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The University of Kentucky: A Look Back

by Weston T. Thompson and Terry L. Birdwhistell, 1998

From the vantage point of the late 1990s, one might assume that the University of Kentucky's physical location and prominent role in Kentucky education was inevitable. The University now sprawls from downtown Lexington to the near suburbs south of the city. High rise dormitories dominate the skyline of the south campus and the new William T. Young Library links the historic central campus to the newer and expanding south campus. Even the University's most enthusiastic early supporters would be astonished at today's University of Kentucky.

At its birth the University of Kentucky was located elsewhere and was not even called by its present name. Public higher education for Kentuckians was not available in 1865 when the Commonwealth seized the opportunity presented by the Morrill Act to charter a land-grant college for Kentucky's white males. The new Agricultural and Mechanical College became an appendage of Kentucky University located in Lexington. Kentucky University was a private, church-affiliated institution that traced it roots to the all-male Transylvania University, touted as the first college west of the Allegheny mountains.

What's In A Name?

1865-1878: Agricultural and Mechanical College of Kentucky,
(A college within Kentucky University)

1878-1908: Agricultural and Mechanical College of Kentucky
(Separated from Kentucky University and also known as State College)

1908-1916: State University, Lexington, Ky.

1916-Present: University of Kentucky

In 1878, the issue of denominational control caused a rift within the governing body of Kentucky University. This prompted the Kentucky legislature to separate the A&M College from Kentucky University and make it an independent public institution. Concern over the survival of the A&M College was real and widespread. During the academic year 1877-78 total enrollment fell to only seventy-eight students from a high of 295 only eight years earlier.

The enrollment crisis was alleviated after the 1880 Kentucky legislature called for the establishment of a teacher training program at the A&M College. Since many of the state's teachers were women, the 1880 legislation allowed for the admittance of white women to the institution for the first time. The addition of forty-three women students in the fall of 1880 helped the total enrollment jump dramatically from 137 students in 1879 to a total of 234 in 1880.

As a result of its separation from Kentucky University the A&M College was without a campus. While an appendage of Kentucky University, the A&M had occupied campuses at Ashland, the former Henry Clay Estate, and Woodlands, now Woodland Park. During the interim period, A&M rented space from Kentucky University.

Following state-wide bidding for the A&M College, including a very serious effort on the part of Bowling Green, Lexington offered a fifty-two acre fairgrounds at Maxwell Springs on the city's southside as well as $30,000 to retain the state's only public college. Fayette County added an additional $20,000 incentive for the college to remain in Lexington. The 1880 Kentucky legislature named Lexington the permanent home for the institution, by now more commonly known as State College.

The new site for the college on Limestone Street was elevated and commanded a good view of the city and surrounding county. By 1882 a Main Building was erected that contained a large chapel, classrooms, scientific laboratories, offices, and meeting rooms for academic organizations.

A dormitory for men, very similar in design to the Main Building, was constructed to house ninety students. The new dorm also contained a dining room, kitchen, and servants' rooms. A modest home for the president was built on a hill overlooking Maxwell Springs, where the abundant supply of water made the construction of an artificial lake, with boating course a quarter mile in length, comparatively easy. Noticeably missing on the new campus was housing of any kind for women students. Nevertheless, on February 15, 1882 the women students joined the men as the faculty and student body of the A&M College, along with assorted dignitaries, marched to the new campus just off Nicholasville Road for a formal ceremony dedicating the new buildings and campus.

