In the early 1990s, then University of Georgia Vice President for External Affairs Dr. Don Eastman saw a need for a student-staffed visitors center similar to the one at Cornell University, where he had worked previously. Eastman was not receiving much support for this cause until early 1995 when then UGA president Dr. Charles Knapp received information that there could be as many as 100,000 visitors on campus each day during the 1996 Summer Olympic Games as Athens was host to three events. With Dr. Knapp’s commitment, things began to move swiftly.
UGA officials began researching collegiate visitor services programs around the country on their own and through the assistance of the Collegiate Information and Visitor Services Association. University architects determined that the old dairy barn (renamed the Four Towers Building) on the new East Campus would be the ideal spot for a visitors center because of its location near the Athens Bypass. Construction began in November 1995 converting the barn into what would become the UGA Visitors Center in June 1996.
In the meantime, a two-person staff led by newly named director Fran Lane began developing the visitor services program with the charge to collect and provide accurate information about the institution, to aid visitors in accomplishing the purpose of their visit to campus, and to host a campus tour that would cover the entire campus. Up until this point, the Office of Undergraduate Admissions had been leading a tour of North Campus only. In early fall 1995, the first student staff was selected and began training. The program shared office space with the Alumni Association receptionist in the Alumni House, which was located on the site the Rankin M. Smith, Sr., Student-Athlete Academic Center now occupies next to Stegeman Coliseum. Starting out with a single 15-passenger van, the visitor services program did not require reservations. However, it did not take long to determine that reservations were a necessity and that one van would not get the job done.
With another new vehicle and a charge to “greet the world,” the program moved into the new Visitors Center in the Four Towers Building by the target date of June 1996. “We thought that summer would give us the most visitors we would ever have at the Visitors Center, but life has only gotten richer and fuller at the center since then,” Lane said. Lane would lead the center through its first decade and remain at the helm of the center until she retired in 2007. Eric Johnson succeeded Lane as Director of the Visitors Center after working in UGA’s undergraduate admissions office for 15 years, including 13 years as Director of New Student Orientation.
Four Towers Building
The Four Towers Barn was completed in 1937 as one of the smaller campus construction projects funded by the federal government before the United States entered World War II. Eventually, the central section of the building was converted to office space for the College of Agriculture. Leading up to the start of the 1996 Centennial Olympic Games, the southern third of the building was converted into space for the university’s Visitors Center. In 1998, the northern third of the building was transformed into an activity center for the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.