From Special Collections/University Archives: The History of Bucknell’s Art Building

Did you know that the Art Building did not hold art within its walls for the first fifty years of its existence? In 1889, William Bucknell, Chairman of the  Board of Trustees between 1882 and 1890 and a major benefactor of Bucknell University, asked President Harris what could be done with the remaining amount of his financial contribution that saved the University. $25,000 remained of his donation, and  President Harris responded that a science building should be built, to which Mr. Bucknell readily agreed. In 1889, construction began on the Physical and Chemical Laboratory, which is currently the location of the Art Building. The building was presented as a gift by William Bucknell’s family on his behalf on June 25, 1889 and was completed in June 1903. Professor William Bartol, a professor of mathematics and astronomy, designed the building and managed its construction; Professor George G. Groff, who taught organic sciences, completed the interior plans; and the laboratory specifications were the work of Professor William G. Owens, a professor of physics and chemistry.

The Physical and Chemical Laboratory was the first dedicated science laboratory facility lab on campus. According to President Harris, the new Physical and Chemical Laboratory combined with the recently hired professional scientific faculty, as well as the University’s increased enrollment and interest in science studies, allowed for new scientific courses to be added to the curriculum until the point where chemistry grew from four courses in 1889 to twenty-two courses in 1919. During the same period, biology courses increased from four to twenty-four, and in pure and applied mathematics from ten to sixty. By 1919, the number of students enrolled in Chemistry had increased to two hundred and fifty, and the Physical and Chemical Laboratory was becoming inadequate to hold all science classes.

As a result, the Chemistry and Physics department moved from the Physical and Chemical Laboratory to the Olin Science Building in 1955. The Music and Art Departments, which were being housed in Carey House on St. George Street, moved into the now vacant Physical and Chemical Laboratory building. During the summer of 1955, the building became the Music and Art Building. The following  year, the Music and Art Building was remodeled, adding lecture-recital rooms and an orchestral-rehearsal room, a library, a listening room, practice rooms, classrooms, and offices. There were art studios and offices on the second floor as well.

Although the building successfully served many purposes through the years, the Music and Art Building was deemed an inadequate facility for both the music and art programs in 1997. Plans were announced to replace the building with two newly constructed buildings for art and music. The Music Department was moved to the newly constructed Sigfried Weis Music Building in 2000, however,  plans for a new Art and Art History building were not realized and the department remained in the former Physical and Chemical Laboratory building.

Finally, In 2018, the Bucknell’s Board of Trustees approved construction of a new building to house both the Art and Art History and the Freeman College of Management to be built across the street from Academic West. The plans lay out a 79,500-square foot facility that will begin construction the summer of 2019 with plans for completion time by the spring 2021 semester. The Art and Art History Department will be provided with modern teaching and studio spaces in the building as well as photography labs, drawing and multi-use art studios, digital art labs, and faculty offices,

With the Art Department and certain classes moving to the new building, it is unknown what will happen to the Art Building, but I encourage students to make their way into the Art Building to embrace the more than century old history is presents. If you would like to learn more about the Art Building, visit the Special Collection/University Archives on Lower Level 1 of the library.


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