“A Force For Good Design”
Two of his most notable and striking edifices on the campus of the University of Kansas – the buildings now remembered as “old” Fraser Hall and “old” Snow Hall – fell victim to the wrecking ball decades ago due, in part, to serious structural deficiencies as well as a lack of appreciation for historic preservation.
On the other hand, one of the least expensive structures he ever designed anywhere – the KU building originally known as Chemical Hall – stood atop Mount Oread for almost 80 years. Meanwhile, Bailey Hall, perhaps his most pedestrian work at KU, observed its centennial in 2000 and still serves the University as home to American Studies, African and African-American Studies, and several other regional studies programs.
And in 2004-05, the façade of a long-forgotten KU power plant he designed, once earmarked for removal, was reborn as part of the new home of the Hall Center for the Humanities.
The man responsible for this decidedly mixed architectural legacy was John G. Haskell. During a practice that spanned some 50 years, he made his mark on the University, as well as on the city of Lawrence and the state of Kansas as a whole. From his arrival here on July 5, 1857, until his death in 1907, Haskell had a substantial impact on how – and where – countless Sunflower State residents lived, worked, learned, governed and worshipped.
Indeed, with some 80 buildings ranging from the statehouse in Topeka and the courthouses of both Douglas and Chase Counties to schools, churches, homes, and public buildings across Kansas, a case could be made that Haskell ranks as the first truly prominent architect in state history. Ironically, he might never have achieved this status had he not heeded his father’s dying wish that he come to Kansas.
Like many Kansas stories, John G. Haskell’s began, albeit tangentially, with a party of settlers leaving Massachusetts bound for Lawrence under the aegis of the Emigrant Aid Company. Guided by abolitionist Charles Robinson, a founder of Lawrence and future first state governor, this group set out for Kansas in September 1854. Among its members was Haskell’s father, Franklin, who left his family behind in New England.
This was the second such party the Emigrant Aid Company had sponsored as part of the organization’s plan to populate the newly opened territory with enough anti-slavery settlers so that Kansas eventually would come into the Union as a free state.
According to biographer John M. Peterson in his 1984 work, John G. Haskell: Pioneer Kansas Architect, Franklin Haskell’s motivations for making the trek seem consistent with the duality of high-minded principle and bottom-line profit that animated the Emigrant Aid Company scheme.
The elder Haskell, originally from Vermont, shared the abolitionist leanings of the Emigrant Aid Company leadership. Similarly, he also sensed “one of the attractions of Kansas was the promise of cheap and fertile land.” Spurred by this combination of incentives, the elder Haskell quickly acquired a 160-acre plot of land in Kansas and erected a cabin. By the spring of 1855, he sent for his wife, Almira; daughter, Elizabeth; and younger sons, Charles and Dudley, to join him.
The lone son who remained back east was John Gideon Haskell. Born in 1832, he was studying to be an architect at Brown University at the time his family emigrated to Kansas. Haskell completed his training in July 1855 and was hired by a Boston architectural firm.
“He must have proved to be an able and valuable employee,” noted biographer Peterson, “as within nine months he is said to have been made a partner in the firm. For the next 15 months he continued in that position, acquiring valuable experience in architecture and, it would seem, well on his way to fulfilling his boyhood dream of becoming an established architect.”
In Kansas, however, the Haskell family’s dream was crashing. In late January 1857, 50-year-old Franklin Haskell died. His death forced his widow and children to fend for themselves on their Kansas farm. With second son Charles by this point having married and returned to Boston, the responsibility for family leadership fell on 25-year-old John, the eldest son. “He came at the dying request of his father,” wrote Kansas historian William G. Cutler, “and by so doing, put behind him the most encouraging and flattering prospects of his then well established and lucrative business.”
That, at least, is one version of the story. But as biographer Peterson has pointed out, familial obligation might not have been foremost in Haskell’s mind. Haskell waited almost six months after his father’s death before leaving Boston for Kansas. During the trip, “he stopped in Chicago and St. Louis … to investigate [job] prospects in architecture.” It appears nothing came of these interviews. Haskell may have decided to “try his luck on the free and open frontier,” where there were fewer skilled architects and correspondingly less competition for contracts.
Whatever his motivations, Haskell finally arrived in Lawrence on July 5, 1857. Two months later, he ran his first advertisement in a local newspaper, the Lawrence Republican. It read simply: “John G. Haskell, Practical Architect and Superintendent, No. 39, Mass. St., Lawrence.”
