Filed Under Education

John A. Widtsoe Life Sciences Laboratory Building (WIDB)

Named for the famous apostle-scientist, the John A. Widtsoe Building provided much-needed laboratory and office space for BYU’s life science programs for forty years.

In the 1960s, BYU’s life sciences were flourishing as enrollment rose. However, with so many students, the College of Biological and Agricultural Sciences was hard-pressed for sufficient classroom space. Life science coursework required both lectures and hands-on labs, but most BYU classrooms at the time had not been designed with laboratory use in mind. As Ephraim Hatch explains in his Brigham Young University: A Pictorial History, “practically all [BYU] laboratories [at the time] were remodeled spaces originally built for other purposes.” Students and faculty called for a new building to accommodate the growing program, and Dean Rudger H. Walker was especially vocal. After deliberations, BYU administrators decided to build two new buildings: one for classrooms and another for laboratories and faculty offices.

Administration dubbed the latter the John A. Widtsoe Life Sciences Laboratory Building, naming it after the Norwegian immigrant, agricultural scientist, and apostle of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. As a scientist, Widtsoe had been famous for innovations in dry farming; the International Dry-Farming Congress elected him as their president in 1912. Among Latter-day Saints and BYU’s community, Elder Widtsoe was beloved for his conviction in the harmony of science and religion as complementary means for learning truth. Widtsoe was also a BYU educator, having founded the agricultural science program in the early 1900s.

Building the Widtsoe Life Sciences Laboratory Building (later called the Widtsoe Building) was a significant endeavor. Sam Brewster and Ephraim Hatch of BYU’s Physical Plant Department prepared a building program describing every room needed for the building, and members of a building committee traveled to study laboratory buildings at twelve different universities, compiling their findings in a trip report. BYU hired Utah Central Architects to design the building and contracted Tolboe Construction Company to build it.

Tolboe began construction in 1968 and finished in 1970. The resulting building was a nine-story tower (two floors underground; the rest above) spanning over 180,000 square feet of floor. Faculty offices and general laboratories filled much of the structure, but it also housed an electron microscope, animals for experimentation and study, and aquaria (both fresh and saltwater) in the basement.

The Widtsoe Building became, in the words of BYU’s University Communications, a “campus icon.” However, as time passed, the building aged and societal safety standards expanded. In 2011, BYU announced plans to replace the Widtsoe with a new Life Science Building and raze the Widtsoe following the new structure’s completion. Administrators considered the Widtsoe Building too old: walls contained asbestos, old lights had mercury, and the building lacked modern earthquake-proofing. At a deeper level, despite Widtsoe’s life as an educator, the building did not suit modern pedagogies emphasizing mentorship and collaboration. Dean James Porter of the College of Life Sciences (successor to the College of Biological and Agricultural Sciences) said, 

The Widtsoe Building was not designed with a lot of space for student interactions or collaborations… [in] the new Life Sciences Building, there’s lots of couches, chairs and whiteboards and you’ll see students sitting around doing homework, studying, talking together—there’s nothing like that in the Widtsoe Building.

The Life Sciences Building was completed in 2014, and the Widtsoe came down in 2015. During the spring, Oakland Construction spent over a month removing hazardous substances like asbestos and mercury. Then, starting on May 21, Okland spent two weeks tearing down the Widtsoe and gathering its scrap for sorting, since they estimated about 70% could be recycled.

The Widtsoe’s former place has been landscaped to provide a clear line of sight to the new Life Sciences Building, the College of Life Sciences’ home ever since.

