Kenan Center History
Visitors from all over the world enjoy walking the Kenan Center campus to see the 1800’s Victorian mansion and the beautifully landscaped grounds that belonged to Mr. and Mrs. William Rand Kenan, Jr. The Center has grown from a community center, which has served the residents of Lockport, New York since its official dedication in 1969, to become one of the premier facilities in the Buffalo Niagara region for arts, education and recreation programming. Visit our Gardens & Grounds page to learn more about the Kenan House, Taylor Theater, Education Building, Kenan Arena and Kenan Gardens.
William Rand Kenan, Jr.
William Rand Kenan, Jr., was born in Wilmington, North Carolina, on April 30, 1872. He was graduated from the University of North Carolina in 1894 with a Bachelor of Science degree, receiving particular recognition in chemistry, physics, and mathematics. It was during his college years that Mr. Kenan assisted his professor, Dr. F.P. Venable, in discovering the process that converted calcium carbide to acetylene. Following graduation from the University, he was active as a chemical and mechanical engineering advisor, being responsible for the installation of several important plants for the carbide and acetylene industry in the U.S., Australia, and Germany. In 1896, Mr. Kenan came to Niagara Falls to work at what would later become the Union Carbide Corporation.
During 1899 and 1900, Mr. Kenan was drawn into frequent contact with the former business associate of John D. Rockefeller, Henry M. Flagler, who was then engaged in developing the east coast of Florida. Mr. Flagler persuaded Mr. Kenan to join him in his Florida enterprises which included the Florida East Coast Railway and the Florida East Coast Hotel Company, which included The Breakers Hotel.
In 1901, Mr. Flagler married Mr. Kenan’s sister, Mary Lily, and, in 1904, Mr. Kenan was married to Alice Pomroy of Lockport, whom he had first met in Mr. Flagler’s home. The fusion of business and family interests between the Kenans and the Flaglers ultimately resulted in the inheritance by Mr. Kenan and his two surviving sisters of the major portion of the Flagler estate, which included ownership of the Flagler System companies. From 1924 to the time of his death, Mr. Kenan was president and managed the companies during their active corporate existence. In Lockport, where he made his home, Mr. Kenan owned the Western Block Company, which became the largest maker of block and tackle in the country. He also owned and developed the Randleigh Farm, a model dairy farm for research with Jersey cattle. His extensive research was published as a six-volume text book titled History of Randleigh Farm, Lockport, New York in 1947. Mr. Kenan’s memoirs, Incidents by the Way, was also published between 1946 and 1958.
In his later years, Mr. Kenan’s interest and activities turned more and more to philanthropy and his desire to commemorate the Kenan name. In 1926, he provided funds for the erection of Kenan Stadium on the Chapel Hill campus of the University of North Carolina. In 1944, the University conferred the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws in recognition of Mr. Kenan’s diversified contributions to science and humanity.
Following his death on July 28, 1965, a significant part of Mr. Kenan’s estate became the William R. Kenan, Jr. Charitable Trust, a part charitable and part noncharitable perpetual trust.
Mr. Kenan also gave generously to the city that served as his home for more than sixty years, including gifts totaling some three million dollars to schools, churches, hospitals and community organizations. He was founder and chief benefactor of Camp Kenan on the shores on Lake Ontario, and, prior to his death, deeded his home and property to the First Presbyterian church for development as a community center. [Excerpted from Report of the Trustees, December 31, 1990, William R. Kenan, Jr. Charitable Trust]
For more on the legacy of William Rand Kenan, Jr. and his connection to Henry Flagler, visit these websites:
Kenan Center Beginnings
n the summer of 1963, Mr. Kenan instructed his close friend and secretary, Schuyler Beattie, to consult with Dr. Westhafer of the First Presbyterian Church, to determine the church’s interest in using the acreage surrounding his home. A study committee suggested several uses for the acreage including the idea of a community center. Mr. Kenan was so pleased with the church’s desire to provide a service to the entire community that he made a gift of $472,00 with the understanding that the congregation would raise an additional $100,000 to erect an all-purpose community facility. Unfortunately, Mr. Kenan died in 1965 and did not live to see the Center become a reality.
Acting on the concern of Mr. Kenan and the church for operating funds to maintain the Center, the trustees of the Kenan estate made an additional gift of $500,000 to be used as a permanent endowment. In 1967, the management and direction of the Kenan Center was turned over to a duly-elected and non-denominational Board of Governors.
The original structures on the property–the Kenan mansion and carriage houses–were supplemented by the construction of a recreational arena, completed in 1968, which included a skating rink that operated until 1986. Today, the arena is home to one of the largest indoor youth soccer programs in Western New York, as well as other youth and adult sports programs, Revolution Training & Fitness Center, and a multi-use 5,800 square foot “Annex.” It is also the site of many Kenan Center events such as 100 American Craftsmen, the Niagara Wine & Beer Tasting Fest, the Kenan Quilters’ Guild biennial quilt show, as well as community events and sporting competitions.
Art exhibits became a mainstay of the Kenan Center in 1966 with an initial exhibition of works by Charles Burchfield, an outstanding American colorist. Several rooms of the Kenan mansion, which serve as the Kenan Center House Gallery, provide exhibit space for an average of nine shows each year, featuring local and regional artists, many of whom have gained national and international acclaim for their work.
The campus also includes the 153-seat Taylor Theater, a restored and converted carriage house, which opened in 1969, and the Education Building, formally known as the craft barn, which now serves as the Kenan Center Montesorri Preschool.
Timeline of Key Dates in Kenan Center History
- 1966 First art exhibit featuring work of Charles Burchfield
- 1967 Board of Governors established; Arena groundbreaking
- 1969 Dedication of Taylor Theater and Kenan Arena
- 1970 Women’s Arts Council formed (now called the Kenan Arts Council)
- 1970 First 100 American Craftsmen festival
- 1976 10th Anniversary-Olympic gold medalist Bruce Jenner speaks
- 1984 First Quilt exhibit; Four Seasons Players begin residency
- 1985 Kenan House featured as Junior Service League Showhouse
- 1986 Ice skating ends at Arena
- 1988 Preschool moves to former “craft barn”; first national art exhibit with the Niagara Frontier Watercolor Society
- 1996 Kenan Showhouse Revisited
- 1997 Dedication of Taylor Theater Meeting Room
- 1999 Family Performance Series Introduced
- 2003 Articulations On-School-Time Program (through 2010)
- 2003 Shakespeare Lives Buffalo Niagara with Globe Theatre, London (through 2006)
- 2007 Kenan Center 40th Anniversary
- 2009 Music Arts Program (through 2012)
- 2010 Opening of renovated Arena Annex
- 2017 Kenan Center 50th Anniversary