Ayres Hall at the Dawn of Two Centuries

by Meredith McGroarty August 18, 2010

The buildings were certainly old, even ­antiquated by current standards. They were a poor representation of a university that was pushing to gain national recognition as a leader in the field of research and education.

So thought Brown Ayres, the 12th president of the University of Tennessee, as he looked up at the Hill back at the dawn of the 20th century. Ayres presided over the university from 1904 until his death in 1919, and it was during his ­presidency that many significant changes, made by former president Charles Dabney, in the university’s character began to take physical shape.

Under Dabney, Ayres’ immediate predecessor, the University of Tennessee had grown from a small college focused on agricultural, scientific, and military education to a multidisciplinary academy and research institution that had gained recognition throughout the South, even throughout the country.

Dabney led the university from 1887 to 1904, during which time he doubled the size of the university’s faculty and nearly tripled the size of its student body—aided, no doubt, by the regular admission of women starting in 1893. He emphasized and expanded the school’s already-strong programs in agriculture, science, and engineering and added an education department, which launched a revolutionary teacher-training program aimed at improving free public education for poor Southerners, both white and black. This program—the Summer School of the South—became the largest teacher-training institution in the South, enrolling 2,100 students from 31 states in its first year alone.

Dabney’s tenure also saw the first direct appropriations from the state of Tennessee to the university.

To support these changes, Dabney made extensive additions and renovations to the campus that increased its property value nearly nine-fold. After his departure, the extensively educated Memphis native Dr. Brown Ayres became president, and he continued to initiate major changes, both to the university’s physical plant and its academic composition. The departments of law, medicine, and dentistry were elevated to colleges—­although medicine and dentistry were moved to Memphis—and the academic stature of the College of Liberal Arts was elevated. The agriculture program was expanded, and the teacher-training program was incorporated into the university. A school of commerce, now the College of Business Administration, was created, and a freestanding university library was built.

In short, the university had gone from a small classical school focused chiefly on a few disciplines to a sizable university that attracted students from all over the country for its widely varied offerings.

A “stately hall” rises . . .

Construction of AyresHistorical photo of Ayres Hall

The dramatic shifts in priorities and operations of the ­university led Ayres to think about building a large, stately structure on College Hill, which had long been the geographic focal point of the university. Such a prominent building at the center of the campus would symbolize the university’s strengths. Ayres wanted this modern structure to replace three outdated buildings on the Hill—West College, Old College, and East College, which were subsequently razed. The style chosen for the new building was the collegiate Gothic style that was then in fashion at several prominent Northeastern universities, including Yale and Princeton.

Unfortunately, Ayres died before construction began. His dream was realized, however, when Ayres Hall was completed in 1921, and a new icon representing the expanded and enriched university was born.

Nearly 100 years later, Ayres Hall remains an immediately recognizable reference to the academic identity of the University of Tennessee: at one point or another, the edifice has housed nearly every non-science department of the university. Unlike Brown Ayres, however, today’s university administration did not envision a demolition of the existing building for an all-new structure. Rather, planners aimed to preserve the best elements of Ayres Hall while replacing those that were out of date.

The clearest outward indication of this mindset is the exterior of Ayres Hall, which is largely unchanged. Other than the addition of hands to the tower clock, there are no major changes to the outside of the building. The inside proved trickier, however. The old windows, walls, stairways, and transoms may have imparted a Jazz Age ambience, but they also did not allow for a great deal of modernization over the years.

“When I arrived to teach my first class there [in 2007], I toted along my laptop and projector, expecting to show some slides to my American history class. Then I discovered that there were no outlets, except one in the far back of the room and about ten feet up on the wall. I couldn’t reach it, and I didn’t trust it, since it did not look like it had been used for many years. We used the chalkboard instead of PowerPoint that semester, but I did enjoy the high windows and creaky floors,” history professor Ernest Freeberg says.

“ . . . glorious to the sight”

Girl walking through archGirls in front of Ayres

To address these and other issues, the hall’s interior underwent what Lori Wilson, project manager for UT Facilities Planning, calls a “selective demolition.”

