Tom Harper: Impending demolition of KU’s Facilities building is a betrayal to historic district (Column)

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Many Lawrencians appreciate the early vernacular stone buildings in our city. The textures, shapes, patina of each stone, millions of years old, were cut and laid by stonemasons long ago, and they bring wonder. If you look closely, there are often creatures and plant life forever embedded in the stone. Stone buildings often have an air of permanency. 

Recently, I was informed the Facilities Administration Building at 1503 Sunflower Road on the south side of campus will be demolished. It is easily overlooked where it sits, west of the KU Steam Plant and south of Stauffer Flint Hall where the KU School of Journalism resides. 

The building has a presence. Made of beautiful local limestone and constructed around 1906, it has classical columns with modest ornamentation. The columns are similar to those on Stauffer Flint Hall. There have been several additions over the years, including a brick building likely constructed in the 1920s to the south. 

Tom Harper / Lawrence Times

Karl Ramberg, a local stonemason, said the white stone around the windows is the same stone on the Douglas County Courthouse and the Statehouse in Topeka. And Karl Gridley, a local historian, described the building as the “KU workshop facilities and operations building.” It was where the workers and tradesmen would gather in the mornings to take care of the numerous buildings on campus. It was the shop; the heart of the maintenance team.

In 2013, the University of Kansas’ Lawrence campus was recognized with the creation of a historic district. The facilities building is within the district

In an article from the university announcing the new district, then-Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little said, “The beauty of our campus doesn’t come from any one building or place, but rather from the whole environment that has been created on Mount Oread. This district will help us preserve that environment so future Jayhawks may enjoy the same beautiful, historic campus as their predecessors.”

But six years later, the Board of Regents approved the building’s demolition.

“The building was vacated in 2018 due to the general overall condition of the building and numerous code issues that are not feasible to resolve,” according to KU’s November 2019 request to KBOR, which estimated that demolition would cost $566,000. 

State Historic Officer Jennie Chinn addressed a letter to University of Kansas Architect James E. Modig on Dec. 23, 2020. The letter cited the nomination form for the national register of historic places, which stated, “This building retains integrity and contributes to the architectural and functional character of the District.” 

The letter added, “At this point, the project to demolish the building cannot proceed.”


Ramberg expressed dismay, sadness and frustration regarding the demolition. 

“It’s such a wonderful part of the campus as you walk up from the south side. You don’t find this level of craftsmanship in new buildings anymore,” he said, adding, “This building goes back to the very beginnings of the university. If we are to have stone buildings in our culture, we must preserve the ones we have because there will never be new ones built.” 

Tom Harper / Lawrence Times

Today, the historic district and the former chancellor’s words seem to have no meaning as it relates to the future of this building.

The decision to demolish is shortsighted by KU and the Board of Regents. There seems to be a pattern developing that is changing the landscape of KU. Oldfather Studios and Oliver Hall are recent examples of demolition by neglect and shifting priorities.

The building appears solid and strong. No doubt there are significant expenses involved in making it a safe and functional building. With equal certainty, its life could be extended if it was a priority. Why not shutter the building for the time period, make sure the roof is in good order and renovate when times are better? It is commonplace for historic buildings to be renovated and repurposed, even with modern additions.

As Chinn wrote in the letter to Modig: “Our recommendation is to mothball the building in accordance with the National Park Service Preservation Brief 31 until a future alternative use can be found.”

As the $21 million KU Welcome Center nears completion and a historic building is slated for demolition at a cost of $566,000, KU’s priorities are communicated clearly to our community. A suggestion for KU to consider: Any new building on campus funded with private money should be taxed for the preservation of older buildings on campus. It would be a package deal. If you want a new building, you must preserve the old ones, also.

Since this went under my radar, I assume others in our community are also unaware. At the very least, people should be made aware of the demolition and acknowledge the building’s legacy, beauty and how integral it was to the stewardship of all the other buildings on campus for so many years. 

Tom Harper / Lawrence Times

At the present writing, it is unclear who OK’d the demolition. Concerned citizens and historic preservationists say they have reached out to Gov. Laura Kelly’s office, KU Chancellor Douglas Girod, and the State Historic Office to seek clarification on who is responsible for the plans to proceed with demolition despite Chinn’s letter. 

It might not be too late to save this building.

However, if it is too late, please consider visiting the building. Parking is plentiful now that school is out. Walk around the building, observe the perfectly laid stone, columns and ornamentation. Appreciate how the building is woven into the fabric of the south side of Mount Oread and why it was deemed a contributing structure to the historic district. 

Jayhawks and the Lawrence community deserve better decision-making from KU’s leadership as it relates to historic preservation on Mount Oread. 

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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