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Future Olin destruction rekindles memories of first library

The coming demolition of the Olin and Chalmers libraries will not be the first time Kenyon faces the challenge of having too many books and no place large enough to store them all.

Before 1885, students faced a similar problem. The College owned more than 7,000 volumes in its permanent collection, but they were scattered across campus. To access a given book, a student would have to first find out where it was stored. Possibilities included spaces like the Philomathesian and Nu Pi Kappa reading rooms, established by these literary societies, on the second and third floors of Ascension.

In 1885, the newly erected Hubbard Hall opened its doors and, for the first time ever, Kenyon’s library was housed in an independent building.

Mary Hubbard Bliss of Columbus, Ohio donated funds for the library in 1881. As an Episcopalian, she felt a connection to the College, which was established as an Episcopal institution, and decided to donate a sum of $10,000 in honor of her deceased brother, George Hubbard. In addition to the monetary gift, some of the timber used for the interior of the library — as well as a corresponding Hubbard Alcove in the Columbus Public Library —  came from her family farm in Columbus.

The building plans for Hubbard were originally supposed to be used for a new gymnasium on campus — that is, until the College administration decided to retrofit Rosse Hall as a gym instead. They instead adapted the Hubbard plans for library use.

Construction was not completed on the library until two years after the donation. The College laid the first cornerstone in 1883 where Ransom Hall is today, but construction soon halted when the administration redirected some of the funds for repairs to Old Kenyon and Ascension Halls.

By the turn of the 20th century, Hubbard’s collection had more than quadrupled. The building now housed 32,000 books, including more than 12,000 volumes of theological writings.

In 1901, Stephens Hall, or “Stephens Stack Room,” was added to the library to lend much-needed shelving space to the cramped library. 

But what Hubbard Hall gained in reading material, it lost in woodwork: Its steeple was stolen in 1886. While little evidence exists on the identities of the thieves, there is a long-form poem published in the Kenyon Reveille in 1887 entitled “The Eve of    Halloween” that describes the antics of the class of 1890 as they tore it down: “Then with a sound like thunder/ that hated steeple crashed/ And broke through slate, and beam and plank,/ And rolling from the roof, it sank/ Into the ground beneath.”

Reportedly, the first years jumped on the cupola as soon as it fell, tore it apart and disposed of the pieces. It is unclear why they possessed such hatred for the structure, but the College never rebuilt the steeple.

This destruction foreshadowed what was to befall the library building 20 years later. On Jan. 1, 1910, Hubbard Hall caught on fire, and everything inside succumbed to the blaze. The destroyed items included a number of historical documents and valuable paintings. Alfred Granger, the architect of Stephens Hall (as well as Peirce Dining Hall and Cromwell Cottage), fortunately had the foresight to completely fireproof the addition by using only steel, glass and stone to construct the building. Because of this, nearly all of the College’s books were saved.

Today, Hubbard is one of the few major stone buildings of Kenyon’s past that no longer exists. Almost immediately after the fire, the walls were torn down and the Alumni Library — now Ransom Hall — was constructed in its place.

But perhaps somewhere, a piece of the stolen cupola lives on.