At this point in Kansas history, it seems not more than a handful of professional architects were engaged in business anywhere in the territory. As such, Haskell quickly found work on Lawrence’s principal construction project: the rebuilding of the Free State Hotel, which had been destroyed a year earlier by proslavery partisans during the “Sack of Lawrence.”
Although sources credit architect P.H. Randolph with the hotel’s redesign plans, biographer Peterson speculated that Haskell himself “could have spent nearly a year designing the interior, or even exterior details” and “may have assisted [Randolph] and later taken over the job from him” before the structure, christened the Eldridge House, was completed in 1858. Haskell also found work on other projects in Lawrence. These included helping oversee the completion of the original Ohio Street Unitarian Church, “the first permanent church building in Lawrence,” of which he was also a member, and his first public building commission, the Douglas County Jail.
By March 1858, less than a year after his relocation to Lawrence, Haskell was well on his way to becoming one of the town’s leading citizens. He won election to Lawrence’s inaugural city council, and the following year, married Mary Elizabeth Bliss of Wilbraham, Massachusetts, with whom he would eventually have two daughters, Harriet and Mabel. However, clear sailing – at least in his chosen profession – was not yet to be.
In 1860, a terrible drought struck Kansas. Not only did it cause mass suffering and crop failures, it also dried up business activity and new building projects. Haskell was obliged to put his architectural endeavors on hold. He went to work helping the New England Kansas Relief Committee provide supplies – including seed grain, foodstuffs and clothing – to distressed farmers in the territory. In this endeavor, Haskell demonstrated superior organizational and procurement skills that came to the attention of leading Kansans.
As a result, when the Civil War began in 1861, Haskell was named quartermaster of the Third Kansas Infantry. He was then appointed to the general staff of the Union Army by President Abraham Lincoln, and later served in the Army of the Frontier, eventually rising to the rank of major. After the war, Kansas Governor Samuel Crawford named Haskell a colonel and quartermaster general of the state of Kansas, a commission he held from 1866 until 1869.
Although Kansas had become the nation’s thirty-fourth state in January 1861, the Civil War and other immediate concerns forced Kansas legislators to hold off on their plans to construct a proper capitol building in Topeka. The war’s end changed this situation, and in February 1866, Governor Crawford signed the legislation enabling construction of a statehouse.
Haskell had his eye on this job even before the bill became law. He had been working diligently on plans for what would be the most important project in the state’s short history. Whoever came up with the accepted design would enter the exclusive architectural pantheon of state capitol designers and see his work studied for generations to come.
Despite his connections, Haskell was not the early favorite for the commission. The top candidate was Milwaukee architect Edward Mix. But Mix’s design apparently contained a “hodge-podge of styles” that many influential legislators found wanting. By contrast, Haskell’s blueprints favored a more traditional Federal-style capitol building fronted by six elaborate Corinthian columns.
Haskell rapidly gained supporters. In late March of 1866, the Board of State House Commissioners appointed him “Architect of the State House” and charged him with designing the capitol’s east wing. Although the plans he was to follow contained many elements of the Mix design, Haskell inserted numerous modifications, and today, authorities such as the Kansas State Historical Society staff contend the overall look and feel of the east wing should be considered “as being more that of Haskell than Mix.”
The project got off to something of a rocky start. Early on, there arose a mini scandal when limestone used in the capitol’s foundation and basement began showing major cracks during construction. All told, this inferior stone, which had been quarried near Topeka, caused an estimated $5,000-$6,000 cost overrun.
As Peterson noted, however, Haskell had no hand in this debacle. The Board had approved the original stone, and the project’s superintendent of construction, Col. W. W. H. Lawrence, had overseen its installation. Following discovery of the defects, the Board relieved Lawrence of his post. His superintending duties were taken over by Haskell, who directed the work of replacement and repair.
Construction proceeded in phases. By 1870, the building was in good enough shape for the Kansas State Senate and House of Representatives to begin meeting there under temporary conditions, but it was not until 1874 that the three-story east wing was finally completed. Built of Junction City limestone, it measured 114 feet long by 78 feet wide and was 95 feet high. (The west wing and central tower of the present-day statehouse would be erected in stages over the next 25 years and owe much of their appearance to Haskell as well).
The Topeka Commonwealth heralded Haskell’s work on the $371,000 edifice as exhibiting “such a stately elegance as to impress every lover of architectural grandeur.” The Kansas Weekly Tribune echoed this assessment, calling it “especially artistic, producing a most beautiful and pleasing effect [which] seldom fails to draw expressions of admiration from the lips of the beholder.” Important, too, was that there seemed to have been an uncharacteristic “lack of fraud and corruption in this enterprise, in contrast to the construction of most state capitols.”
