Lyman Hall was formerly Lyman Gymnasium, named for Daniel W. Lyman 1865, who bequeathed the University $50,000 in 1887 for a building which was to be named for him. For a long time students had wanted a gymnasium. The subject was often brought up in the pages of the Brunonian, and King’s Pocket-book of Providence, R.I. in 1882 went so far as to list among its descriptions of existing buildings of Brown University:
“Gymnasium: The university greatly needs a gymnasium of its own. At present the students have access to a gymnasium-hall at reduced rates.”Lyman’s bequest with other contributions was sufficient to cover the $66,000 cost of building and equipping the gymnasium, which was completed in November 1891. The opening celebration was the Gym Ball held on December 2, 1891, amid lavish decorations consisting of potted plants, and appropriate items such as fencing foils and boxing gloves arrayed on the rail around the running track. During the second term of 1891-92 physical education was required of all students four times a week. A batting cage and bowling alleys were installed in the basement, along with a space reserved for the future installation of a swimming tank. In 1901 the space cut for the tank, about sixty yards in length, was surrounded by a new running track, banked at the corners, for the track team. In 1913 the basement area was floored over for track practice, and a small room in the southwest corner of the basement was equipped as a wrestling room. In 1924 the increasing space problem of Lyman Gym was partially alleviated by installing a boxing room in Rogers Hall with a temporary passage from the gymnasium to Rogers Hall built over the new heating plant. In 1928 a new gymnasium took the place of Lyman Gym, which continued to be used for handball and basketball.
In 1946, since all sports activities were centered at Marvel Gymnasium, the name of the building was changed from Lyman Gymnasium to Lyman Hall, and the Department of Naval Science moved in from its former quarters in Maxcy Hall. In 1972, when Lyman Hall was vacated by the ROTC, a team from the architectural firm of Sasaki, Dawson, DeMay Associates of Watertown, Massachusetts, recommended that the building be renovated for an experimental theatre and that the adjoining Colgate Hoyt Pool be made into a dance studio. Another part of the recommendation was that South Hall, purchased from Bryant College in 1969, be renovated for the use of the Music Department. In 1973 the Kresge Foundation offered a two-for-one challenge grant of $900,000 to match $1,800,000 to be raised by the University. Marion Wolk, coordinator of the arts at Brown, organized the national committee for the performing arts fund, which under the leadership of Isabelle Russek Leeds, University trustee, met the goal in 1976. Leslie Armstrong ’62 drew up plans based on the design of Sasaki, Dawson, DeMay, and construction was begun in 1977. The theatre was designed to seat an audience of 140 or 200, depending on the use of either a three-quarter-round or fully round arrangement. On April 21, 1979, both the Isabelle Russek Leeds Theatre, a gift of Mrs. Leeds and her family, and the Ashamu Dance Studio, a gift of Chief and Mrs. E.O. Ashamu of Nigeria, were dedicated. Children of both donors, Amy Leeds 1974 and Samson Ashamu 1979, had studied at Brown. The accompanying performances, workshops, and recitals went on for a week, and included a performance of “The Master,” a play written by Professor James Schevill, directed by Professor John Emigh, and performed by Professor James O. Barnhill and Julia Roig 1980, a lecture by John Ford Noonan, a theatre arts workshop with Richard Foreman 1959, and the first class held in the new theatre, which was taught by Robert Bailey 1970. At the dedication exercises for the theatre, the creation of the James O. Barnhill Theatre Fund was announced, and four students in togas and ivy, proclaimed, “We invoke they name, oh Muses, with gifts of ivy. Bless us this day, Dionysus, and smile upon us.”