The building that now houses the University Art Gallery was constructed for a completely different purpose. The structure, located on the corner of Preston and Franklin Streets, cost $130,000, and was built in 1961 based on a design by architect Roger Allen of Grand Rapids. Allen's distinctive A-frame design lent a unique look to the building, which inspired an architecture-themed edition of the CMU yearbook in 1962. The building was financed by donations from friends and alumni of the school and through the University reserve fund.
When opened in 1961, the building served as the campus Religious Center. The building's name resulted from input by a group of members from each campus religious organization, who insisted that the building be more universal in name and function than a simple "chapel." In its first year of existence, 5,390 people and organizations used the Religious Center for meetings, including the Chippewa Christian Fellowship, the Wesley Foundation, Gamma Delta, and the Interfaith Council. That first year also saw eleven weddings, a baptism, and four separate ministers' conferences.
Although the Religious Center remained a space used by religious students and faculty, nonreligious meetings and events held in the building became increasingly common during the 1970s and 1980s. More and more, the building was seen as part of the University Center rather than the chapel-like structure devoted exclusively to religious activity. In November 1983, then-President Harold Abel made an informal decision to rename the Religious Center the UC Annex. Although religious meetings and worship ceremonies continued to be held there, the UC Annex served a wider role for the University.
In 1989, University administrators proposed another transition for the building. With the opening of the IET building and the ensuing departmental restructuring, the Department of Art was relocated to Wightman Hall as part of the Wightman Renovation Project, which also included plans to convert the UC Annex to an art gallery. Although the Annex was not originally designed with this purpose in mind, Wightman Hall simply did not have enough room to house the gallery along with the Department of Art itself, and repurposing the UC Annex building seemed to be an adequate solution.
Reaction to the decision surprised University administrators. Local religious leaders argued that the campus needed a religious center for the spiritual health of its students. Others noted that since the original building was constructed with donated funds, its original purpose should remain. Still others argued that while there were only nine religious organizations on campus when the Center was built, by the late 1980s, there were over twenty, and CMU should be adding space for religious worship and discussion, not taking it away. A petition was created that collected over 3,000 signatures asking the administration to change the UC Annex back to its original purpose as the Religious Center. Administrators refused to change their position, although they did install meditation rooms in both Pearce Hall and the University Center.
While some on campus fought against changing the UC Annex into an art gallery, the repurposing of the UC Annex represented an important evolution in the history the University Art Gallery itself. It gave the gallery its first permanent home in the twenty years it had been in existence. The gallery first evolved in Pearce Hall, but subsequently migrated to Ronan Hall, the basement of the Woldt/Emmons Residence Hall Complex, and the South Art Studio. The administration looked to the UC Annex to be the permanent home for the University Art Gallery.
The gallery officially opened in its new location in January 1990. The opening exhibit featured artwork by Department of Art staff and faculty, including sculptures of stone, clay, and wood. Eight hundred people visited the new gallery in less than two weeks after the opening, doubling its usual attendance. The building's location at the center of campus made it a popular spot for interested students or even for those simply passing by. Its proximity to Wightman Hall also made it a convenient location for the Department of Art to house its studio.