Tom Harper: Smith Hall is an architectural and artistic landmark worth saving (Column)

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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.

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Irma I. Smith Hall can’t speak for itself. But as it possibly faces the wrecking ball, we seek to share its history and relevance as a significant, intact example of midcentury modern architecture.

The University of Kansas administration is expected to seek permission from the Kansas Board of Regents to demolish the 55-year-old building — the home of the Department of Religious Studies, located on the prominent northeast entrance of 13th Street and Oread Avenue. KU has no stated plans for the site. It plans on relocating faculty and staff to another location. 

Lawrence Modern, Lawrence Preservation Alliance and Historic Mount Oread Friends are leading an initiative to save Smith Hall. We welcome others who share our passion, vision and hope.

There will be an open house from 2 to 4 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 3, with a presentation about the building’s architecture and history at 3 p.m. at Smith Hall, 1300 Jayhawk Blvd. All are welcome.

Our hope is to raise awareness with the KU administration, the Board of Regents and the Lawrence community, so alternatives to demolition can be discussed and implemented. We believe Smith Hall could be eligible for the Lawrence, State and National Historic Registers of Historic Places. Spending money to address the deferred maintenance on the building and finding a new use for it are an appropriate course of action, we believe.

Tom Harper/Lawrence Times Smith Hall

A campus landmark

Smith Hall is familiar to many because of Elden Tefft’s graceful bronze statue of Moses out front overseen by a masterful stained-glass representation of the burning bush, pieces intentionally designed to complement the building. The sculpture and stained glass are the only three-dimensional representations of the University of Kansas Seal on campus. KU Info describes the Seal: “Moses and the burning bush represent the humble scholar who kneels before the flame, a symbol of knowledge.” 

If we look beyond the two works of art and study the building, it reveals remarkable design features and strong craftsmanship. As one of the last midcentury buildings constructed on campus, these features make it an important example of midcentury modern architecture. 

Smith Hall is T-shape in form, a two-story rectangle on the north side running east to west. Much of the building on the north and rear east sides are made of tan brick with aluminum casement windows. The northeast section contains classrooms, offices and restrooms. 

The north section of the front elevation on Jayhawk Boulevard is made of 4-by-4-foot panels of limestone found near Silverdale, Kansas. The flat, smooth appearance of the panels is rich with the texture of fossils. 

This section is where the library, the crown jewel of the building, is located.

Tom Harper/Lawrence Times

The soaring two-story room features a breathtaking 15-by-17-foot stained-glass wall that comprises 16 panels that form the “Burning Bush.”

Designed to provide a contemplative atmosphere for study, the sunlight through the stained glass illuminates the library in a wash of colors. In the evening, when the interior lights are on, this magnificent dance of colors from the “Burning Bush” can be seen from outdoors.

Tom Harper/Lawrence Times

The building’s assembly hall, often referred to as Room 100, could easily be written off as an outdated lecture hall, but there are design details that deserve credit.

The room is a dodecagon, a 12-sided form rarely seen in architecture. The seating is circular and several tiers in height forming a conversation pit popular during the late 1960’s, bucking the formal trend of desks in rows. Above, linear light fixtures radiate outward from the center ceiling like rays of the sun, a modern symbolic reference to spiritual light and domes of traditional religious structures. A window wall on the west side connects the space with Jayhawk Boulevard and Tefft’s “Moses.”

When “Moses” was united with the “Burning Bush” in 1982, the site was complete. Kim Tefft, Elden Tefft’s son, recalls numerous mockups that were made to unify both works of art with the building.

“The location of the sculpture was integral,” he says. “People were meant to interact with it, not be overwhelmed with it. The building had a lot to do with the scale of Moses; that’s why Dad opened it up, to let people experience it.” 

To disassemble and relocate the “Burning Bush” and “Moses” would remove them from the architectural context that gives them meaning and impact. 

Tom Harper/Lawrence Times

Smith Hall is a destination point for students and visitors.

