History of Nichols Hall
In addition to being one of the most striking buildings on the Kansas State University campus, Nichols Hall has also one of the most interesting histories.
At the turn of the century, among the needs of the young and growing Kansas State University were those of a livestock pavilion and a gymnasium. As a result of strong lobbying by K.S.U. president E.R. Nichols, money was allocated for a gymnasium, and the building was erected at the south edge of campus in 1910, its cornerstone, shown to the left, marking the event. Since President Nichols had retired in 1909, the gymnasium was christened Nichols Hall.
For its time, Nichols Hall was state-of-the-art: it was one of the first buildings in the nation to have a continuously poured concrete floor--the concrete was mixed by teams of horses!
Nichols Hall led an active life as the center of the University's recreational activities: the building held two swimming pools (one for males and one for females--swimming classes were integrated only in the 1920's) and the University's basketball court. Basketball was popular at the University, and on game days students would fill the building completely up to the edge of the court and literally hang by the rafters at the top to see the games.
The gymnasium was also used for official occasions, such a graduation ceremonies. This photo from 1917 shows a flock of sheep being used to trim the grass in front of the building in preparation for University commencement!
By 1950, a new athletic building (Ahearn Field House) had been constructed, and Nichols Hall became home to the University's radio station, KSDB-FM (the first FM radio station in Kansas), women's physical education, Military Science, and the Music Department.
The first life of Nichols Hall met a tragic end the night of Friday, December 13, 1968, when an arsonist stacked wooden tables against the north entrance of the building, poured gasoline on them, and set them ablaze. The fire was discovered about 11:15pm, and little could be done; everything in the building was destroyed---a total loss of over half a million dollars ($3.3 million 2012 USD). The arsonist was never caught, although it is believed that the fire was a misguided and extreme act related to a week of emotional protests at the University.
The Nichols fire destroyed the K.S.U. music program, but one item was salvaged from that night. By chance, the University's marching band director had taken home with him earlier that evening the musical score for the marching band's newest song: "The Wabash Cannonball.'' As a result of the Nichols fire, this was the only item of the marching band's to survive the night. "The Wabash Cannonball'' has since become a standard fixture of the marching band and is played at almost every sporting event they attend.
In the years that followed, Nichols Hall stood as an empty, neglected shell. A variety of proposals were made: raze the building for a parking lot, build another building in its place, or even use the shell as an outdoor art museum. In 1975, a group of students who were concerned that the building would soon be destroyed formed a coalition that raised $10,000 towards restoration. The students' campaigning impressed the Kansas Legislature, who funded $6.2 million to renovate the building. Rebuilding began in 1983.
As a condition of restoration, the original walls of the building were to be left standing in place. When the builders examined the walls, they found them too weak to support a new building, so the construction crew literally built a second, complete building inside the original one. As a result, the new building's window wells were made almost three feet deep, reinforcing the building's image as a "castle.'' The central area of the building was remodeled into an expansive, glass enclosed lobby, called an atrium, and the ends of the building were converted into classrooms and offices. A modern theatre was also added.
Nichols Hall was reborn on November 16, 1985, when the restored structure was reopened and rededicated. To the left is a photo of the building's atrium. The building's current occupants are the Department of Computing and Information Sciences and the Department of Speech Communications, Theatre and Dance.
As in its first life, Nichols Hall is again a center of University activities: its theatre hosts plays presented by local and touring drama groups, its computing laboratories offer round-the-clock access to state-of-the art computing facilities, and its classrooms give students the chance to use again one of the University's historic buildings.
In the atrium of Nichols Hall hangs a mural by Eric Bransby, called Student Achievement, shown below. The mural commemorates those people who shaped the history of Nichols Hall. The mural was dedicated on October 10, 1986.
Acknowledgement: Some of the information on this page was taken from the article Nichols Hall--Manhattan's Castle, by Julie Key, which appeared in the Fall, 1998, issue of Where in the Flinthills.