If you ever get a chance to talk to a UofL alum about their favorite memories from college, odds are the Red Barn will come up at some point.
Like The Thinker and the alumni clock tower, the Red Barn is an iconic landmark enabling signature moments on the Belknap Campus, from the annual Crawfish Boil to job fairs to book sales to the debut of Dan Fogelberg’s Derby-themed song, “Run for the Roses.”
Campus will officially mark the building’s 50th anniversary with a celebration on Oct. 25 from 6-9 p.m.
There is certainly plenty to celebrate. Consider the history created in that single building, which used to be a metal fabrication and welding shop for the Caldwell Tank Company, by the way. The Caldwell property was acquired by the university through urban renewal in 1969 and the structure was scheduled for eventual destruction.
However, according to “The University of Louisville,” by Dwayne D. Cox and William J. Morison, its 5,000 square feet of floor space proved enticing to a group of enterprising students. Led by Louis Bornwasser (’70), a group of students requested funding from then-President Woodrow M. Strickler to turn the “drafty, leaky building into a passable concert hall, dance hall and movie theatre.”
Prior to this renovation, there weren’t many spaces on campus dedicated to student activities, and Bornwasser saw an opportunity. Strickler must have too, as the students’ funding request to renovate and maintain the building was granted from the university. The “Save the Red Barn” campaign added a new stage, new lighting and sound equipment, a new roof and an addition to house the Student Activities office, with George Howe tapped to lead the department.
Before long, the Red Barn began providing an outlet for student events. Comedian and social activist Dick Gregory spoke there, while benefit performances were held for environmental campaigns in a politically charged time.
According to the book, in April 1970, attorney William Kunstler was scheduled to speak. A year prior, he gained notoriety with his courtroom defense of “The Chicago Seven,” leaders of demonstrations held at the 1968 Democratic national convention. One day before Kunstler’s appearance, the city fire marshal made an unexpected visit, found the building to be one exit short of acceptable, and prohibited use of the building.
However, a maintenance crew worked around the clock to frame a new doorway, breaking through three layers of brick in the process. University administrators may not have been enamored of Kunstler, the book notes, but they liked censorship even less. During his address to a full house, a bomb threat forced the evacuation of the building. After a search found nothing amiss, 1,100 students filed back in.
Perhaps the biggest Red Barn moment came during the building’s traditional “Derby Eve” party in 1980, in which ABC television broadcast “Friday Night Live from the Kentucky Derby” at the facility. Singer Dan Fogelberg premiered his hit song “Run for the Roses” – which continues to be a perennial staple of the Kentucky Derby – and the program featured interviews with UofL’s 1980 NCAA championship team.
During that event, actor and horseman Jack Klugman was wedged into the audience, which left a bad impression. At one point he reacted to the noise, the crowds and the heat by looking into the camera and declaring, “If my horse wins the Derby, I’m going to buy this garage and then I’m going to burn it to the ground.”
Showing their affinity for the building their predecessors saved, UofL students roundly booed Klugman and named the Red Barn’s bathrooms after him and his horse.
This affinity continues today.
For Howe, who now leads special programming at the Red Barn, and for whom the building was named after in 2008, the building may have a strong 50-year legacy, but it’s just getting started.
“When I think about what’s next, I always think of that song by The Carpenters called, ‘We’ve Only Just Begun,’” he said. “There’s something magical about this building, that to this day when I walk in, I feel the transformation. It’s so positive and it’s so uplifting. Call it karma. Call it whatever you want, but it’s here to stay.”
As part of the Oct. 25 celebration, Stuart Neff (’81), coordinator for special projects for the Student Activities Board, will be recognized as the recipient of the 2019 RBAA Mary Fay Rumford Unsung Hero Award. Also, a commemorative porcelain Red Barn plate with the original Red Barn watercolor by Gene Hatfield (1989) will be given to the first 30 attendees contributing a minimum of $100 as part of the Red Barn 50th anniversary celebration. Money will directly benefit UofL students.