Ayres Hall: Restoring Its Grandeur, Preserving Our Memories

Ayres HallSituated as it is, atop the crest of “The Hill,” Ayres Hall easily dominates the campus landscape. The grand old building’s distinctive architectural features are visually arresting, making it a natural campus landmark.

Beyond its aesthetic appeal and historical significance, however, is its personal meaning to the thousands of students who have passed through its hallways and classrooms. For so many, Ayres Hall is the site of some of the most cherished memories of their college experience—memories that are woven into the rich heritage and lore of the iconic edifice.

But even the grandest structures succumb to aging utilities infrastructure and wear from years of continuous heavy use. Built in 1921, Ayres Hall was no exception. More than 20 years ago the university determined that this campus icon was overdue for rehab and placed it on the renovation list. Years in its meticulous planning, the renovation finally got underway in January 2009.

The project was undertaken with thoughtfulness and reverence for the history of the building and the memories it holds for alumni. The vision from the beginning was to keep the building as true to its architectural identity as possible, while bringing it up to current building codes and making it a fully functional 21st-century academic resource.

“We wanted to preserve what everyone remembered and cherished about the building. A number of the alumni are architects, so we are especially sensitive to their memories of the architecture of Ayres Hall,” said Lori Wilson, project manager with UT Facilities Planning, as well as a UTK graduate.

From the start, planners limited the scope of the project to renovating the space within the exiting walls to preserve the building’s profile—there would be no new appendages. In fact, protecting the historic character of Ayres Hall guided every conscious decision along the way, even if that meant taking a more challenging route to a goal.
Another early decision was to save as much of the original building material as possible. Consequently, the original terrazzo flooring was to be restored, and all the wood flooring and millwork, especially the paneled doors, in good condition were removed by hand, labeled, and stored, to be refinished and reinstalled piece by piece. Likewise, the original clay roofing tiles are to be refurbished and reinstalled.

Describing the kind of rehabilitation and renovation Ayres Hall is undergoing, Dan Smith, construction coordinator with UTK Facilities Services, said, “It is significantly more difficult to do construction based on removing something in a way [that will allow us] to restore and reinstall it. But the intent has always been that Ayres absolutely deserves that extra attention and effort.”

Since January 2009, Ayres Hall has been closed except to the project’s team of architects, engineers, and contractors, thus leaving alumni, students, and faculty members curious to know what lies inside the temporary enclosure marking the perimeter of the construction zone. The renovation is slated for completion by fall 2010, and the university expects to schedule classes in the building for spring semester 2011. But what will we see when the enclosure comes down?

The renovated Ayres Hall will retain its celebrated look and traditional collegiate atmosphere, but it will function as a top-of-the-line modern instructional asset. “It is still going to be the place we all remember,” Wilson said. “Yet behind the walls, hidden from view, there will be the infrastructure to accommodate the expectations modern occupants have for buildings, including state-of-the-art technology.”

Smith points out that the changes in technological capabilities and energy use go beyond just making the building comply with today’s building codes. “We have loved this building for ninety years,” Smith said, “and the renovation will include energy efficiency and sustainability so that we can love it for another ninety years and be able to use it to its full capacity.” The renovated Ayres Hall will be one of the first Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certified buildings on campus.

Although many of the most dramatic changes to the building won’t be visible to many of its users, there are a few new features that visitors may notice. Important structural elements have been faithfully preserved, and some interesting special touches have been added, but we’ll leave the pleasure of their discovery to visitors of the renovated Ayres Hall. Wilson is confident that everyone will be pleased with the results. “We have taken great care to add to the detail that was originally in place,” she said. She expects alumni who enter the renovated building will experience a comfortable sense of familiarity and think, “This is as it should be.”

As we eagerly anticipate the project’s winding down and the College of Arts and Sciences’ moving back to its longtime home in Ayres Hall, we invite you to reminisce with us by sharing your memories of your experiences there. CLICK HERE to post your thoughts and read those of your classmates, friends, and teachers.

Plans for reopening ceremonies and opportunities for alumni to tour the renovated Ayres Hall are already underway. Check back often for updates and posts about special events celebrating the reopening of Ayres Hall.