The Gibbs Building

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The iconic Gibbs Building at the heart of the College is the second oldest building at King's, and of great historic, architectural and cultural significance.

A Grade I listed world-class heritage asset, it creates with the Chapel one of Cambridge’s best-known views, recognised by millions around the world.

For generations of students at King’s it has held a special significance as the site of countless supervisions – both terrifying and inspiring – and where for many the first nerve-wracking admissions interview took place and a life-long association with King’s began.

In 2024 the Gibbs Building is 300 years old and we will be marking the anniversary across the year.

Gibbs needs your help

The foundation stone for Gibbs was laid in March 1724, and ever since the first occupants moved in in 1732 the College has carried out various works to repair and update the building and its rooms - most recently a renovation of the outside in 2016.  

The interior is now in urgent need of repair and restoration and to be made fit for the future.

The Gibbs 300th Anniversary Challenge is aiming to raise £25 million towards the costs of the renewal and restoration of Gibbs.

To kickstart the fundraising appeal, a King’s alumnus has offered a £1 million pledge to establish a matching gift fund - the Gibbs 300th Anniversary Fund – to double gifts given over the course of 2024 up to a total of £1 million.

Alumni and friends are invited to take up the challenge and unlock this additional funding by making a gift. Donors to Gibbs will be recognised within the building, and significant gifts may offer naming opportunities.

Funding will enable the building’s repair and conservation, refurbishment of the four staircases and Fellows’ and other rooms and the basement areas, and critical thermal upgrade work and energy efficiency improvements, alongside improved access.

You can support the campaign for Gibbs by giving now or contact the Development Director to discuss how you can help.

Gibbs’ history

Technically the first stone was laid in 1461 when masons left behind a large block of stone in the Front Court, but the project of completing King’s founder Henry VI’s design was only taken up in earnest by Provost John Adams, soon after his election in 1712.

Architect Nicholas Hawksmoor, with the advice of his master Sir Christopher Wren, prepared a scheme which included not only the Founder’s great court to the south of the Chapel, but also his cloister and bell-tower between the Chapel and the river; although the buildings were to be in the Palladian and not the Gothic manner.

On 8 May 1714 the Provost and Fellows confirmed the appropriation of the proceeds to the continuation of the Founder’s design; and by the end of the year a building fund had been established. Yet the project was again postponed, and when it was put in hand at last, in 1724, four years after Adams’s death, it was to a new design by James Gibbs.

The foundation stone of the west range of Gibbs' intended court was laid on 25 March 1724, and the building was first occupied in the summer of 1732.

Some notable occupants

Among the Gibbs Building's most famous residents are the poet Rupert Brooke, who was living in E1 in 1907, the ghost story writer MR James, who had rooms in H staircase before he moved into the Provost's Lodge, and Eric Milner-White, writer of the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, who occupied F1.

Evangelical minister Charles Simeon, who assumed the role of Dean on three occasions, lived in G5, the room above the archway. Simeon was often seen wandering the rooftop of Gibbs and in 1819 paid personally to move the bridge so as to improve the view from his rooms!

Other notable events from Gibbs' include the story of Ludwig Wittgenstein threatening Karl Popper with a poker in H3, in 1946, and physician Hamilton Hartridge, who, finding his room in F3 full of bats, stretched silk threads across the room, turned off the lights, noted the bats' evasive tactics, and suggested that it was done by echo-location. Sadly Hartridge didn’t publish his observations; two Harvard scholars performed and published conclusive experiments in the late 1930s.

Gibbs today

Although gone are the days of Greek play readings with Sir Frank Adcock, the flagpole being adorned with anything from a bicycle to a gargantuan leek, and the sight of Boris Ord emptying his chamber pot each morning, the Gibbs Building continues to house a large number of Fellows' rooms, as well as the Tutorial Office, Development Office and Choir Office, and the King’s Entrepreneurship Lab in the basement of E staircase.

Gibbs has long been at the centre of generating new ideas, and today it still brings together classicists and biochemists, mathematicians and historians, who work and teach in the building’s unique, open and beautiful spaces. Professor John Dunn in E6 is applying a historical perspective to modern political theory; Professor Charlie Loke and Professor Ashley Moffett share a set on G staircase, working on aspects of the immunology of human reproduction; leading anthropologist Professor Dame Carrie Humphrey is on E staircase, and Professor Nicky Zeeman and Dr Laura Davies study and teach English Literature in a shared set on G staircase.

Alumni memories

As part of the 300th anniversary celebrations, we are inviting alumni to share their memories of Gibbs. Here are a few; to share yours, email communications@kings.cam.ac.uk

Adrian Cowell and I were the last undergraduates to live there, in H6, top floor next to the Chapel. In the very dry summer of 1959 you could see the foundations of medieval Cambridge on the back lawn, a paler brown in the brown grass. There appeared to be a street, lined with buildings, from the ‘Jumbo’ arch straight to the river and what looked like a bridge. The impression of the old wooden bell tower just west of the Chapel was clear: a big square with overlapping corners where I suppose the buttresses were.’

Michael Jaffe, later Director of the Fitzwilliam Museum, had the set below us and hung the red-walled staircase with his pictures. He was constantly complaining about ‘elephants upstairs’; our activities made his great guilded chandelier wave its arms.

Hugh Johnson (KC 1957)

 

I arrived at King’s in 1982 as a postgraduate student from Dublin. When I first met him I told Nick Bullock, the graduate tutor, that Gibbs was my favourite building in King’s. He said he was not in the least bit surprised as Gibbs was so like other buildings in Dublin. Of course he was right! I now even have an engraving of the Gibbs Building, drawn and engraved by J. Greig, hanging in my house.

Kathleen Shields (KC 1982)

 

The Gibbs Building is a master-work of architecture, of cool and elegant design by one of the greatest architects of 18th century Britain, James Gibbs. Its physical fabric is an exalted exercise in skilful craftsmanship and notable materials. But it is not only a place of beauty. It is a place of never-ceasing hospitality, of warm welcome, of lives led with a passion for ‘making human lives better’ through research, innovation and – most of all – the exercise of good and civilised conversation.

Peter Burman (KC 1963)

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