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Tom Harper: Smith Hall is vacant, but it’s now listed as a ‘contributing’ property in KU historic district (Column)

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Irma Smith Hall, a building located within the University of Kansas’ East Historic District, is now a “contributing” property within the district, the State Historic Preservation Office informed KU this week.

The Keeper of the National Register of Historic Places in Washington, D.C., confirmed with SHPO’s request that Smith Hall adds to the historical significance of the district. 

Thanks to the research materials provided by historic preservationist Dave Evans, in November 2022, the Lawrence Preservation Alliance prepared a draft nomination and a request for SHPO to reevaluate Smith Hall’s status within the KU East Historic District. 

This change in status offers KU new opportunities and responsibilities in its stewardship of Smith Hall going forward. 

Tom Harper/Lawrence Times

As Katrina Ringler, deputy state historic preservation officer, said, “the university is now able to apply for and utilize state historic tax credits for repairs or rehabilitation to the building when that work will meet the Secretary of Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation.” Any proposed changes to the building will require review under the Kansas state preservation law (K.S.A. 75-2724), Ringler said. 

KU has an agreement with the SHPO allowing the Campus Historic Preservation Board to review any proposals for modifying buildings within the district. A finding by the board that a proposed project would “damage or destroy” the historic building would halt the project unless an appeal is made to Gov. Laura Kelly, according to Ringler. 

Smith Hall’s new “contributing” status, coupled with the amendment Rep. Mike Amyx and Rep. Steven Howe offered into the final fiscal year 2024 state budget that Kelly supported, are significant steps to strengthen the possibility to preserve Smith Hall. 

Tom Harper/Lawrence Times

The amendment to the budget ensures the Kansas Board of Regents (KBOR) has an opportunity to receive complete information about KU’s plans for Smith Hall before voting again on demolition, and that the public would also have an opportunity to offer testimony to KBOR on the topic. The amendment also requires a majority vote from KBOR before the building can be demolished in fiscal years 2023 or 2024.

Over the summer, KU’s Department of Religious Studies vacated the building and moved to Bailey Hall. Smith Hall is now shuttered. It is unclear what KU plans to do with the building now.

In past communications, the university referenced the pending 2024 Master Plan. The plan was supposed to be released last month. 

Early this week, we reached out to Chancellor Douglas Girod expressing concern about the importance of proper maintenance of the building during its vacancy and for comments about its future, given Smith Hall’s new status as a contributing structure in the Historic District. As of this writing, KU has not responded to our inquiry. 

We remain hopeful the religious studies department will someday return to a renovated Smith Hall, perhaps with other people and/or departments who will utilize and appreciate the space created 56 years ago for the University of Kansas.

Often, it takes a village to save a historic building. Smith Hall is no exception.

Our gratitude to everyone who has been out front and behind the scenes advocating to save Smith Hall. Our voices were heard. We hope all those who worked so hard to create the space for contemplative thought at this location for the last 122 years appreciate our efforts, especially Irma Smith and sculptor Elden Tefft.

We hope KU pivots and chooses to preserve Smith Hall so future generations of students can utilize the building for their studies, ultimately making our community and our world a better place.

For more information about supporting our quest to save Smith Hall, please visit savesmithhall.org.

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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Tom Harper: Smith Hall is vacant, but it’s now listed as a ‘contributing’ property in KU historic district (Column)

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”Smith Hall, a building located within the University of Kansas’ East Historic District, is now a ‘contributing’ property within the district … We hope KU pivots and chooses to preserve Smith Hall,” Tom Harper writes in this column.

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