Levering Hall is nestled between the Decker, Wyman and Keyser quads. In 1889, Eugene Levering, a successful Baltimore-born banker, philanthropist and trustee of the University, donated $20,000 for the establishment of a Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) on the University’s old downtown campus.
The original YMCA on the downtown campus was destroyed in a fire. After the University moved to the Homewood Campus in 1914, Levering donated additional funds which, together with the insurance money from the old building and funds raised by students and alumni, supported the construction of a new YMCA on the Homewood Campus.
The new building, christened Levering Hall, attracted the attention of student groups on campus looking for a space to operate. In its early years, Levering Hall served as the campus’ student center, housing the offices of The News-Letter, the Hullabaloo, the Student Activities Council and the Debating Council. The building also hosted a wide variety of social events.
In his 2016 lecture titled “Apocalypse now: Social justice and civil rights at Hopkins,” Stuart W. Leslie, a professor in the Department of History of Science and Technology, spoke about the role of Levering Hall in its early days.
“The YMCA ran freshman orientation in those days, a two-day retreat at Camp Letts, [and] a YMCA facility on the Chesapeake Bay, open to all freshmen,” he said. “Undergraduates considered Levering their ‘campus home,’ a place that gave ‘to college life those experiences which one treasures after he has forgotten much of what he learned in the classroom.’”
Leslie also explained that the roots of political activism began to take hold of Levering early on, often despite opposition from the University.
“Even back then, Levering had a serious side, organizing commissions on race and on organized labor,” he said. “When President Isaiah Bowman learned that Levering held meetings that included Blacks and whites, he and the Trustees actually passed a resolution requiring that events held in Levering be strictly at the invitation of the University.”
A pivotal moment in the history of the hall came in 1953 when Chester L. Wickwire was hired as the YMCA’s secretary. He later became the campus chaplain and began working to bring that vision to life once he arrived on campus, as a 1955 issue of The Levering Bulletin highlights.
“This year marks the third year that Dr. Chester L. Wickwire has held the position of Executive Secretary at the Johns Hopkins University ‘Y,’” The Bulletin wrote. “His stay here has been a period of remarkable change and rejuvenation within the ‘Y,’ and he has already become an institution on campus.”
Three years after that article was published, Wickwire founded the Tutorial Project, a program that brought students from Hopkins and local high schools into the homes of disadvantaged, largely Black Baltimore youths in order to provide them with tutoring services.
In an article published by the Baltimore Afro-American in 1965, Wickwire described his belief in the necessity of creating programs like the Tutorial Project, as well as how he felt students who participated in the Tutorial Project benefited intellectually and morally.
“Dr. Wickwire... says ‘We have to keep alive a sense of concern for other persons. We ought to keep people troubled about things,‘“ the Afro-American wrote. “‘It’s too easy to withdraw and not assume responsibility. Students learn by assuming responsibility. The students who have participated in this program have learned to communicate better, they have a better understanding of ethnic values and they have more sympathy for the establishment.’”
The Tutorial Project, which remains in operation today, is an example of the type of social-justice-oriented work Wickwire engineered during his time at Hopkins. Wickwire was also a civil rights activist, and his leadership led Levering Hall to become a nexus of civil rights activism.
An article published in the Baltimore Afro-American in 1969, titled “Hopkins U. agrees to fund controversial program,” provides insight into the kind of civil rights organizing that occurred there.
“Levering Hall has been the scene of protests during a speech by Bayard Rustin several years ago, and it has been the host to such speakers as the Black Panthers and the Black Muslims in recent years,” the Afro-American wrote. “Dr. Wickwire had been under fire from some quarters for his early civil rights activism and his policy of letting all political groups speak at the hall.”
An article titled “Dr. Wickwire Busy With Rights For Both Blacks and Whites,” written by Mark Reutter for the Baltimore Sun in 1969, detailed the ways in which Wickwire faced opposition for his activism.
“Bomb threats, personal intimidation, and a cross-burning visit by the Klu Klux Klan have marked [Wickwire’s] career in Baltimore,” Reutter wrote. “[The Klu Klux Klan] demonstrated and burned a cross outside Levering Hall while Mr. Rustin delivered a speech on the church’s place in the Civil Rights movement.”
In 1968, Wickwire hired Bob Hieronimus, a Baltimore artist, to paint a mural on one of the walls of Levering’s second floor, which then housed a café, music venue and gathering space for students called “Chester’s Place.”
The mural, titled The Apocalypse, expanded to cover 2,700 square feet and nearly all of the second floor’s walls. In a 2013 interview with the Johns Hopkins Magazine, published in the piece “Apocalypse Now,” Hieronimus recounted the interaction that led to the mural’s expansion beyond its originally intended size.
“‘I kept getting all of these ideas and there wasn't enough space, and after about the second or so month I'm looking around and there's all these empty walls,’” Hieronimus told the Magazine. “He asked Wickwire if he could make the one-wall mural bigger. ‘He said, ‘Do what you want. Paint the whole thing.’'"
In 1969, the YMCA announced that it would no longer maintain its Hopkins branch in Levering Hall. When Wickwire and student organizers petitioned the University to purchase the building from the YMCA and continue to fund the Tutorial Project, they were met with some resistance but eventually won the University over.
In 1992, the Center for Social Concern was founded to promote community engagement, and Levering Hall has also hosted its offices there.
In an email to The News-Letter, Laura Scott, the University’s executive director of student engagement and the building manager for Levering, wrote about the changes the hall has undergone since she arrived at Hopkins in 2018.
“Levering has [added] student services with the addition of [the] IT Store, JCard office, SEAM and upcoming Financial Aid satellite office for students to have easier access to these centralized services,” she wrote. “We have also taken on more arts events and practices with a 2021 renovation of the Arellano Theater and added arts spaces along the back hallway (formerly storage).”
Scott elaborated further on the ways Levering has grown over the last few years.
“We’ve added supplies to help make our Great Hall and [Glass Pavilion] more useful to arts and dance organizations with upright pianos and portable mirrored walls to greater support [their] needs while the Hopkins Student Center is being built,” she wrote. “Renovations also occurred in the Levering Kitchens and Levering Café spaces to meet the student needs.”