There has been a Snow Hall at the University of Kansas for over one hundred years. The first, built in 1886, housed KU’s burgeoning natural science departments and was named in honor of Professor Francis Huntington Snow, a distinguished scientist and future KU chancellor. The second, built in 1930, and formally dedicated on this day in KU history, served essentially the same purpose, although in modern, spacious quarters that furthered the University’s cutting-edge scientific instruction and research, while preserving the legacy of its pioneering namesake.
Francis Snow was one of KU’s first three faculty members when the University opened in September 1866. Twenty years later, he was able to convince the usually stingy state legislature to appropriate $50,000 for a new building that would be the University’s third. It would meet the needs of a rapidly growing student body and an even more rapidly growing collection of plant, animal, and insect specimens, which, by 1883, numbered more than 100,000. Called the Snow Collection, it was reputed to be the finest west of the Mississippi.
Snow’s pitch to the Legislature focused on how a robust natural science department could actually benefit Kansas. “The extensive collections,” he wrote in 1878, “are of practical value to the agricultural and horticultural interests of the state, as well as to the students of the University, in the determination of the names and habits of our insects, friends and foes.” According to KU historian Robert Taft, “such a utilitarian argument must have won the day, for the Legislature voted to appropriate the requested funds in the spring of 1885.” In recognition of Snow’s tireless advocacy, the State Board of Regents decided that the new building, completed in November 1886, would be named the Snow Hall of Natural History.
When the original Snow Hall opened, Snow and his assistant, Lewis Lindsay Dyche (later a world-famous taxidermist), taught as many as 13 science courses in eight different fields. The building, in addition to housing classrooms, laboratories, and the vast Snow Collection, also contained a basement gymnasium where freshmen played basketball. The Graduate Magazine later recalled that many students “graduating as late as 1910” remember “using the gymnasium in Snow when the gymnastic department was separated from Professor [W. C.] Stevens’s botany lab only by a netting stretched from wall to wall.”
By 1912, however, only 30 years after it first opened, Snow Hall was beginning to show signs of serious wear. Observers complained of the building’s “quivering tendencies” on particularly windy days, its infestation with “rats and cockroaches that [made] human habitation unpleasant,” and a general squalidness that was “probably responsible for the repeated illnesses of the faculty who worked there.”
Not to mention it being a virtual sauna in the summer, an igloo in the winter, and every day a dangerous fire hazard. Upon the recommendation of the state architect, KU Chancellor Frank Strong announced in 1916 that, “The University must expect to discontinue the use of Snow Hall before many years have passed.” Citing “inadequate foundations” and “sunken interior walls,” Strong reported, “The building is deteriorating very fast.” Immediately work began on securing adequate funds from the state to erect a replacement facility. It only took 11 years.
In 1927, the State Legislature finally agreed to appropriate the $200,000 needed to build a new natural sciences building and an additional $70,000 to install the most modern laboratory equipment and other amenities such as air conditioning and refrigeration. According to the Graduate Magazine, it was to be “the finest biological building in this part of the country” and would contain “some of the most up-to-date laboratories in the state.” There was never any question as to the name of this new building: It would be called New Snow Hall, though it became simply Snow Hall when the old structure was razed in 1934.
The dilapidated condition of the original Snow Hall was surely reason to construct a new natural science building, yet, according to Taft, one must not discount the “enormous growth [that] had taken place in the extent of human knowledge and especially in the biological sciences” since the 1880s. Whereas, in 1886, there were two instructors teaching 13 courses, by the late-1920s, KU could boast 53 instructors and 151 science courses, including bacteriology, a field that had not even existed in the 19th century.
In the New Snow Hall, the departments of zoology, entomology, botany, and bacteriology were all consolidated in one six-story building (two of which were underground). And furthermore, to avoid all the unpleasant odors and conditions associated with Old Snow, each department was instrumental in the design of its floor, submitting plans to the architect to ensure the best possible use of space.
Construction of New Snow Hall began in the summer of 1928. On June 8, 1930, the University gathered for the formal dedication ceremonies. At the building’s opening, KU officials showcased the Snow entomological collection, which by then had grown to over 300,000 specimens. This collection occupied part of the building’s first floor, along with Snow’s old walnut desk and chair as a reminder to future generations of the University’s first scientist.
On dedication day, one of Snow’s former students and then-current botany professor, W.C. Stevens, delivered the opening address. “The spirit of its founder lives on in the new Snow Hall – the spirit of progress, of fair and honest work, the spirit of concern for the welfare of the State in whose service it stands.” He concluded by saying, “All hail and farewell to the old Snow Hall; salutations and good will for the new.”
John H. McCool
Department of History
University of Kansas