Tom Harper: Painting Naismith Hall is a mistake (Column)

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During the pandemic, I have been exercising more and observing our built environment keenly from the ground. Regularly jogging by Naismith Hall on the edge of the University of Kansas campus has given me the opportunity to appreciate the design of the dormitory, which is unique because it is privately owned. Often, I would stop and take photographs when the sun was illuminating the building in the morning or evening, casting shadows in delightful ways. 

On one recent run, as I was coming downhill from Mount Oread, I glanced south at Naismith Hall — and noticed a vertical swath of gray paint on the building’s northeast corner. Shocked and dismayed, I approached a Sherwin-Williams representative in the parking lot. At first he thought I was excited to see the change, “Isn’t it great?” he said. “We are also going to paint the bricks between the windows black.” 

But as I expressed my negative thoughts on the new paint, he quickly understood my dismay. His explanation: “This is what the property owner asked us to do.” 

Painting the exterior of Naismith Hall is a shortsighted decision that will forever change the building’s character and historic relevance. The play of light and shadow on the relief of the natural clay brick will be lost when it is painted gray and black. Painting the brick is a permanent alteration, and it should have been more carefully considered for financial as well as aesthetic reasons. This alteration is based on the ever-changing preferences and current design fad of painting buildings grey, black and white. In 10 years, the color combination will be something else.

But now, the new paint job disrespects Naismith Hall’s history and design.

The Hall’s history

Located at 1800 Naismith Drive on the corner of 19th and Naismith, Naismith Hall is one of the first buildings you encounter at that entrance to KU. The 10-story, 120,000 square foot building resides on a 2.8-acre lot. It has 252 rooms and can house up to 504 students. Its size and scale is a dramatic contrast to the adjacent residential neighborhood of Centennial.

On November 18, 1964, the Lawrence Daily Journal World published a rendering of the proposed dormitory. It’s a beautiful image showing a tall, sleek modernistic building. The caption states: “The dormitory, with 252 rooms and off-street parking facilities, would be built by a large insurance company and Allen Bros. and O’Hara of Memphis, Tennessee. The project would be carried on the local tax rolls and would be the largest privately financed housing project in Lawrence history.” The building cost $2.5 million to put up in 1966.

The builders saw an opportunity to compete with KU’s dormitories. Naismith Hall would meet the housing needs of KU students in a luxurious fashion with wall-to-wall carpet and a swimming pool. Located near the booming new commercial district at 23rd and Iowa streets, it was sure to be a success. The famous real estate axiom comes to mind: location, location, location. 

Over the years. Naismith Hall has changed hands several times. In 2002, it was sold for $7.9 million, and in 2012 it was purchased by Bromley Companies, a national real estate firm, for $7.1 million. This past February, Bromley sold Naismith to a company called Emmett Group for $13.5 million. The building currently is managed by Cardinal Management Co.

In recent years, Naismith Hall has been nowhere near its full occupancy. There was deferred maintenance inside and out. Last year, when COVID-19 came on the scene, KU leased the building from Bromley, the former owner, with the intent of using it for quarantining students with COVID. KU also created a drive-thru testing facility in the parking lot.

Appreciating Naismith

I respect this iconic, modernist building. The design is remarkable in its precision, natural color and symmetrical patterns. The placement of the windows and repetition of the brick between the windows is pleasing to the eye. The front entrance on Naismith is a simple block pattern that seems to communicate that the building is emerging from the era of sleek midcentury design into the bolder patterns of 1970’s design. It is a building transitioning between design eras.

I appreciate the countless designs that skilled masons created, coupled with the natural and varied patina of brick. I also value the different patterns masons created with the brick. The use of mortar, the mixture between the bricks, can also add an interesting design element to buildings. Today, brick is a costly building material that is not used as much as it was in the past. It’s a precious material.

Property owners have the freedom to adorn and change their properties. We renovate buildings for many reasons. Investors often alter buildings to make them more appealing, in the hope of generating more income from them. But sometimes property owners make decisions based on shortsighted goals, poor advice or relying on passing trends that can cause irreversible damage to potentially historic buildings. 

The consequences of paint

Such is the case with the newly gray and black Naismith Hall. The current developer/owner has committed to the expense of thousands of gallons of paint and future maintenance expenses for subsequent owners. The new paint  is most likely too costly to remove without damaging the brick and will present an ongoing maintenance challenge. It will need to be painted periodically for the rest of its life. The once rich texture of the natural clay brick with varied patterns will now be flat, devoid of the interplay of light and shadow.

Instead of following the color marketing trends that supposedly appeal to today’s students, there was an alternative that Emmett Group could have taken: to hire an architecture firm that was sensitive to the building’s original design while making the necessary changes to make the building marketable to a new era of KU students. The building’s owner also may have passed up the chance for some financial benefits of preserving the historic design.

Robert McLaughlin, an architect and perseveration specialist with the Kansas State Historic Society and co-founder of KC Modern, says: “Being over 50 years old, the building was likely eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, which would have qualified the owner for a combined state and federal 45 percent tax credit on rehabilitation costs for this property. By painting the building, the developer destroyed the building’s historic integrity and prevented it from ever being added to the State or National Register of Historic Places, throwing away nearly half their renovation budget.”

All buildings have stories. Naimith Hall has 10 stories and they could tell countless tales of lives lived while attending KU over the dorm’s 55 years of existence. Next time you drive by Naismith Hall, I hope you will appreciate its story, the history and design. Unfortunately, the new owner has changed its appearance forever in an effort to “update” it and make it appealing to students for a small window of time. 

For those of us who live in Lawrence and care about midcentury architecture, we will bear witness to how time and the elements take their toll on the building. There is a phrase that comes to mind in this situation: First do no harm. From a preservationist’s point of view, painting Naismith Hall has caused harm.

Tom Harper / Contributed Photo Naismith Hall

About the writer

Tom Harper is a Realtor at Stephens Real Estate helping people in Lawrence and Douglas County buy and sell real estate. He is the founder of Lawrence Modern, a group whose mission is to raise awareness of midcentury and modern architecture. You will find him posting frequently on Instagram under @lawrencemodern, sharing his daily observations of his favorite place on earth: Lawrence, Kansas. Read more of Tom’s writing for The Lawrence Times here.

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