Lawrence Preservation Alliance: KU campus demolitions cause concern about preservation (Column)

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Note: The Lawrence Times is offering some space for area organizations and organizers to express their views, provide updates and attempt to reach other folks who might share their mission. This post is contributed content (i.e., not produced by the Times staff) and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Times staff. See more in our Community Voices section, or see how to submit your own piece.

Recent actions by KU administrators have left many wondering how much the current KU leadership values historic buildings and landscapes on campus. 

This past summer, the wonderful stone Facilities and Administration Building, built around 1906 and listed as a contributing property to a district on the National Register of Historic Places, was demolished after KU won the governor’s override of a project denial by the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO). Then KU received funding from the Kansas Board of Regents (KBOR) to demolish Smith Hall, a distinctive 1967 building that SHPO, in a recent opinion requested by LPA, said is a good candidate for historic listing, and that KBOR has rated as being in good condition.

For the past several months, the local group Lawrence Modern and LPA have been expressing our concerns to KU and encouraging our members and followers to do so as well. We anticipate that a final determination regarding Smith Hall’s fate may be made within the next few months.

The KU campus is widely considered one of the most beautiful in the United States. Jayhawk Boulevard boasts not only stately historic buildings but wonderful views off the hill. It is common to hear alumni speak of fond memories of being surrounded by the special beauty of campus. KU has two National Register Historic Districts and a robust Campus Heritage Plan, completed in 2008 and paid for by a $130,000 grant from the Getty Foundation. So why this change in direction by leaders who arrived on campus after that preservation effort was already in place?

A major factor is the recent state allocation of millions of dollars to KBOR specifically to demolish buildings. KU is overbuilt and needs to reduce the gross square footage on campus to lower maintenance costs. Moreover, demographic shifts mean reduced college-age population and, at best, flat tuition income for the coming years.

But a demolition is forever. Decisions based solely on current needs and financial concerns ignore not only the history represented by that physical space but the diversity of narratives that surround historic buildings. For the KU campus, the interplay of these spaces is critical. KU needs to consider all possible alternatives for restoration and adaptive reuse, and it needs to involve preservation leaders on campus, including its own Campus Historic Preservation Board (CHPB), in this critical decisionmaking process. To date, the CHPB has not even been consulted about these difficult issues.

KU’s disappointing actions demand a strong and thoughtful response from all of us who care about preservation on campus. If you have reached out to KU and the Regents, thank you. If you have not, please visit the LPA website, where the emails of key KU leaders and Regents are posted in the News tab. There’s also more information there about Smith Hall, including video of three speakers at an event that LPA and Lawrence Modern hosted at Smith Hall on Dec. 3. 

It’s not too late to speak up to save Smith Hall. This is a time when every preservation voice matters.

— Learn more about the Lawrence Preservation Alliance on its website.

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