While Haskell was engaged in the statehouse project, he also was awarded his first – and certainly his grandest – architectural assignment for the then fledgling University of Kansas. In spring 1870, he took on the job that would result in the structure that became KU’s signature building for nearly a century.
The genesis of what is now remembered as “old” Fraser Hall occurred two years earlier when John Fraser, a former Union Army general, became KU’s second chancellor. Upon his arrival in Lawrence, he found the school’s 122 students crammed into a single, eleven-room building (now remembered as “old North College”).
“It was immediately obvious to him,” wrote KU historian Clifford Griffin, “that the University needed more of everything – more money, more faculty, more buildings and equipment, …more books for the library.” However, “the greatest need was a new and larger building, for the swelling student body put space at a premium.”
The need may have been clear to Fraser, but the Kansas legislature didn’t see it quite so lucidly and refused to appropriate any funds. Undaunted, Fraser persuaded the KU Board of Regents to approach the people of Lawrence. The citizens of the town responded positively, and in February 1870 they approved a $100,000 bond measure for new construction. (Ultimately, the state legislature voted $50,000 to complete the project.)
By June 1870, KU had approved Haskell’s plans and named him both architect and construction superintendent. Over the next two-and-a-half years, Haskell’s plans evolved into what Chancellor Fraser would later call “one magnificent, all-purpose structure.” More than a century later, biographer Peterson echoed this judgment, calling the original Fraser Hall “one of [Haskell’s] most successful buildings.”
Although it was clearly a Victorian-era edifice, the massive old Fraser built from Lawrence-area limestone did not conform to one particular architectural style. “Its towers, red roofs, rough-surfaced brownish walls with contrasting cream-colored trim, and irregular outline provided a striking image,” Peterson observed, “which came to symbolize the University of Kansas to many.”
“Much of its charm,” he added, “came from the two square towers, separated by the central pavilion … and capped by red-tiled, convexly curved Mansard roofs bearing narrow dormers and topped with decorative grills. Also distinctive were the slender windows in pairs or triplets, mostly capped by keystone arches.”
The interior details were also something of a marvel, at least in nineteenth-century terms. Steam and gas were used for heating and lighting; running water and electrically powered clocks were in every room. Indeed, the four-story building was spacious enough to house the entire University: departmental and administrative offices, laboratories, classrooms, the library, plus a student reading room and a large auditorium on the second-floor.
“It may be said with simple truth,” noted the Fort Scott Daily Monitor at the time of the structure’s dedication, “that Harvard College has existed more than two hundred and thirty years without having a building equal to this in size or usefulness for the purposes of education.”
Looks can, however, often be deceiving. This certainly came to be the case with old Fraser. As early as 1885, KU Chancellor Joshua Lippincott asked Haskell to “make a complete and careful survey” of the building following complaints about poor ventilation and the settling of both interior and exterior walls. In his report, Haskell admitted that he found “not only the foundation in a very bad condition, but likewise partitions of the walls of the superstructure, the latter caused by the defective foundations.”
He wrote of water seepage, “serious cracks and disturbances,” and, in general, of the “treacherous and unstable nature” of what was then only a thirteen-year-old structure. “Sooner or later,” he warned, “it will be necessary to strengthen the foundation in order to preserve the building.”
Even more ominously, he confessed, “we cannot see the hidden elements of danger, those which might cause a wall to crumble and fall.” This warning would prove prophetic. For much of the remainder of its existence, the first Fraser Hall required regular repairs and above-average maintenance.
At the time of its completion though, the design of the original Fraser certainly bolstered Haskell’s regional reputation. His skills were in such demand that he decided to take on architect Louis M. H. Wood as a partner. In business from 1875 until 1887, the firm of Haskell and Wood was headquartered in Topeka and focused on projects in the rapidly growing state capital. (Haskell, however, continued to reside in Lawrence.)
Among the firm’s many contracts in Topeka alone were two buildings at Washburn University; the east wing of the State Hospital, and the city’s US Courthouse and Post Office; plus four schools, two opera houses, a hotel, and the First United Methodist Church.
During this period Haskell also designed buildings in eleven other Kansas towns, including four structures at Bethany College in Lindsborg, as well as facilities for blind students in Wyandotte, deaf students in Olathe, and the state asylum in Osawatomie. The firm also designed six buildings, mainly for members of the Cherokee Tribe, in what was then called Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma.)
