Kent Chemical Laboratory Building - University of Chicago

[Kent Chemical Laboratory Building - University of Chicago (1894) Henry Ives Cobb, architect /Image & Artwork: designslinger]

On January 1, 1894 a somewhat frail Sidney A. Kent leaned on the arm of University of
Chicago president William Rainey Harper as the 60-year-old Chicago grain trader made his way to the platform erected for the dedication of the University's recently completed Kent Chemical Laboratory Building. According to the Chicago Tribune Harper read a statement on Kent's behalf declaring, "I hereby give this building, fully furnished and completely equipped to the University of Chicago as a chemical laboratory for the use of this and future generations." And with that - and the $230,000 Kent had given the school to pay for the whole shebang - Kent's stone-etched, doorway-header name was revealed.

[Kent Chemical Laboratory Building, University of Chicago, 1020 E. 58th Street, Chicago /Image & Artwork: designslinger]

The building was the latest addition to a campus that hadn't even existed two years before. The University of Chicago wasn't new to the city - just this incarnation of the institution of higher learning. The first U of C had been founded in 1856, and was out of business by 1886. But the school's Baptist organizers weren't ready to throw in the towel, and in 1890 got oil baron John D. Rockefeller - a devoted member of the denomination - to donate $600,000 toward jump starting plans for a reorganized Chicago-based university, while convincing department store magnate Marshall Field to donate the land for a new location.

[Kent Chemical Laboratory Building - University of Chicago, Chicago /Image & Artwork: designslinger]

The organizers were one group of busy beavers. Between 1890 and 1894 they raised over $5 million in endowment funds, and a million dollars for the building fund. Once the first bundle of cash arrived in 1891 the building committee selected Chicago architect Henry Ives Cobb to be the campus' designer, over competitors like Adler & Sullivan, Patton & Fisher and Flanders & Zimmerman. Cobb won over the committee, went gaga for Gothic, and immediately set to work desgining and overseeing the construction of the first two buildings - which had to be ready for the start of the fall term in 1892. The Kent building got underway in 1893 and fronted 58th Street, which had sliced the campus in two. The plan was to get the city to close the street, create a central quadrangle, and have the chemical laboratory as the campus court's northwest marker.

[Kent Chemical Building - University of Chicago /Image & Artwork: designslinger]

Sidney Kent was able to give his $230,000 to the university because he was said to be one of the wiliest traders at the Chicago Board of Trade. Fellow brokers believed Kent knew more about grain than any other man on the trade room floor, and his ability to buy and sell at the right price made him a very wealthy man. Not long after the dedication ceremony the masterful trader retired to his summer estate in Connecticut, and sold his Chicago mansion on South Michigan Avenue. He died on April 1, 1900 in his east coast home at the age of 66. When his will was filed the following month his estate was estimated to be worth $5 million, at a time when the average wage in the U.S. was $400 a year.

See what else Cobb was up to in the early 1890s at: The Newberry Library.

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