LEXINGTON, Ky. (Oct. 26, 2012) – In celebration of the University of Kentucky's upcoming sesquicentennial in 2015, the 29th of 150 weekly installments on the university recalls the history behind the Ezra Gillis Building.
The Ezra Gillis Building is the second oldest building standing on UK’s campus, predated only by the Main Building. Over the past 120 years, the Gillis Building has been home to many collegiate activities. One of the principles of a land-grant institution was that they provide agricultural support for the surrounding community and state. In the mid-1880s, the executive council of the Board of Trustees passed a resolution to establish an agricultural experiment station as quickly as the college could accommodate one.
In May of 1888, the college accepted a bid on the construction of the station and ground was broken in June. The new Kentucky Agricultural Experiment Station would be three stories (counting the basement) and was 70 feet long by 54 feet wide. Its front entrance would face west and be graced by an archway 15 feet wide. Just north of the entrance, a tower would spiral skyward beyond the roof. On the building’s north side would be an octagonal projection 18 feet by 18 feet. It would be located just south of the Main Building.
Construction on the Experiment Station lasted roughly a year, and the building was ready for occupancy in time for the fall 1889 semester. The five basement rooms, designed originally as store and work rooms for the station, would first be home to the department of natural history. The eight rooms on the main floor consisted of offices, a library, and chemical, botanical and entomological laboratories of the station. The top floor was occupied by the Department of Chemistry, under the direction of Professor Joseph Kastle. It held a large lecture hall that could accommodate about 75 students, several labs, and a balance room. The octagonal room, designed with a sky light, was used as the department’s photographic room.
The building was largely gutted by fire on Feb. 23, 1891, with the most significant loss being two years’ worth of experiment and analysis records. The building was rebuilt to the same floor plan and was completed in 1892.
Through the years, the Gillis Building has housed programs in natural history (now anthropology), chemistry, law, hygiene and public health, an infirmary, and the Registrar's Office through the years. It was long known as the Chemistry Building and later the Administration Annex. In 1978 it was named to honor Ezra Gillis, the first university registrar, who served from 1910 until his retirement in 1937.
This story on UK's history is presented by UK Special Collections. Special Collections is home to UK Libraries' collection of rare books, Kentuckiana, the Archives, the Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, the King Library Press and the Wendell H. Ford Public Policy Research Center. The mission of Special Collections is to locate and preserve materials documenting the social, cultural, economic and political history of the Commonwealth of Kentucky.
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