During the 1880s men outnumbered women on the campus by nearly five to one and from outward appearances the college was still a male domain. Every male student was required to wear a military style uniform and participate in drills for the cadet corps on the parade grounds in front of the Administration (Main) Building. Among the 176 rules governing student behavior, one required that students walk in the halls between classes in a soldier-like and orderly manner. Other rules included:

  • #78: Any student convicted of visiting a drinking saloon , or of being intoxicated, or of gambling at cards or other game of chance shall be dismissed or less severely punished.
  • #79 The use of tobacco for smoking or chewing in college buildings and all profanity and obscenity are forbidden.
  • #83: No student shall cook or give any entertainment in his room.
  • #123: No student shall be absent from his room between taps and reveille without permission.
  • #124: No student shall visit the room of another during study hours.
  • #126: No student shall play upon any musical instrument during study hours.
  • #129: Students are forbidden to have in their rooms newspapers, magazine, or any book that is not a text-book.

However, students were allowed to have guns in their rooms and on occasion the relative tranquility of the campus was broken by the sound of gun shots originating from the windows of the men's dormitory.

For the first twenty-four years that women attended the college, they had no place to live on the campus. Women students were forced to live with relatives in town or make other acceptable arrangements. Patterson Hall, named for President Patterson, opened in 1904 as the first women's dormitory. It was the first building not constructed on the original central campus. In providing funding for the new dormitory, the Kentucky legislature stipulated that the women's dormitory should not be built on the central campus because of their concern about the intermingling of women and men students. Patterson Hall's location across Euclid Avenue (then called Winslow Street) and up a hill toward downtown Lexington reinforced the prevailing separation of women students. Each day women students of Patterson Hall made the two hundred yard trek from their dorm to the main campus. Crossing Euclid Avenue they proceeded over a bridge spanning a small body of water fed by Maxwell Springs up a hill to the main campus.

By the end of the twentieth century's first decade, most of the original buildings in the campus's central core had been built. An agricultural building, a science building, an education building, a gymnasium, and finally a small library building brought a substantial look to the campus. Students organized themselves into fraternities and sororities and academic clubs and honorary societies were prevalent. Socials and dances were held regularly in the gymnasium and required attendance at chapel provided students with daily lectures and instructions from the college president.

Commencement in 1910 marked the end of an era at the college. James K. Patterson, President since 1878, had overseen the transformation of the struggling A&M College into the state's leading institution of higher education. After nearly four decades of service to the institution, he stepped down and made way for Henry Stites Barker. Barker, an attorney and judge from Louisville, presided over the college during its important transition to university status in 1916. A year later he stepped down from the presidency and the Board named Frank L. McVey the university's third president.

President McVey presided over the university during a period of tremendous growth in both the academic program and the physical plant. Between the first and second world wars enrollment on the campus more than doubled growing from 719 to 1,555. During this time students began arriving at college with cars, giving rise to traffic congestion and parking problems that challenge the university to this day.

Former President Patterson continued to live in retirement in the original house constructed for the president. While Barker had lived in an apartment in Patterson Hall, the University was forced to seek a new residence for the McVeys. The University purchased Maxwell Place on the eastern side of the campus facing Rose Street and made it the official president's residence. Soon the lawn around Maxwell Place became the setting for weekly teas and socials attended by the students and faculty. Some students were also lucky enough to be chosen to board in the attic of Maxwell Place or above the garage in the back of the property.

Presidents of the University of Kentucky

James K. Patterson, 1878 - 1910

Henry S. Barker, 1911 - 1917

Frank L. McVey, 1917 - 1940

Herman Lee Donovan, 1941 - 1956

Frank G. Dickey, 1956 - 1963

John Oswald, 1963 - 1968

A. D. Kirwan, 1968 - 1969

Otis A. Singletary, 1969 - 1987

David P. Roselle, 1987 - 1989

Charles T. Wethington, 1990 - 2001

Lee T. Todd, Jr., 2001-2011

Eli Capilouto, 2011 -


After its rather austere and military like beginnings, UK developed rapidly into a more traditional college setting. Student traditions like the annual freshman-sophomore tug-of-war that took place at the pond on Clifton Circle (present site of the Young Library) added to an active and spirited student culture. Student publications like the Kentuckian and the Kentucky Kernel began to document and promote student life on the campus. The yearbook was first published as the Echo and became the Kentuckian in 1906. The Idea was the first student newspaper which evolved into the Kentucky Kernel in the Fall of 1915. Also promoting the campus was radio broadcasting, initiated on the campus in 1929. By 1941 UK boasted its own radio station operating under the call letters, WBKY. In 1989 the station became known as WUKY.