Images

The Widtsoe Building
The Widtsoe Building Seven of the Widtsoe Building’s nine stories were above ground; the other two were underground. Source: Tibor Gergely, June 2015. In Thomas, Josh. “Saying Goodbye to the Widtsoe; Remembering the Legacy of its Namesake.” News. University Communications, June 10, 2015. Brigham Young University. https://news.byu.edu/news/saying-goodbye-widtsoe-remembering-legacy-its-namesake. Courtesy of BYU University Communications.
The Widtsoe and the Martin
The Widtsoe and the Martin While it stood, one could enter the Widtsoe Building from exterior doors or through the adjacent Thomas L. Martin Classroom Building, seen on the left. Source: “BYU WIDB.” GreenwoodKL (pseud?), August 13, 2010. Via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0). https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:BYU_WIDB.jpg.
The Martin and the Widtsoe
The Martin and the Widtsoe This photograph depicts the Martin Classroom Building (built to accommodate lectures in the life sciences) and the Widtsoe Building relative to one another; the Widtsoe is the taller of the two. Source: “[The Thomas L. Martin Building, 1969].” Brigham Young University Photo Studio, 1969. Brigham Young University: 1000 Views of 100 Years collection (UAP 2 Folder 246). Courtesy of the University Archives, L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah. https://contentdm.lib.byu.edu/digital/collection/BYUPhotos/id/703/rec/8.
John A. Widtsoe
John A. Widtsoe John Andreas Widtsoe was a Norwegian immigrant, agricultural scientist, and apostle of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He encouraged Latter-day Saints to be inquisitive and thoughtful about their faith and to take questions seriously as an avenue to richer understanding and greater conviction. Source: In Muir, Leo Joseph. A Century of Mormon Activities in California. Vol. 1. Salt Lake City: Deseret News Press, 1952. https://www.familysearch.org/library/books/records/item/122308-a-century-of-mormon-activities-in-california-vol-1. Via Wikimedia Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:John_A._Widtsoe2.jpg.
Aspen faculty
Aspen faculty John A. Widtsoe, seated on the far left in the front row in this faculty photograph, taught at BYU’s Aspen Summer School from 1828 to 1830. (The front row, from left to right: John A. Widtsoe, John C. Swenson, Lee Randolph, Nettie N. Smart, Adam S. Bennion, Vasco M. Tanner, Albert O. Garrett; the back row, from left to right: Guy C. Wilson, Murray O. Hayes, Parley A. Christensen, Lowry Nelson, Walter P. Cottam.) Source: Image 1, folder 2, box 2, College of Biology and Agriculture photographs (UA 823). Courtesy of the University Archives, L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah. https://archives.lib.byu.edu/repositories/ltpsc/resources/upb_ua823.
Widtsoe in the making
Widtsoe in the making Tolboe Construction started work on the Widtsoe Building in 1968 and finished in 1970. Source: Image 5, Wilford M. Hess photographs of the construction of the John A. Widtsoe Building (CD-ROM, UA 5582). Courtesy of the University Archives, L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah. https://archives.lib.byu.edu/repositories/14/resources/9022.
Many hands
Many hands Tolboe construction workers assembling the building one floor at a time. Source: Image 9, Wilford M. Hess photographs of the construction of the John A. Widtsoe Building (CD-ROM, UA 5582). Courtesy of the University Archives, L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah. https://archives.lib.byu.edu/repositories/14/resources/9022.
Life sciences in the Widtsoe
Life sciences in the Widtsoe The photograph’s caption in the BYU Digital Collections database reads, “Landlocked Brigham Young University has an outstanding collection of marine animals in more than forty tanks in the Widtsoe Building, tanks simulating the animals' ocean home through the use of distilled water mixed with synthetic sea salt. Here Glynis Crow, a secretary in the Zoology Department, examines a sea urchin from one of the tanks. The marine collection also includes sea anemones, horseshoe crabs, spider and cancer crabs, gastropods, sea stars, feather worms, coral, tube worms, keyhole limpets, sharks, and many others.” Source: “[A secretary in the Zoology Department examines a sea urchin from one of the marine animal tanks, ca. 1970].” Brigham Young University Photo Studio, ca. 1970. Brigham Young University: 1000 Views of 100 Years collection. Courtesy of the University Archives, L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah. https://contentdm.lib.byu.edu/digital/collection/BYUPhotos/id/702/rec/7.
Widtsoe on a map
Widtsoe on a map The John A. Widtsoe Building (WIDB) is in the lower-left hand corner, just south of the Thomas L. Martin Classroom Building (MARB). The MARB still stands today, though the WIDB is no longer there. Source: BYU Campus Map. Physical Plant Department, via Internet Archive, archived January 6, 2015. https://web.archive.org/web/20150106165608/http://plantwo.byu.edu/plans/byu-map.pdf.

Location

The Widtsoe Building used to stand immediately south of the Thomas L. Martin Building. After demolishing the Widtsoe, BYU landscaped the area to create a clear line of sight between the Life Sciences Building and the rest of campus.

Metadata

Makoto Hunter, Brigham Young University, “John A. Widtsoe Life Sciences Laboratory Building (WIDB),” Intermountain Histories, accessed February 28, 2024, https://www.intermountainhistories.org/items/show/571.