Colson Hall and the buildings that rose in its immediate vicinity in the post-World War I era (Clark Hall, White Hall, and Wise Library) were intended to form a quadrangle that mirrored that of Woodburn Circle a short distance to the north. Like many of the other structures on campus, Colson Hall is an eclectic mix of architectural styles popular during the era of its construction. The two most prominently featured styles in the building’s design, however, are the Neoclassical Revival and Second Empire styles. Typical of Neoclassical Revival architecture are the four massive columns at the building’s front and the ornamented triangular pediment that tops them, features that deliberately imitate the design of Greek and Roman buildings from the Classical period. The structure’s mansard roof (flat top and sloping sides punctuated by dormers), on the other hand, is a reflection of its Second Empire influences, named for the era of the Second French Empire of Napoleon III during which such design characteristics became popular.
While its architecture makes Colson Hall a can’t miss on WVU’s downtown campus, however, it is its role as the site of the university law school from 1923 to 1974 that has ensured its status as a site of historical interest. During the law school’s tenure at what was then known as the Law Building, it provided legal educations for several prominent graduates. Charles E. Price, the law school’s first African American graduate, earned his degree in law there in 1970, twenty-nine years after Kenneth James became the first African American to earn a graduate degree from the university in 1941. Price, who was from nearby Fairmont, West Virginia in Marion County, went on to a successful law career in the state capital of Charleston and received the law school’s Gavel Award (Alumnus of the Year) in 1975.
The law school graduated a number of other prominent alumni during the same period of its occupation of what is now Colson Hall. Among them are West Virginia Governors William Marland, Wally Barron, and Arch Moore, as well as U.S. Ambassador Joseph Farland. The first two, Marland and Barron, were among the final Democrats to serve as governors of West Virginia prior to the realignment of party ideologies and politics that took place nationwide in the 1960s and 70s. After graduating from WVU’s law school in 1947, Marland went on to serve as the state’s attorney general for two years before being tapped for his party’s nomination for the gubernatorial race of 1952 as a fresh face that might wash away the organization’s growing reputation statewide for corruption. Marland did much to combat that reputation, imposing a tax on companies that removed the state’s natural resources and enforcing school desegregation after the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education.
The next WVU law graduate to hold the governorship as a member of the Democratic Party, on the other hand, did much to unravel Marland’s legacy. Although he worked hard to develop a statewide response to the growing mechanization of the coal mining industry (and subsequent rising unemployment in West Virginia), Wally Barron’s tenure as governor of the state is remembered more for his conviction in 1971 on bribery charges. WVU law school alumnus Arch Moore, a Republican governor of West Virginia whose three terms were a reflection of state voters’ rejection of Democratic corruption, fared little better. At the end of his third term Moore was charged with several federal crimes related to fraud and corruption and wound up serving a little over three months in prison after his conviction.
The three governors’ fellow law school alum Joseph Farland, U.S. Ambassador to the Dominican Republic, Panama, Pakistan, and New Zealand, had a somewhat more illustrious career. It is for his service in Pakistan, however, that Farland is most remembered. During his time there, Farland arranged for U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to travel secretly to China through Pakistan for meetings with Chinese Premier Chou En-lai in 1971. These meetings set the stage for President Richard Nixon’s visit to China the following year, a journey that opened relations between the United States and that country after decades of hostility following Communist leader Mao Zedong’s establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. Not only did Joseph Farland’s involvement in this process help pave the way for a loosening of trade restrictions between the United States and China that continues to this day, it also connected WVU’s law school and Colson Hall itself to the broader history of the nation during the Cold War that defined the better part of the twentieth century.