Historic Ayres Hall Is Back Open At UT-Knoxville

Saturday, January 15, 2011 - by John Shearer
Ayres Hall
Ayres Hall

The University of Tennessee's iconic Ayres Hall in Knoxville - which many Chattanooga area Big Orange alumni likely remember for its cool Gothic architecture but hot summer temperatures without much air conditioning - has reopened after a lengthy restoration.

After being closed since the end of fall semester 2008, the building began being used again Wednesday with the start of spring semester classes. A ribbon-cutting ceremony was planned for Monday afternoon, but it had to be canceled due to the snow.

Workers are still putting some finishing touches on the formerly closed fourth floor and other areas, but students were back in the building taking math and other classes. Besides the usual steep climb up the school's famous "Hill" to get there, students this week also had to battle some slippery snow and ice just to get inside the structure.

I decided to take a self-guided tour of the building on Wednesday. Although I did not attend the University of Tennessee, I have admired the historic structure for years. And after moving to Knoxville in 2005, I began more closely examining the now-90-year-old building.

I have also been able to write several news stories about its renovation. I toured the fourth floor, which had been closed off for years to meet fire codes, and I even climbed the mammoth clock and bell tower twice to get to the top. Once the renovation began, the climb became a little easier on the nerves, due to improved and safer ways to get up it.

I also talked to the Verdin Clock Company of Cincinnati employee Stephen Miller of Greeneville, Tn., who spent about five days in mid-June 2010 on the tower installing clocks. He was probably ready to audition for a role in the delayed Broadway production of "Spider-Man" after his harrowing work.

Original architects Miller, Fullenwider and Dowling of Chicago had designed faces for clocks on the towers, but they were never installed.

Current contractor Johnson & Galyon and architects Ross/Fowler and Weeks, Ambrose, McDonald Inc. also added another feature that was part of the original designs - an expansive courtyard on the Cumberland Avenue side.

Seeing all the finished work on the roughly $14 million, Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design-certified building was interesting.

The elegant stairways appear to have just been given a good touch-up, but some of the rooms have been reconfigured and the halls have had some new wood trim and other details added. The building also now has centrally located offices, including one for the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.

Some of the old early 20th century black chalkboards, which, like the old wooden classroom floors, caught my eye before renovation, now line the walls of commons areas in an interesting fashion.

The back supports of the new wooden chairs in these lounges have imprints of the Ayres Hall tower on them.

The collection of old slate boards in the Commons area is not the only example in the building where an old item has been recreated as new.

On the lecture room on the fourth floor - perhaps the most interesting floor in the building - are some newly produced archival photographs of the building and the Hill inlaid in glass.

The aesthetically pleasing lecture hall also includes some stately tables and chairs.

A conference room across the hall has a giant and interesting window, as do several areas of the building.

Plenty of the original building remains and has just been polished, cleaned or painted, which should make historic preservationists happy.

The tile roof has also been reworked and replaced as needed. The brick exterior was also cleaned. This includes the tower's checkerboard pattern, which legend stated was the motivation for the checkerboards in the end zones at nearby Neyland Stadium.

But what students will likely be excited about the most - other than the updated technology - is that the building now has a modern central heat and air unit.

As a result, the building will continue to bring a warm glow to new generations of students and alumni, but now just emotionally.


You can view John Shearer's slideshow with dozens of photographs of Ayres Hall before, during and after its renovation below:


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