The Real Kent State Massacre Memorial


With the lack of any legitimate memorial to the Kent State massacre, we look to an unintentional memorial, one vast structure built at the same time, by the same man who caused the massacre. 

Author: Taylor Dorrell
Date: May 4, 2022

Ohio History Center, 2021. (Taylor Dorrell)

    In 1970, anti-war uprisings at Kent State invoked Ohio Governor Jim Rhodes to go against the advice of the town and university leadership to call in the Ohio National Guard. He referred to the protesting students as “worse than the Brown Shirt [Nazi] and communist element,” saying they’re “the worst type of people that we harbor in America.” His intolerance for dissent was well-known across campuses and the labor movement. In fact, the National Guard troops at Kent State were exhausted from terrorizing a Teamsters strike in northern Ohio. Rhodes was also running for the senate at the time, accusing his opponent, Robert Taft Jr., of having a “soft attitude on campus violence.” Rhodes had to live up to his reputation.

Teenager Mary Vecchio kneels over Kent State University student Jeffrey Miller (1950 - 1970) who had been shot during an anti-war demonstration on the university campus, Kent, Ohio, May 4, 1970. (John Filo/Getty Images)

    Around noon on May 4, large groups of students were gathered in the university’s Commons area for an antiwar rally. These rallies were an escalation sparked by Nixon’s announcement on April 30 that he was ordering troops and bombers to Cambodia. The fatigued National Guard sporadically opened fire on the crowd, killing four and wounding nine. All were Kent State students peacefully participating more than 200 feet from the soldiers, two were 19 years old and two were 20. The next day, Rhodes lost the election to Taft.

    Since the massacre, temporary memorials and events have been held throughout the years. An inscription was added to a piece of already existing land art, commemorations took place annually, and a tent city was set up for 60 days to resist the building of a gym over the site of the massacre. Multiple memorials were planned and canceled or vastly scaled back, leaving a very minuscule presence of remembrance of that day on Kent State’s campus, only a series of stones next to a parking lot remain.


Ohio History Center, 1970s. (Ohio History Center archives)

    Just three months after the massacre, Gov. Jim Rhodes opened the new Ohio History Center, a giant brutalist block whose museum is contained underground like a military bunker. It was one of many of Governor Jim Rhodes’ publicly funded projects that he felt personally responsible for. “Governor James A. Rhodes saw the need in 1964 for a modern central state historical facility to focus on Ohio’s past,” a news release said. He was also “instrumental” in securing the $10 million in state bonds for the project. By all means, it was Rhodes’ child. And for the first few decades, it was free to all. There were no tickets or turnstiles, the dozens of doors stood unmanned, bringing in anywhere between 400 and 4,000 visitors a day.

    For the time, the architecture was considered futuristic. The Columbus architect W. Byron Ireland designed the building, often described at the time as a “sandwich” because the museum was at the floor level, appearing underground, and the archives floated above a kind of no-man’s-land. The content of the building exists solely in its most hidden and protected parts, the floor level museum, which is more of a basement, and the windowless attic, which safely protects the archives. Constructed with 193 miles of steel cables and an unprecedented amount of concrete, skeptics actually prophesied the collapse of the building. In fact, the construction workers made bets on whether it would fall when the braces were taken off. But the building still stands strong today, although its doors remain locked, now costing $13 to enter the often empty structure.

    While it was intended to be a futuristic building, it is also an honest one. Other than modern, it is intimidating, authoritarian, overbearing. Its vast, menacing presence is not dissimilar to a war memorial. The building perfectly represents the politics of the time – when a conservative governor would invest in infrastructure projects like paying for the construction of colleges across the state while leaving the institutions financially abandoned and at the same time violently suppressing any resistance movements. It is a standing contradiction, but this does not fracture its foundation, because the contradictions are built into it. It is both a futuristic aspiration and a dictatorial materiality.


Ohio History Center, 2021. (Taylor Dorrell)

The connection between Governor Rhodes and architecture can’t be stressed enough. While many of the projects might’ve been the equivalent of political bribes, he nonetheless shaped much of the landscape we currently interact with on a daily basis. He built parks, highways, Cleveland State University, and Wright State. He built municipal universities in Youngstown, Akron, Toledo, and Cincinnati. His focus was less on the funding of education, which universities desperately needed, but on the physical infrastructure. This large array of buildings that sprawl across the state can’t be detached from the ideological and political climate of Rhodes and the times.

The Ohio History Center is a perfect example of how complex politics can be exposed through architecture, how an impressive center for community and history nonetheless feels atmospherically chilling. Its opening by Rhodes soon after the Kent State massacre ties the building to the event, the two should of course be examined separately in their nuances, but also linked together in their broader political totality. Rhodes’ politics have to be put into a wider context, one where Nixon was bombing civilians abroad, brutally supressing opposition at home, and facing an uncertain political future. The Kent State massacre took place in a similar microcosm in the state of Ohio under Rhodes. The event was a product of these tyrannical times, the state violence, the resistance. It was also the product of a decision from a single man. And so too was the Ohio History Center. Its bunker-like architecture and secluded location exposed Rhodes’ insecurity about his buildings being damaged by protests. Afterall, it was the burning down of the ROTC building at Kent State that drew him to action. That’s why, to me, the lack of a legitimate memorial for the Kent State massacre leaves us with nothing but the Ohio History Center: an unconscious memorial built by the same man who instigated the massacre.

Gov. Jim Rhodes (left) is show OHC model by architect Byron Ireland (right). (Ohio History Center archives)


Ohio History Center, 2021. (Taylor Dorrell)