Friday, May 27, 2011

Haunted Southern College & University Buildings - Kentucky

Old Morrison Hall
Transylvania University
Lexington, Kentucky

For full coverage, please see my article on Old Morrison and the Gratz Park Historic District.

Van Meter Hall
Western Kentucky University
Bowling Green, Kentucky

For such a comparatively young university—WKU was founded in 1906—the campus of Western Kentucky certainly has a number of ghosts. Interestingly, like the University of Tennessee in Knoxville (which is almost a century older), the school has no qualms discussing its ghosts. A series of web pages from the University Archives provides official record of the many legends across this architecturally significant campus.

The approach to the university campus from downtown Bowling Green is quite grand. A tree-lined avenue runs up a hill to monumental Cherry Hall crowning the hill with an assemblage of other monumental buildings including Van Meter Hall. Built to resemble the Erechtheum, a temple on the Acropolis, Van Meter Hall was completed in 1911 to replace Vanmeter Hall. The new hall included office space, classrooms and a large auditorium. The hall has seen a variety of uses over the years and was renovated a handful of times including most recently in 2009 when additions improved the backstage space of the auditorium.

Van Meter Hall, 2008. Photo by OPMaster, courtesy of

The spectral history of Van Meter Hall is less clear. Various sources pick and choose from the various legends creating a confusing jumble of tales. The University Archives takes pains to point out the three main legends that exist in reference to Van Meter. The first two stories involve deaths in the building. One story tells of a construction worker during the building’s construction who fell from scaffolding in the lobby and died in a pool of blood. One interesting detail that is sometimes included is that the worker was distracted by an airplane, a novel thing in 1911. Similar versions of the story have the doomed worker falling through the skylight in the lobby or the skylight over the stage—a ridiculous notion as the stage does not have a skylight. The second story involves a student plunging to his death while hanging lights onstage. Also, both of these stories usually include an indelible bloodstain either on the floor of the lobby or onstage.

The third story is more unusual. Kentucky is riddled with caves and this story tells of a cave underneath the hill inhabited by a hermit who would emerge into the building late at night bearing a blue lantern. The story tells of his spirit emerging and casting a blue light. Alan Brown’s Haunted Kentucky includes an interesting version of this story. He states that during construction of the building, the contractor discovered that cement being poured was flowing into an underground cave. Fearing possible bankruptcy from this, the contractor threw himself into the pit and was entombed in the concrete. The building was completed by a different contractor. He continues with a story about blue lights appearing in the darkened auditorium during performances, one episode causing a student working on lights to fall to his death—an interesting mix of legends, certainly.

While there is little concrete evidence (pardon the pun) to back up any of these legends, there still are numerous stories of strange phenomena within Van Meter’s walls. Daniel Barefoot’s Haunted Halls of Ivy speaks of indelible bloodstains, lighting malfunctions, props moving on their own accord, the curtains opening and closing and the apparition of an older gentleman who sometimes appears with a blue light. A similar apparition is mentioned in William Lynwood Montell’s Ghosts Across Kentucky. He tells a story of a Mark Twain impersonator performing at Van Meter Auditorium around 1981 (the only report with a date). The actor asked the stage manager to get him from his dressing room a minute before he was to appear onstage. A few minutes before the performance, the stage manager saw a man dressed like Twain standing backstage and assumed this was the actor. When the actor failed to go onstage on time, the stage manager rushed to the dressing room and found the actor there, he had not been backstage. Add into this mix, reports of the voices of a woman and a small child and the reports become more clouded.

What, precisely, is going on in Van Meter Hall? It appears there is activity, but the cause may never be known. Nevertheless, one must wonder if the activity will continue after the most recent major renovations. We shall see.

Barefoot, Daniel W. Haunted Halls of Ivy: Ghosts of Southern
     Colleges and Universities. Winston-Salem, NC: John F.
     Blair, 2004.
Brown, Alan. Haunted Kentucky: Ghosts and Strange Phenomena
     Of the Bluegrass State. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole, 2009.
Hawkins, Jenna. “Building History—Van Meter Hall.”
     WKU Hilltopper Heritage. 2008.
Montell, William Lynwood. Ghosts Across Kentucky. Lexington,
     KY: University Press of Kentucky. 2000.
Van Meter Hall. Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Accessed
     25 May 2011.
Western Kentucky University. Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia.
     Accessed 25 May 2011.
“WKU Ghosts—Van Meter.” WKU Department of Library
     Special Collections—University Archives. Accessed 25
     May 2011.

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