Visual Arts

Bidding adieu to UK's Reynolds Building

The Reynolds Building opened in 1917 as a warehouse for R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. The University of Kentucky art department moved into the building in the late 1960s. Students and professors have long enjoyed its high ceilings and large, open spaces.
The Reynolds Building opened in 1917 as a warehouse for R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. The University of Kentucky art department moved into the building in the late 1960s. Students and professors have long enjoyed its high ceilings and large, open spaces. Lexington Herald-Leader

Friends were helping University of Kentucky photography professor Ruth Adams work on her office in the Reynolds Building when one got ready to paint some exposed brick on her exterior wall.

"I said, 'No, don't cover up my bricks,'" Adams says.

Adams, like many of her colleagues and students in UK's art department, has a complicated relationship with the 94-year-old building. The former R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. warehouse presents structural and logistical challenges to anyone who works there.

Then there is the steady rain of dust that creates a thin coat over everything in Adams' office and makes it difficult for her and many others in the department to spend much time in the building.

"If I see it on stuff, I'm sure I'm breathing it in," says associate professor of new media Dima Strakovsky.

In almost the same breath, though, he, like many others, praises the building.

"The space is amazing, and we really use that for leverage in recruiting," Strakovsky says. "Competing with more urban campuses, the space is a big advantage."

Reynolds' denizens love its high ceilings and the large spaces that are pretty much OK to mess up — which often happens when making art — because they're already messed up.

But if you can't work in it long without serious concern for your health and safety, that mitigates the advantages.

After years of controversy over the state of the Reynolds Building, including a suspicion that some of its conditions might have contributed to the 2007 cancer death of art professor Ross Zirkle, the UK art department appears poised to make a move to the nearby University Lofts building.

The purchase of the Bolivar Street property, $6.7 million for the building and $8 million to renovate it into art studios, was approved by UK's board of trustees in the summer. It now needs approval of the Kentucky General Assembly next year.

"The legislature has to approve it," says Lynn Sweet, who supervises the woodworking studio. He has been one of the senior occupants in the Reynolds Building, having worked there more than 30 years.

Even those who have been there only a short time are attached to it.

"I have a lot of memories here; it's very homelike," says senior art major Kendall Brown of Louisville. "It has a lot of aesthetic qualities, and there are a lot of things about the building that are cool.

"But I would prefer safety and ventilation. I'm not so attached to it that I wouldn't want to move if there was an option to do that."

Brown's opinion is shared by most people during an afternoon of roaming around the Reynolds Building. Its space and character are generally adored as great places to make art — and make it big.

"It felt like a cathedral when we moved in here," said Gerald Ferstman, an associate professor of printmaking and drawing who was on the art faculty when the department moved into Reynolds in the late 1960s. "We always thought it could be a fantastic art complex."

Adjunct drawing instructor Jacob Isenhour studied at Western Kentucky University and the University of Cincinnati, and he says their art school buildings had their quirks, too.

The Reynolds Building "has a warehouse feel," he says. "And as an art student, having that space and 24-hour access is very important."

Students Mark McCallum and Brooke Wargnier say the building took some getting used to.

"When I saw it, I said, 'This is actually UK-owned?'" Wargnier says.

McCallum, a sophomore in his first semester as an art major, says that when he first visited the building, "I was freaking out."

Last year, Tom Harris, UK's associate vice president of external affairs, said that Reynolds was "probably the worst building in higher education in the state."

Sitting on Scott Street, on the western fringes of UK's campus, Reynolds can be scary for students and faculty at night. Before a keypad system was installed on the doors, there were problems with vagrants coming into the building and even taking up residence under staircases, says fiber professor Arturo Alonzo Sandoval.

Still, he, like his colleagues, has a fondness for the building.

One of his favorite things about Reynolds is that it's big enough for professors to have their own studios, making them accessible to students.

"At a lot of universities, the professors' studios are off campus, and students can only see them if they are invited," says Sandoval, who predicts that that close-knit situation will continue in the University Lofts building.

He says moving to University Lofts will help make the art department feel more accessible to, and more like a part of, the rest of campus.

One of the things he and many others in the art department like about the University Lofts, a former tobacco warehouse that was converted to residences several years ago, is how similar the place is to the Reynolds Building, save for the latter's ancient utilities systems, constant dust and other flaws.

"If we built something new, it would have 8-foot ceilings and cinderblock walls," Adams says. "When I toured the University Lofts, I was doing cartwheels — well, not literally — but it really does have a lot of things we like about this building that we never would have been able to get the university to build if we had a brand-new facility."

And in the past few years, Reynolds has gotten a little better.

From the day that Robert Shay the former dean of the College of Fine Arts stepped into the building, faculty including Ferstman and Sweet say, he made a point to try to get the Reynolds Building's problems addressed. During a $1.5 million renovation, a new elevator was installed, bathrooms were renovated and doors were put on them, and an open second-floor studio and exhibit area were created so students like McCallum could create large works.

"It really encourages you to go up the wall," McCallum says, standing next to his large wooden sculpture that will be part of the art department's Open Studio on Friday night.

The improvements have created a new sense of respect for the building, Adams says. "People now don't seem so inclined to just knock a hole in the wall because that would be good for creating a piece of art," he says.

Current fine arts dean Michael Tick says he was contacted about the option of moving to the University Lofts shortly after he arrived at UK in summer 2010.

If the purchase is approved by the state legislature, it is expected to take 18 months to three years to make the move, depending on the pace of renovations. They might not start until next summer because there are still residents in the lofts.

Moving day will be both joyful and sad, Adams says.

Looking around her Reynolds office, she says, "It is such a wonderful space, but we really can't stay here."