The rise of student culture on campus was recognized with the construction of the student center at the corner of Euclid Avenue and Limestone in 1938. Student government began during this period with separate organizations for the women and the men students. The organizations were later combined.

UK's fourth president, Herman Lee Donovan, led the university during the difficult World War Two years, which stimulated change on the university campus. A majority of the male students and many of the women students left for war-related reasons. Following the end of the war, the large influx of returning veterans put great pressure on the university to provide classroom and living space.

The most significant and long lasting change during this period was the desegregation of UK. Until a court ruling in 1949, UK and all public schools in Kentucky were prohibited by law from accepting African-American students. In 1949, following a successful legal challenge to segregation by Lyman T. Johnson, African-Americans were first admitted to the graduate school of the university. By the early 1950s, the undergraduate program had desegregated and the university began its gradual evolution to a more diversified campus. Today the Office of the Vice-Chancellor of African-American Student Affairs and the Lyman T. Johnson Alumni Association both promote and celebrate the advancement of an inclusive learning environment at the University of Kentucky.

Organized sports were introduced on campus in the 1890s and soon became an important part of campus culture. Men's football quickly became a popular event among both the students and townspeople. Women's basketball flourished early in the century and initially won many more championships than the men's basketball team. Basketball games would eventually move from the gymnasium in Barker Hall to Alumni Gymnasium, then to Memorial Coliseum. In 1976 men's basketball relocated to Rupp Arena. Football was played at Stoll Field located at the corner of Euclid Avenue and Rose Street until moving to Commonwealth Stadium in 1973.

When UK razed Stoll Field in 1974 to build the Singletary Center for the Arts (named for UK's eighth president, Otis A. Singletary), it recognized the long and rich history of fine arts at the University. The University band was organized in 1889 and quickly became an important part of campus life. The band was all male until the shortage of men during the Second World War forced the addition of women. An effort to return to all an all-male band following the war failed. Since then, the music program has grown steadily, and the new Singletary Center provided much needed performance halls. Additionally, the Singletary Center provided a home for the UK Art Museum, which has gained national distinction for its exhibits and collections.

Student theater, long an important part of campus life, began as the Romany Theater in 1923 when a group of students converted a former African-American church on Euclid Avenue into a small theater. In 1928 the Romany Theater was renamed the Guignol Theater. The small theater building burned in 1947 and the program was moved to temporary quarters until the Guignol Theater took its current home in the Fine Arts Building in 1950.

The opening of the UK Albert B. Chandler Medical Center in the 1960s accelerated the University's southward expansion. The construction of the Blanding and Kirwan Towers continued the shift away from the historic central campus. But no project did more to change the face of the central campus than the construction of the Patterson Office Tower and the White Hall Classroom Building. To make way for these new buildings UK demolished the original men's dormitory known as White Hall, the original president's home, and the university's first library building. Once tranquil and grassy, the central campus took on a stark, modern appearance. More recently, however, President Charles Wethington has given the historical central campus much needed attention. Miller Hall and the Gillis Building have both been restored, and the makeover of the plaza around the Administration Building and White Hall has restored green space.

The University of Kentucky has long held an essential position in providing public higher education to a broad spectrum of Kentuckians. U.K takes its land grant heritage seriously, not only in agriculture and engineering, but in all aspects of its academic and service components. The new William T. Young Library represents this continued mission as a library for all Kentuckians. James K. Patterson's vision for his small college has not only been realized, it has been enhanced beyond his most optimistic dreams. While the challenges to U.K.'s success have been numerous and real, the promise of the future is bright.

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