Kentucky Building celebrates 75th anniversary

Trey Crumbie

Red and white balloons adorned a series of wooden tables that were scattered throughout the Kentucky Room in the Kentucky Building on Friday afternoon. A group of about 60 people, ranging from President Gary Ransdell to Big Red, slowly filled the area to mark the 75th anniversary of the structure. 

As WKU alumni and community members chattered with one another, a slideshow played in the middle of the room showcasing several pictures from WKU’s past such as what the campus looked like in the early decades of the 1900s. 

To the side of the room, next to a series of European oil paintings, ginger ale and pieces of cake were served. Across the white cake were the words “Happy 75th Anniversary” inscribed in red icing. 

The 80,000 square foot building is home to the Kentucky Museum and department of library special collections, which contain the Kentucky library research collections, manuscripts and folklife archives and the WKU archives.

The building contains over 1 million archives and artifacts collectively, ranging from physical items, such as folk art and Gothic furniture, to audio and video interviews regarding WKU’s history.

Shortly after the reception began, Ransdell delivered a speech about the importance of the building and what it meant for the future of the university. 

“Seventy-five years may seem like a lot of time, but…75 years in the life of a museum is not very much,” he said. “Not when what is held here will be here for generations and generations and generations to come.”

The building began as an initiative by Henry Hardin Cherry, WKU’s first president, after being approached by Gabrielle Robertson, a history teacher, who wanted to create an archive for Kentucky history. 

Construction on the building began in 1929 using private money. The exterior was completed in 1931, but due to the Great Depression drying up funds the interior was never finished.

Cherry applied to the Public Works Administration, a New Deal program, to get the rest of it completed. The building was finished in 1939, and began to accumulate a variety of artifacts, from dioramas for high wheel bicycles to stuffed birds. 

As the collection expanded, the building became full and underwent an expansion which doubled the size of the building in the late 1970s.

The reception concluded with the announcement of recent donations to the building, including a series of written speeches by Ransdell and a model World War I bayonet. A special tour of the building was also given.

Brent Björkman, interim director of the Kentucky Museum, said the building contains many connections to people from the past. 

“It’s always been very close to my heart,” he said.

Jonathan Jeffrey, department head of library special collections, said there are experiences that make his job gratifying.   

He said a man came to the Kentucky Building in April of 1997 looking for information about his deceased father and where he was buried. The man was separated from his father at 2 years old. After looking through death records and obituaries, the library special collections staff informed the man of where his father was buried. The man cried because he had found what he had been looking for.

“I can’t tell you how gratifying that is as a professional (that) we get to do that type of thing for people,” Jeffrey said.