While the new building’s promised amenities were a selling point, what proved decisive for Singer was the simple fact that Bascom Hall was no longer a tenable home. The sixties were a period of unprecedented expansion for philosophy. When the decision to move was made, there were 32 regular faculty members and over 100 graduate students. There was not sufficient space to house them all in Bascom Hall, nor to meet the department’s equipment needs. Some faculty and graduate students had been exiled to other buildings around campus. Those located in Bascom were crowded together in small offices, in conditions not entirely dissimilar to a 19th century tenement. Among the building’s (supposedly irremediable) shortcomings was a dearth of elevators, which presented challenges especially for older faculty. (Singer cheekily observes that once Bascom Hall became home to university administrators its shortcomings suddenly proved quite tractable—the impossible proved possible after all: a lesson for philosophers.)
During the planning phase for the move, Singer appointed philosophy professor Fred Dretske, who happened to also have an engineering degree, as his “deputy on space.” Singer and Dretske were involved in final decisions about office layout and furniture. Defending their choices, Singer writes: “you should have seen the alternatives.” Like Leibniz’s God they had to select the best among the limited possibilities presented to them.
Those who have been to Helen C. White may have noticed that some of the planned amenities never materialized. One seeks in vain a faculty club with bar on the top floor. Ditto for the overhead walkway, though one can at least still find the conditions of its possibility on the third floor, in the form of a large idiosyncratic outside area at the top of the stairs—a site once colorfully dubbed “Mussolini’s Balcony” and now a favorite spot for the building’s smokers. These and other promising (and promised) amenities were casualities of budgetary, logistical, administrative, and political considerations.
For a time, the name of the new building at 600 North Park was up in the air. Some members of the department lobbied to have it named after the famous UW-Madison philosopher, Max Otto. But in the end it was named in honor of Helen Constance White, a beloved, much-published UW-English professor who had died in 1967 and who had been given the sobriquet “the Purple Goddess,” because of her stature and sartorial choices.
In its early days at Helen C. White, the philosophy department occupied almost all of the fifth and fourth floors of the building. Much of the space in 5185 HCW was taken up by the department’s first word processor, affectionately dubbed “the Monster.” Contractions in equipment and personnel size, along with what Singer describes as unreciprocated land-grants by subsequent chairs (read: giving away of space), led to philosophy’s current situation. For the time being, philosophers coexist on the fifth floor of HCW with our colleagues in ESL. 5185 HCW is no longer a place for monsters but instead for the department administrative staff; the department chair; and the assistant to the chair.
Helen C. White is not the philosophical paradise it might have been. In Buildings of the University of Wisconsin Madison, Jim Feldman writes: “The appearance of the building, in and out, is consistent with the standard set by the humanities building for plainness and lack of ornamentation.” But it has some definite advantages, including wonderful views of the lake, a (modestly sized) parking garage, and convenient access to the Memorial Union terrace. While there is no tower and no bar, Helen C. White has been a reliable home for the philosophy department for the past fifty years. Its walls have witnessed exciting developments, including such philosophical achievements as the demolition of numerous untenable interpretations of Kant. It is, at this point, home.