The History of Kirkland Hall Topic of New Exhibition

A new exhibition highlighting the history of Kirkland Hall is now on display in the Special Collections Library.

An early photograph of the “Main Building” which would later be renamed Kirkland Hall.

Kirkland Hall is the iconic symbol of Vanderbilt University – it’s tall and identifiable presence graces the covers of university publications, football tickets, and many picture frames throughout campus. It stood as the central building on a 74-acre campus when dedicated in October, 1875, and initially housed all the university’s classrooms and laboratories in addition to a chapel, a museum and the library. It was one of only 10 buildings in the original construction program on campus. Originally known simply as the “main building,” it was designed by Nashville architect William C. Smith.

Two onlookers watch a still-smoking College Hall in the aftermath of the fire in 1905.

After a devastating fire in 1905, the two-towered, Victorian Gothic design was rebuilt in an Italianate style with a single 170-foot tower. In Paul Conkin’s Gone with the Ivy, he describes “The building burned for two hours, from the top downward, as frantic students carried or tossed out books and lab equipment from the lower floors … The beloved clock in the south tower was engulfed in flames but survived just to the noon hour, struck a desperate thirty times, then fell to the rubble.”

Portrait of Chancellor James Hampton Kirkland

The reconstruction began immediately, and donations poured in from alumni, current students, and from across Nashville, amounting to over $50,000. A bell was even funded to replace the previous one that hung in the towers of Old Main. Steel and concrete replaced wood in the reconstruction, and the 1907 university announcement of the newly titled “College Hall” declared the building “fireproof.”

Watercolor depiction of the reconstructed Kirkland Hall with one tower.

The building has been known by many names – Main Building, Old Main, University Hall and College Hall – before it was renamed Kirkland Hall in 1937 in honor of Vanderbilt’s second chancellor, James Hampton Kirkland, and his wife, Mary Henderson Kirkland. Chancellor Kirkland presided over Vanderbilt for 44 years. Both the man and the building remain central to Vanderbilt’s history.

The exhibition will be up until January 2019. Visitors are welcome during the library’s open hours, 8 am – 4:30 pm Monday through Friday. Please contact exhibition curator Phil Nagy with questions about the exhibition: philip.nagy@vanderbilt.edu.

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