Historic preservationists pressing legal case to block demolition of Docking office building

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Gov. Laura Kelly signs order approving construction of three-story structure on site

TOPEKA — Demolition work on the Docking state office building next to the Kansas Capitol could begin in January to prepare the site for construction of a three-story multipurpose building atop the original foundation.

Gov. Laura Kelly signed off on a plan that would remove 12 floors of the 1950s building named to honor former Gov. Robert Docking. Fate of the structure has been the source of intense debate for the past decade as Gov. Sam Brownback set in motion a demolition strategy blocked by the Legislature. Lawmakers subsequently weighed options of total demolition, complete renovation and retention of several floors.


Kelly signed an order enabling Docking to be brought to ground level to make way for a three-story structure that incorporated architectural design elements of the high-rise building.

A group of preservationists, known as Plains Modern, filed a lawsuit prompting a Shawnee County District Court hearing this month with the goal of determining whether the organization had standing to challenge demolition of what they viewed as a structurally sound building worthy of renovation at taxpayer expense.

“Everything that could be good about the new building could be included in rehabilitated Docking as well,” preservationist Colene Lind said on the Kansas Reflector podcast. “We’re tearing down 12 serviceable stories to build back three? I think that there is hope to turn people’s thinking about this project.”

She said commercial real estate owners in Topeka would appear to be primary benefactors of the demolition and conversion of an office building into an event center.

Architect Michael Gibson and preservationist Colene Lind are part of an organization that filed a lawsuit seeking to reverse a plan endorsed by Gov. Laura Kelly to take down the 12 floors of Docking State Office Building, preserve the basement levels and build a new three-story multipurpose facility on the site. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)
Architect Michael Gibson and preservationist Colene Lind support a lawsuit seeking to halt a plan endorsed by Gov. Laura Kelly to remove 12 floors of Docking State Office Building, preserve the basement levels and build a three-story multipurpose facility on the site. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

The Kelly administration envisions a $120 million project that preserved the basement and sub-basement levels that house the heating and cooling systems, facility maintenance operations and a warehouse. The new building would have an outdoor plaza and event space, cafe, exhibit spaces, a conference and training center, state agency office space, a health clinic and a fitness classroom.

It would be paired with a $70 million laboratory for the Kansas Department of Health and Environment to be constructed two blocks to the south. Consensus is the existing KDHE laboratory at Forbes Field long ago outlived its usefulness.

The Kansas Department of Administration declined to comment about the Docking project due to the pending litigation.

Phillip Gragson, an attorney working on behalf of Plains Modern, said the preservation group faced a “fairly big uphill battle” in terms of challenging Kelly’s order declaring no feasible alternative existed to removal of the 12 floors of Docking. The suit was filed in April and oral arguments took place this month in district court regarding whether Plains Modern had standing to intervene in the state’s decision on Docking.

“They’re claiming we were late to file even though we never got noticed,” said Gragson, who pointed to a shortcoming of state law that didn’t require robust disclosure of Kelly’s decision to demolish Docking.

He said the case illustrated why the Legislature ought to amend murky Kansas law guiding decisions on historic public buildings.

“At best, it is convoluted, and it’s not working,” Gragson said.

Docking State Office Building, completed in 1957 for use as an office for state workers could be demolished to make way for a $120 million, three-story multipurpose building. The Kansas Department of Administration says iconic architectural details would be preserved and repurposed. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)
Docking State Office Building, completed in 1957 for use by state workers, could be demolished to make way for a $120 million, three-story multipurpose facility. The plan is to repurpose iconic details of Docking that embody the “modern movement” of architecture. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

Michael Gibson, an architect, said their was an architectural argument as well as an environmental imperative for preservation of the Docking building. The current strategy would deposit much of the building in a landfill, he said, and waste energy embodied in the structure when built in the 1950s.

“The sustainable thing to do is to evaluate what you have first and see how you can reuse it,” said Gibson, who argued it was wrong to cast aside the state’s consulting report that concluded the building could be renovated. “The irony is that renovating the entire Docking structure is almost the same cost as tearing it down and building this small building.”

Paul Post, who has advocated for retention of the Docking building, said state policy since the 1970s was to make historic preservation the highest priority. Calling in a wrecking ball to pancake the building reflected the worst instincts of a throw-away society, he said.

He said it was unfortunate Kelly changed her mind on Docking after opposing while a state senator the demolition plan put forward by Brownback. Brownback wanted to get rid of Docking entirely and build a new $20 million utility plant to serve the Capitol complex, but the Legislature pulled the plug on that initiative.

“We want to honor our historic roots. And so I think just that alone is enough to say this building should be saved,” Post said.

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