike many of my posts, which have a lot of links and more than a little research behind them, this story has been constructed from hearsay, or "the oral tradition" if you wish. I'm just going to tell the story as I remember it here, and I'll go back and clean up the facts later if new information comes my way.)

The "old Smith house" at Mulberry and Welch in Denton, Texas (on the edge of the campus of what is now the University of North Texas) was built in the early 1900's. The patriarch of the family had been mayor of Denton, and his daughter, Julia Smith, was a noted composer of operettas and the first biographer of Aaron Copland (she also composed "Glory to the Green," which has been the alma mater of UNT since its adoption in 1922). Among the notable visitors to the house were Ignace Paderewski, the piano-playing president of Poland (say that ten times fast!) and former presidential candidate and Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan. There was always a lot of music in the house, which fit nicely with its proximity to North Texas' fast-growing School (now College) of Music.

In 1969, when Julia's mother, also named Julia Smith, was in her early 90's, the University wanted to buy the house for future expansion. The elder Mrs. Smith agreed, on the condition that she be allowed to live out her remaining days there. Considering her advanced age, the University could hardly turn down that offer...except that Mrs. Smith would live on and on, passing away in 1984 at the age of 106. She died in the house, in the front downstairs bedroom.

There was a healthy competition among many University entities to take over the house, but the winner was KNTU, the campus radio station, which had long since outgrown its facilities in the then-Speech and Drama building. The winter of 1984-85 was spent transforming the house into studios, and the station moved in on a snowy day in February.

From the beginning of the renovations, there was unusual activity in the house. The engineer working on the transformation noticed many different things, including feeling hot breath down the back of his neck when he was working underneath a counter. There was also an amusing series of episodes regarding the door to the attic. Since it was the middle of winter, the engineer wanted to keep the cold air from coming down from the attic, so that door was closed and locked at day's end. However, when he returned in the morning, it was often open again. This happened for several days in a row; one time, it was even open and propped open by one of those little wooden triangles. Frustrated by this, he removed the triangle and closed it in a drawer downstairs in the kitchen...but the next day, there it was, propped open by a triangle again. The Physical Plant workers who were doing construction on the house were the only other ones who had keys, yet they swore up and down that they were not the ones opening the door.

Other things happened throughout the next several years: A late-night DJ said that, on several occasions, he would close up and lock the house after midnight sign-off and would walk out the front door, only to see a light come on upstairs. It was reported that several custodians assigned to what was by then called Smith Hall had resigned their positions after experiencing unusual incidents, which included having their brooms and mops moved to completely different rooms while they were elsewhere in the building, or walking up to the side entrance at 4 a.m. (when the station was off the air and the studios were empty) and hearing classical music coming out of the house. The music, of course, would stop when they entered.

In the spring of 1989, the younger Julia Smith died (in New York, I believe). On June 22 of that year, the morning shift at the station arrived to the shocking news that the house had suffered a major fire overnignt. It started in the newsroom, and there were three possible theories as to the cause:
  • Someone put out a cigarette (the campus had not yet gone nonsmoking) in the newsroom trash can, which, being filled with news-wire machine paper, later ignited.

  • The wire machine itself suffered a short-circuit and spit sparks into the wastebasket, igniting it.

  • The ghosts caused the fire.

Is it too far-fetched to believe that the two Julias, united again in the hereafter, teamed up to start the fire? Probably, but here's an interesting coincidence: Every room in the house suffered some sort of major damage except for three: the downstairs room where the elder Mrs. Smith died; the room upstairs where she lived back when she could still get up and down stairs; and the one corner of the attic where the younger Mrs. Smith liked to read as a youngster. Those three rooms were undamaged, save for a coating of ashes on the furniture.

(A funny sidelight: the news director at the time was noted for her vivid dreams. A few days after the fire, she had a dream that she was going up to the house to help in the salvage efforts [which went on for a good week or so], and she was greeted at the door by an elderly lady holding an apple pie in one hand and a baseball bat in the other. She pointed the bat menacingly in the news director's direction and said, "Get out!" At this point, the dream ended. This was funny on several levels: First, the fact that Mrs. Smith had an apple pie, since a very popular brand of said pie is Mrs. Smith's; also, the pie and bat in tandem with her would symbolize three great American icons--baseball, apple pie and Mom.)

The house was eventually completely renovated, with all of the "homey" aspects (the kitchen cabinets, the pink- and green-tiled bathrooms, etc.) removed so that the house looked more like offices on the inside, even if the outer facade remained. After the renovation, the paranormal incidents decreased, though a few people would still hear things at night.

It's interesting to note that, despite my being there early in the morning and late at night, I never saw or heard anything personally, even though I occasionally made jokes about it (I recall one memo I sent out as Program Director saying "you must turn in your aircheck tapes to me by the end of the week, or Mrs. Smith's ghost will haunt you always!"). However, the lack of personal encounters didn't make it any less cool to be working at a haunted house.

Eventually, the roof of the house fell into such bad disrepair that the University decided it was no longer cost-effective to keep the building. A massive addition and renovation to the former Speech and Drama building began in 2000, and KNTU moved to its new home in its old building in the early fall of 2001. Smith Hall was demolished on September 29, 2001; the lot remains vacant today, but the story lives on.

(Little blurbs on the former "haunted house" may be found here and here.)

UPDATE 1/23/10: Welcome, readers of the forums, where this post was referenced during a discussion of Julia Smith. Feel free to have a look around the rest of the blog; topics concerning our alma mater may be found by clicking the "UNT" tag below.

1 comment:

utah kitchen cabinet said...

Thanks for the story. that was really interesting! I want to read more of this kind of stuff! I love legends and stories of things that have happened in the past that are all creepy!