Because much of the hall’s infrastructure, including its electrical system, was out of date, the interior of the hall went through a total renovation, part of which reflects the university’s ongoing efforts to be environmentally friendly. A new mechanical system was installed that provides energy-efficient lighting and electricity, as well as air conditioning. The building’s new windows also help save energy. Because of these and other eco-friendly elements, the new Ayres Hall is Leadership in ­Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certified.

Other renovations addressed accessibility. Three new elevators were installed, making the building friendlier to students and members of the staff and faculty with disabilities. And the fourth floor, which had been closed since the 1970s by order of the fire marshal, was renovated to meet building code standards and reopened.

These changes, however, did not necessitate completely demolishing the hall’s interior.

“We saved the interior doors, some wood flooring, and the light fixtures. Things of historical value were saved and will be restored,” Wilson says. Other original elements of the building that will be reinstalled include the center staircase, some handrails, and some of the transoms. After its renovation, Ayres will contain the Math Department and administrative offices. Classes will resume in spring 2011.

“The renovated Ayres Hall will maintain its original grand architectural design and character while incorporating the most modern energy-efficient climate controls and the most sophisticated classroom instructional technology. We particularly look forward to showing our guests and visitors the fourth-floor colloquium suite, which will be one of the signature spaces on campus,” professor Mike Frazier, head of the mathematics department, says.

The University of Tennessee of today cannot be compared to its incarnation a century ago, but Ayres Hall can show us the similarities and differences between the university’s priorities then and now. The term eco-friendly had not yet entered the public’s consciousness, and elevators and air conditioning certainly were not an issue. But creating an iconic building that answered contemporary needs and reflected the nature of the university was at the forefront of everyone’s mind, in both this century and last.

Ayres Hall now shows that you can look to the future without breaking your ties to the past.

—Meredith McGroarty

Autumn leaves in front of AyresSun shining on Ayres Hall

Ayres Hall Timeline


September 10, 1794

The university’s history begins with a charter as Blount College. Tuition is set at $8.00 a semester. Samuel Carrick, the first preacher in Knoxville, becomes president.


After conferring one degree in 13 years, the college receives a state grant and becomes East Tennessee College.


The Board of Trustees votes to purchase a 40-acre tract called “Barbara Hill” for the college. The tract, situated west of Knoxville, is described as “near and yet secluded.”


Drawing of the Hill

The college’s first building, Old College, is erected on “the Hill.” The site is currently occupied by Ayres Hall.


The first UT Alumni Association is established.

Alumni logo


The university receives a federal land grant provided by the Morrill Act of?1862. As a provision of the act, the university admits its first African American students, who actually attended Fisk in Nashville.


Pride of the Southland Band

“The Pride of the Southland Marching Band” is formed as part of the university’s Military Department.

April 12, 1889

Inspired by the wildflowers on nearby hills, Charles Moore, president of the athletics department,
selects orange and white as school colors on the first University Field Day.



Nursing students

The first women are admitted to University of Tennessee.


A UT athletic team is dubbed the “Volunteers” by an Atlanta Constitution reporter. By 1905, the name had become official.

September 13, 1911

Under the direction of President Brown Ayres, UT’s first free-standing library opened its doors.

President Brown Ayres

November 11, 1916

1912 Vol football squad

UT holds its first Homecoming in conjunction with a UT–Vanderbilt football game.


Ayres Hall Completed

Drawing of AyresThe first football game is played on Shields-Watkins Field, the earliest element of what has become Neyland Stadium.


A Chattanooga woman, Mary Fleming Meek, pens “On a Hallowed Hill” for a contest sponsored by the UT Department of Music. Her song is selected as the UT alma mater.


1938 Vol football squad

The UT Vols win their first national football championship.


SmokeyThe student pep club adopts “Smokey,” a hound dog, as the school’s live mascot.


“Rocky Top” is written by songwriters Felice and Boudleaux Bryant.


Neyland Stadium, aerial view

Renovations to Neyland Stadium make it the largest football stadium in the South and the third largest college stadium in the country.


The “Ready for the World” initiative is launched to transform the campus into a culture of diversity.

Ready for the World logo

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