KU architectural historian Dennis Domer says of the building: “It’s no Frank Lloyd Wright building, but few buildings in town fall in that category. It still has merit, especially from the user’s perspective. Many students love this building and are inspired by its spiritual library, dodecagon lecture hall and monumental sculpture of Moses facing the burning bush expressed in a stained-glass window. They see the embodiment of the university’s seal, day in and day out, so that they know their quest for knowledge is noble and embedded in our history and our university. You can’t ask for much more than that from a university building.” 

History of Smith Hall

The idea of constructing a building to replace Myers Hall was championed by Dr. William Moore, the Dean of the School of Religion, in 1960, and he led the fundraising effort. The midcentury Ecumenical Campus Ministries building and Methodist Church were nearby. In May 1962, the Lawrence Daily Journal-World featured renderings of the proposed building and reported that “Preliminary plans and sketches for a $500,000 building to replace Myers Hall, home of the Religion School at Kansas University, have been approved by the Kansas Bible Chair.” 

The School of Religion hired two prominent regional architects, Charles Marshall and David Prickett, to design the building. Marshall held the State Architect of Kansas position from 1945 to 1952 and had a private architectural practice with Prickett in Topeka from 1952 to 1982. A total of $200,000 was raised from donors to help build the building. Irma I. Smith, a benefactor with banking and farming interests in Mackville, donated significant funds that helped the School of Religion reach the $1 million fundraising goal, and the building was named Smith Hall. The building was opened in 1967.

The program and faculty of the Kansas School of Religion was absorbed by the University of Kansas Department of Religious Studies in 1977. KU entered into an agreement to lease Smith Hall from the Disciples of Christ for $1 a year, according to the history board at Smith Hall.

In 1997, a KU staff report said that “In general the building is in good shape for its thirty years of use” and noted that KU had assumed responsibility for interior and exterior maintenance of the building. The next year, the Board of Regents and Legislature approved KU’s purchase of Smith Hall from the Kansas Bible Chair for $1.1 million, with a payment of $55,000 per year for 20 years.

Call to action

Unfortunately, consistent maintenance has not been a priority over the past 24 years. As Smith Hall has declined, KU has been selling or demolishing buildings that are underutilized or require updating. The sale and demolition of Stouffer Place, Oldfather Studios, Oliver Hall and now Smith Hall are examples of disregarding historic preservation at KU, and a tremendous waste of material resources.

When the numerous private individuals and groups that funded the building of Smith Hall made their donations, they probably did not imagine the building could be demolished in 55 years because of KU’s deferred maintenance. 

If KU proceeds with demolishing Smith Hall, this action calls into question what loyalty and commitment means to current and future donors to KU. Can donors be assured their money given to a program or building will be honored in the future? 

In July, in response to a Lawrence Preservation Alliance letter expressing concern regarding the recent demolition of the historic 1906 Facilities Building and plans to demolish other historic buildings, KU Chancellor Douglas Girod wrote:

“We don’t take decisions to demolish buildings lightly. As we do in each case, we weighed and considered all available alternatives before proceeding with demolition. As you are aware, the university has a limited amount of resources available to devote to maintaining our university facilities. Taking a broad view of the entire historic district, these decisions enable us to continue our longstanding practice of investing in, preserving, and maintaining our most historic buildings to ensure they will last for generations to come.”

The decision to demolish Smith Hall eliminates the opportunity for it to be considered, as Girod says, “one of our most historic buildings.” It is likely eligible for the historic registers and could be repurposed, celebrated and promoted along with the “Burning Bush” and Tefft’s “Moses” to a wider audience of KU, our community and the region. 

Wint Winter, recently appointed to the 10-member Kansas Board of Regents, confirms that KU has not yet made a request to demolish Smith Hall; the Board would have to approve the request. Winter says that public input is welcome. Letters can be sent to the Regents. Links to email addresses of Board Members are below. 

It takes a community to save a building. As friends of Smith Hall, we encourage you to attend the open house Dec. 3 and write to each member of the Kansas Board of Regents and Chancellor Girod opposing the demolition.

Chancellor Girod: 
Regent Benson:
Regent Dicus:
Regent Harrison-Lee:
Regent Ice:
Regent Kiblinger:
Regent Lane:
Regent Mendoza:
Regent Rolph:
Regent Winter:
President Flanders:

Tom Harper/Lawrence Times

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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