In the summer of 1874, Cornell’s Board of Trustees decided a chapel was needed for the quickly-growing college. The idea was proposed by Rev. E. K. Young, a local Methodist pastor and Cornell alumnus, and the Board quickly approved. They hired Cass Chapman, a Chicago-based architect, to design a “Chapel Building of such dimensions and character as shall meet the manifest wants of the college,” and formed a committee. President King, returning from leave in Europe, was dismayed to discover elaborate plans for the building, but no funds for construction. Thus began what President King would later describe as a “long and agonizing struggle” to erect the Chapel.
In 1875, King began fundraising, having persuaded the trustees to hold off on the groundbreaking until $15,000 was raised. Within a year, the money was raised, and construction commenced on the building. The cornerstone was laid June 22, 1876, amid much fanfare and celebration. However, the effects of the Panic of 1873, which sank the country into a depression that would last six years, began to be felt in Iowa. Enrollment began to drop, donations by alumni became more infrequent, and by 1877 Cornell’s endowment had dwindled from $88,000 to $10,000. Two-thirds of the building was completed but the worsening state of the U.S. economy caused pledges to slow to a crawl. The building’s contractors went bankrupt, and day laborers were brought in to finish the job.
The basement and ground floor of the Chapel were completed by the commencement of 1877, and the college’s library and museum were moved into the building and daily chapel services began. At this time, however, the college’s treasury was already overdrawn by more than $18,000. Continued construction of the building required great sacrifice by faculty and staff. Professors' salaries were cut by 20% and President King's salary was reduced by 40%. These cuts, along with the economy’s slow improvement, allowed construction to resume by 1880, and at 10:30 am on June 25, 1882 the Chapel was officially dedicated. Hundreds of former students and faculty journeyed to Mount Vernon for the commencement, including College founder George Bowman, who came all the way from California. Once completed, the Chapel’s transept measured 80 by 55 feet, while it was 150 by 54 feet at the nave.
On April 17, 1882, Cornell College’s Board of Trustees resolved to purchase a $1,050 No. 17 Seth Thomas Clock for the new chapel’s tower. This clock, sometimes referred to as “Old Seth,” arrived on campus shortly after this and has been a fixture of King Chapel ever since. The clocktower was also given four bells, the largest of which was 2,000 pounds, though one of them was later moved to College Hall. In 1959, the Seth Thomas clock received a new 23 carat gold facelift, to protect the older decaying one.
The Chapel has undergone many renovations, although the exterior has remained largely unchanged. The first of these renovations refurbished and permanently partitioned the ground floor of the Chapel, and also included the installation of a new organ. The renovations of 1947, 1952 and 1959 were somewhat smaller in scale, involving the installations of new light fixtures in the auditorium in 1947 and the re-plastering and painting of the auditorium’s walls in 1952. In 1905, the library was moved into the Carnegie Library (Norton Geology), and the museum objects were boxed up and put into storage. The ground floor was used for class and student meetings until the renovations of 1967, when it was turned into a music practice room.
In 1940, the Chapel was rededicated as the William Fletcher King Memorial Chapel, in honor of President King’s efforts to erect it. In 1976, the building was named to the National Register of Historic Places, coinciding with the Chapel's 100th anniversary. Throughout the years, the Chapel has been home to campus events, community events, and more. It is the only chapel in Iowa not affiliated with any church, and has been host to both secular and nonsecular events. King Chapel was home to the May Music Festival for 100 years, and hosted Chicago Symphony Orchestra performances annually over six decades. Today, King Chapel resonates with the college’s music ensembles, and is a venue for weddings, important campus events and speakers. It is a landmark for visitors to Mount Vernon, who can see the clock tower for miles around.