Advertisement

Tom Harper: Demolition underway at Oldfather Studios; buildings preserve our shared history (Column)

Note: The Lawrence Times runs opinion columns and letters to the Times written by community members with varying perspectives on local issues. These pieces do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Times staff.

Want to submit a letter or column to the Times? Great! Click here.

Documentary will preserve film company’s legacy

The demolition of Oldfather Studios began Friday, and in a few days, it will be complete. 

The brick, windows, twisted steel, rafters, concrete blocks, modern stairway, chalk boards, filing cabinets, toilets and other items deemed expendable will soon be hauled off to the dump. One of the most significant material losses, which took millions of years to create, is the pitched face ashlar cottonwood limestone on the front elevation. 

Friday night, walking around the site at 1621 W. Ninth St., I thought about how buildings help us remember our shared history and how important they are to preserve. This building was unique due to the number of people who spent hours in study, experimentation and work in their field, in addition to its interesting midcentury architectural design.

I’ve always appreciated the front elevation of the building. It had a strong horizontality with a modern twist. The architect added a monumental protruding limestone chimney. Interestingly, there was never a fireplace for the chimney — only a small incinerator in the basement for burning trash! 

Tom Harper / The Lawrence Times The front of Oldfather Studios, featuring the pitched face ashlar cottonwood limestone on the front elevation, was still intact amid demolition on Oct. 1, 2021.

Masonry construction and use of floor-to-ceiling glass in the entrance communicated modernity and importance during an era of new design concepts and materials for commercial and residential construction.

It is unfortunate the building was not adequately cared for in recent years. The lack of maintenance is what created the circumstances for a developer to purchase and demolish.

Centron Corporation, the original owner of the building, was founded by Arthur Wolf and Russell Mosser in 1947 in Lawrence. In 1955, when Centron built its new studio at Ninth and Avalon, the cost of the building was a whopping $75,000. 

An invitation to the open house conveys the sense of excitement and importance: “Literally thousands of Lawrence’s people have appeared in Centron Productions that have been seen by millions in many parts of the world. New Centron has moved into its new home, a building designed from the ground up for the production of color motion pictures for industry, education and television. The building is one of the most unique in the industry and it is in large part due to the help and encouragement of the people of Lawrence that we were able to build it.”

Centron produced a myriad of films in the building from 1955 until 1984. The Centron building became known as Oldfather Studios when Charles and Tensie Oldfather donated the funds for the University of Kansas to purchase the building in 1991. 

For 26 years, KU’s Film and Media Studies used the building to teach students the art of filmmaking. Many students created a foundation to launch their professional careers at Oldfather Studios. In 2017, the program moved out of the building, and it has remained vacant since. 

A development group led by Doug Compton purchased the property from KU in August 2020. The group plans to build a 117-bedroom apartment building on the site. The building will be 52,000 square feet with 49 apartments. There will be underground parking.

There is reason to be hopeful, though. A documentary about Centron is underway, led by Elle Schneider and a team of people who have worked and studied in Oldfather Studios. It will be called “Why Study Industrial Film? A Story of Centron Corporation.” Schneider states, “While the building will soon be gone, Centron’s legacy will live on in Lawrence through the community it reflected in its films, and our documentary project.” 

It seems fitting with the demise of the Centron building/Oldfather Studios that there are people working to keep the legacies of Arthur Wolf, Russell Mosser and KU’s Film and Media Studies alive through film. 

Stay tuned for more information about this exciting project at The Lawrence Times and follow the project on Instagram, @centronfilm

Tom Harper / The Lawrence Times Demolition has begun at Oldfather Studios, Oct. 1, 2021.
Tom Harper / The Lawrence Times The front of Oldfather Studios, featuring the pitched face ashlar cottonwood limestone on the front elevation, was still intact amid demolition on Oct. 1, 2021.
About the writer
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.

More on Oldfather Studios

Tom Harper: Demolition underway at Oldfather Studios; buildings preserve our shared history (Column)

Demolition is underway at Oldfather Studios at Ninth and Avalon in Lawrence. “This building was unique due to the number of people who spent hours in study, experimentation and work in their field, in addition to its interesting midcentury architectural design,” Tom Harper writes in this piece.

Tell a friend
Click here to find out how to send a letter to the Times
Tell a friend
Advertisement
Previous Article

Photos: Women march in Lawrence for reproductive rights

Next Article

Meet the Lawrence school board candidates