DeNorval Unthank Jr.
The University of Oregon’s Board of Trustees voted unanimously last Friday to rename the former Dunn Hall to Unthank Hall, effective immediately, in honor of DeNorval Unthank Jr. FAIA. De Unthank was the first African-American to graduate with a degree in architecture from the university’s School of Architecture & Allied Arts (now the College of Design). He would go on to enjoy a long and productive career in Eugene before his death in November of 2000.
Unthank Hall is a four-story wing of the Hamilton housing complex on the University of Oregon campus. Its previous namesake, Frederick Dunn, while a professor of Latin and the head of the Department of Classics at UO, was also “Exalted Cyclops” of the Eugene branch of the Ku Klux Klan during the 1920s. In recent years, Dunn’s association with and actions on behalf of the KKK became a point of controversy and, in the minds of many, a shameful embarrassment and insult to students and faculty of color.
Back in May of this year, UO president Michael Schill forwarded his recommendation in favor of honoring De. Here is his memorandum to the board:
At the start of this academic year, you made the decision to remove Frederick Dunn’s name from a wing of the Hamilton Residence Hall and instructed me to come forward with a recommendation for a permanent name at the end of the year. That time is now upon us.
As you know, I wanted this to be an inclusive process. After developing a list of criteria in coordination with the Black Student Task Force, we then solicited nominations from students, faculty, staff, alumni, and community members. Nineteen names were provided to a committee which I charged with evaluating those suggestions and ultimately recommending names for my consideration.
I would like to reiterate my gratitude to the committee members for their thoughtful work, especially given the timeframe within which they had to act. It was clear that each member reflected deeply on the criteria and this honor.
The group submitted a list of four people after whom it recommended we permanently rename Cedar Hall. Each of these four—and indeed the others suggested—is inspiring in their own right. As the committee members said in their memo to me, a recommendation of four particular individuals was in no way a vote against the others. And in that same vein, my final recommendation here is in no way a vote against the others.
Based on historical records and information gathered on these four inspiring individuals, a meeting with the committee about the finalists, and subsequent conversations with various individuals and groups, I have decided to formally recommend that we permanently name this wing Unthank Hall, after DeNorval Unthank, Jr.
Mr. Unthank was a University of Oregon alumnus, graduating in 1951 with a degree in Architecture – the first black graduate from School of Architecture and Allied Arts (AAA). He went on to have a successful career here in the Eugene-Springfield area, designing many public and private buildings. His works include our own McKenzie Hall, meaning that students can see and experience a tangible example of Unthank’s success and lasting legacy. This physical space is a reminder to us all that this extraordinary man overcame racial discrimination as a child in Portland as well as discrimination and overt acts of hatred at the University of Oregon.
In addition to his professional accomplishments, Mr. Unthank was an unwavering advocate for minority populations, especially the black community in Oregon and in Portland, specifically. He worked with community organizations in Portland on projects such as Albina Housing, the Interstate Firehouse Cultural Center, the Mt. Olive Baptist Church, and several developments focused on low-income housing and assisted living.
In addition to being an alumnus, Unthank remained dedicated to the University of Oregon. He served as a visiting lecturer in AAA and became an associate professor in the school for eight years in the 1970s. His impact on students thus extended far beyond creating a physical place for them to learn and engage. To him, design, education, and opportunity were intertwined.
In 2004, AAA established a memorial scholarship fund in his honor thanks to contributions from family, friends, clients, and colleagues. While this scholarship has helped architecture students realize their potential and is a fitting tribute to Unthank, I believe now is the time we recognize his contributions to the UO, the Eugene-Springfield region, and to the state of Oregon through a more overt and tangible honor.
I think ahead to the freshmen who will eagerly unpack belongings into Unthank Hall and who will be inspired by this tremendous man to make their own lasting impact on our university, state, and nation.
Thank you for your consideration of this recommendation.
De’s accomplishments, mentioned in part by President Schill, are recalled in greater detail by the Daily Journal of Commerce eulogy published at the time of his passing. His projects here in Eugene, among them the Lane County Courthouse, McKenzie Hall on the University of Oregon campus, Kennedy Middle School, and Thurston High School, remain for us to visit and experience.
I wish I got to know De better before he died. He always struck me as particularly gracious and dignified, but I can’t claim to truly have known him as a friend or colleague. He was a member of a generation architects I regarded as pioneers, one whose impact profoundly shaped the built environment of Eugene. Their legacy continues to be felt by architects like me who follow in their footsteps.
Eugene’s history of race politics and reprehensible intolerance belie its progressive reputation. De Unthank’s experience during his studies at the University of Oregon, and later as a young architect reflected the bigoted racism that existed immediately beneath the community’s thin veneer of gentility. The spring 2011 issue of Oregon Quarterly (the magazine of the University of Oregon) provides a chilling chronicle by De’s first wife, Deb Mohr, of the bigotry she and De faced as a young interracial couple. It’s unnerving to realize that it wasn’t so long ago that blatant racism went unchallenged. The courage De and Deb displayed in the face of blinding hate and indifference to it is inspiring. We’re all richer because De Unthank stayed in Eugene rather than choosing to leave.
I like to think De would have endorsed the Board of Trustees' decision to remove Fredrick Dunn's name from the building that now honors him. If he were alive today, I'm pretty sure De would agree that veneration for an avowed racist has no place at a public institution of higher learning. He may have been less comfortable with seeing his name taking Dunn's place simply because racism and what it represents are issues that unfortunately cannot be erased by one well-intentioned gesture.
I’m certain De would find the tenor of current race relations deeply troubling. He personally experienced the worst of human nature. He certainly would be dismayed to see racism so virulently rise again, following decades of so much progress. We can all honor De by not only remembering his accomplishments as an architect possessed of great skill, but also by having the courage to challenge bigotry and hatred whenever and wherever we see it.