Planning for a dedicated building to house visual arts and their academic offices began in earnest about 1970, after courses had been scattered in a dozen campus buildings — including Bailey Annex, Memorial Stadium, Flint Hall, Chamney House and Barn, and the Wesley Building — for nearly 90 years. The new building was designed by Paul Krause, a 1956 alumnus and principal at Horner & Krause of Kansas City, Kansas. Construction began in 1977 on the hilltop south of Marvin Hall.
The structure of red brick had an open plan over steel trusses in 115,000 square feet; it absorbed “new” Fowler Shops, which had opened in 1949, adding about 26,600 square feet. Old mechanical engineering shops were razed to make way for the $5.75 million project, dedicated April 9, 1978.
The building houses classrooms, shops, and studios for design, painting, printmaking, sculpture, ceramics, weaving, metalsmithing/jewelry, and printing; faculty and staff offices and studios; and a faculty/student exhibition gallery. Major repairs in 1983 corrected serious problems with ventilation of toxic fumes from oils, varnishes and other artists' media.
In August 2015 the building was rededicated as E. Laurence Chalmers Hall, named for the 11th chancellor, who served from 1969 to 1972. In a time of turmoil and protests over the Vietnam War and civil rights that included the burning of Kansas Union in April 1970 and attacks on the military science building, Chalmers remained a staunch advocate of freedom of assembly and academic expression. He became director of the Art Institute of Chicago when he left KU and he died in 2009.
The School of Fine Arts had been founded in 1891, combining the Department of Music, established in 1877, and the Department of Art, established in 1885. Courses in visual and performing arts had been offered since KU's earliest years, but none of the disciplines had a permanent home. For several decades music teachers were paid by student fees, and the visual arts were taught as second or third subjects by faculty hired for other courses.
Between 1893 and 1917 the school was housed in the increasingly decrepit North College, the university's first building, until that was declared unfit for occupation. Rooms in the basement and first floor of the new Administration Building (later Strong Hall) were used by music; visual art had studios and classrooms on the top floor; about a dozen other buildings housed various courses as well.
A long campaign for a dedicated building for performing arts ended when the music and dance departments of Fine Arts moved into the newly completed Murphy Hall in 1957. The school shared performing space with the University Theatre and its academic units, part of the College, but had its own wing for faculty studios, rehearsal rooms and administrative offices.
In 2009, an administrative reorganization created the School of Music, housed in Murphy Hall; and the School of the Arts, affiliated with the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences and comprising the departments of Dance, Film & Media Studies, Theatre, and Visual Art. The offices for these departments remain in Chalmers and Murphy halls. Several design programs are now affiliated with the School of Architecture, Design & Planning.