The year 1883 found Haskell back at KU, this time responding to the University’s need for a freestanding chemistry building. At this point, the Chemistry Department, like virtually all of the other University departments, was located in the original Fraser. And as KU historian Robert Taft (a chemist by training) has noted, there was “no way of removing those odorous and injurious gases which it seems to be the necessary lot of the chemist to produce.”
In April 1883, after having sent an investigative committee to Lawrence to “sniff for themselves,” the legislature authorized an exceedingly modest $12,000 to erect a separate chemistry building. The following month, Haskell’s plans won the contract.
Haskell was “constrained by the limited funds available and by the great emphasis on proper ventilation and lighting for the laboratories,” according to Peterson. Nonetheless, Haskell came up with a two-story building that “had several Romanesque features, particularly the semi-circular or segmented arches over the recessed, paired or triplet windows.” Haskell also employed several Victorian Gothic touches in a variety of different construction materials, including brick, stone and wood, and also inserted a hint of the Classical in the “pediments and columns … on the roof ridges.”
The end result, as Peterson put it, “was a curious combination of styles and materials.” Known as Chemical Hall, the building was located roughly on the site of the east wing of the present-day Watson Library. It contained space for chemical labs, a metallurgical laboratory, a large lecture room, and many smaller storerooms and offices.
But like the Haskell-designed Fraser Hall, Chemical Hall also seemed to suffer from structural defects within little more than a decade after its completion. By 1896, faculty members were “frequently suffering from malarial attacks on account of their unfavorable location” in Chemical Hall’s damp basement. (In 1900, the chemists would change venues – but not architects – when they moved into the Haskell-designed Bailey Hall.)
Even though it was built on the cheap, Chemical Hall stood atop Mount Oread far longer than Haskell’s next KU project, the turreted Romanesque Revival edifice now remembered as “old” Snow Hall. This imposing $50,000 Cottonwood limestone building was commissioned in 1885 following the tireless lobbying of natural science professor Francis Huntington Snow, a member of KU’s original faculty who would go on to become the University’s fifth chancellor.
In addition to housing classrooms, laboratories, and the vast Snow Collection of more than 100,000 plant, animal, and insect specimens, the hall also contained a basement gymnasium where freshmen played basketball. It was located on what is now Jayhawk Boulevard in the present-day lawn area in front of the entrance to Watson Library.
When this original Snow Hall was completed in 1886, the Regents praised the “skillful and faithful manner” by which it was planned and built. Haskell’s efforts, which also included superintending its construction, were “thoroughly appreciated by the Board of Regents of the State University.” But here too – for the third time in a row – outward appearances soon would prove to be deceiving.
By 1912, just a quarter-century after it first opened, Snow Hall was beginning to show signs of severe wear. Observers complained of the building’s “quivering tendencies” on particularly windy days, its infestation with “rats and cockroaches that [made] human habitation unpleasant,” and a general squalidness that was “probably responsible for the repeated illnesses of the faculty who worked there.” Four years later, KU Chancellor Frank Strong, citing “inadequate foundations” and “sunken interior walls,” had to admit, “the building is deteriorating very fast.”
But these problems were still in the future in 1887 when Haskell received his fourth KU commission, this time for a new power plant that would supply the expanding University with adequate heating and electricity. Haskell designed a surprisingly elegant powerhouse on the southeastern edge of campus. Boasting a façade based on a ninth-century Spanish palace, the limestone building’s most distinguishing features were ten Romanesque semicircular arches on its southern face.
Versatile as well as utilitarian, Haskell’s structure also played an educational role by housing the engine and machine shops for electrical engineering students. Additionally, a small third-story attic was used for “photometric and photographic purposes.” The facility as a whole helped faculty members like physics and engineering professor Lucien Blake provide their students with invaluable “practical experience.” Indeed, for its multi-faceted uses, the June 1891 issue of the University Review dubbed Haskell’s new powerhouse “the best possible facility.”
Less than seven years later, nearly all of it was lost. On March 22, 1898, a devastating fire sparked by a lightning strike ripped through the powerhouse. The entire heating plant area was destroyed, as were most of the machine shops. Only the smokestack, peering over the charred remains, plus the stonework façade, escaped serious ruination. The building received only makeshift repairs and was not restored as a powerhouse. Eventually, it was pressed into service as a storage and grounds maintenance facility.
