Kenan Laboratory was completed in 1971 as laboratory and office space for the Department of Chemistry. It was funded by legislative appropriation and named in honor of William Rand Kenan Jr., UNC class of 1894. As a student Kenan assisted in experiments that helped identify calcium carbide and acetylene, work that helped lead to the development of the Union Carbide Company. Kenan worked on the development of acetylene production and later became business partners with oil executive Henry Morrison Flagler. Kenan supported many projects at UNC, most notably the football stadium, which he asked to be named in memory of his parents.
When it opened, Kenan Laboratory was the largest example yet of "modern architecture" on a campus that had largely built in the colonial revival style. Its gray concrete utilitarian appearance struck many people as ugly, although it and the later-built Morehead Laboratory are now considered valuable examples of midcentury modern architecture.