The destruction of the powerhouse could not be blamed on Haskell. Although he did not win the contract for the replacement structure (present-day Stauffer-Flint Hall), Haskell did obtain one final KU commission in 1899 – a new chemistry building now known as Bailey Hall.
To assure that KU would gain the most modern and practical facility west of the Mississippi, Haskell and chemistry professor Dr. E.H.S. Bailey, the building’s namesake – as well as the originator of KU’s famous “Rock Chalk” cheer – toured the country examining major college chemistry laboratories. While these site visits may have been useful to the design of the new building’s interior, they did not benefit its exterior appearance. Indeed, when construction was completed on the $55,000 four-story limestone edifice, few deemed it aesthetically beautiful or architecturally significant.
Haskell himself, according to Peterson, was “said to have been disappointed in the building because even the small amount of decoration he proposed was removed for reasons of economy.” Also limiting his design options were the “stringent requirements for … ventilation,” one result of which was the many chimneys that spiked above and spoiled the otherwise clean rooflines. Bailey also admitted it was “plain and massive in construction” and “very little was expended for adornment.”
Despite its lack of embellishment and unexceptional appearance, Bailey Hall is the only Haskell-designed structure at KU that has remained largely intact, a somewhat ironic legacy for an architect who was fond of noting that “beauty costs no more than ugliness.” Now more than 100 years old, Bailey Hall has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 2001.
All of Haskell’s other KU buildings are either long gone or severely transformed. “Old” Snow was essentially abandoned in 1930, following the construction of present-day Snow Hall, and fell to the wrecking ball in 1934. Chemical Hall, later renamed Medical Hall, and still later known colloquially as “The Shack,” was demolished in 1962. Also in that year, the venerable “old” Fraser, after decades of inadequate patch jobs, was deemed to have “outlived its usefulness.” A passionate campaign mounted by the nascent preservationist community to “Save Old Fraser” failed, and the building was razed in 1965.
Historic preservationists had better luck with Haskell’s powerhouse, which by the 1990s had been slated for removal. Through the efforts of the Historic Mount Oread Fund, plus fiscal constraints that prevented the University from carrying out the demolition, and finally a sizable gift from the Hall Family Foundation, the façade of Haskell’s 1887 structure was integrated into the new home for the Hall Center for the Humanities.
Off Mount Oread, Haskell’s work has racked up a slightly better survival record. At Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence (named after the architect’s brother, Congressman Dudley C. Haskell, who was instrumental in its creation), Haskell designed nine buildings. Two still exist – the Gothic-Romanesque Hiawatha Hall and the limestone block Kiva Hall.
Elsewhere in Lawrence, Haskell designed or played a leading role in designing some 20 other buildings. Of these, about half remain standing. Three of them – the Douglas County Courthouse at the corner of Massachusetts and Eleventh Streets, the former John N. Roberts Residence at 1307 Massachusetts known as the “Castle Tea Room,” and the former English Lutheran Church at 1040 New Hampshire Street – are currently listed on the National Register of Historic Places. A fourth, the much-modified House Building at 729-731 Massachusetts, one of the few downtown structures to survive the 1863 Quantrill Raid, is on the Kansas Register of Historic Places.
Unlisted, but still very much in existence are Haskell-designed downtown churches such as the Plymouth Congregational and the First Methodist, plus the Sigma Nu fraternity house (originally built as the home for Lawrence banker and future state governor Walter Roscoe Stubbs), and Haskell’s own residence on Haskell Avenue.
Haskell never officially retired. He passed away on November 25, 1907, at his home in Lawrence at the age of 75. At the time of his death, he was at work on plans for a new school building.
What is one to make of Haskell’s architectural endeavors? At KU, the results seem uneven, at least at first glance. His two most significant campus buildings – the original Fraser and Snow halls – were aesthetically pleasing but apparently structurally deficient. On the other hand, the utilitarian Bailey Hall has stood the test of time, the old powerhouse façade proved sturdy enough to be saved, and the cheaply constructed Chemical Hall served multiple generations of Jayhawks.
Part of the reason for this mixed legacy may be a function not so much of Haskell’s skills as an architect as of the environment in which he worked.
In the first place, Haskell practiced his craft in a new state subject to boom-and-bust economic cycles and governed by a statehouse not given to extravagance in public expenditures. Thus for Haskell, it was virtually always a given that his public architectural commissions came with very tight budgets.
Secondly, Haskell received his architectural education and served his apprenticeship in the East, like most architects working west of the Mississippi during this period. It is likely that he lacked a thorough understanding of the characteristics of the different types of native Kansas limestone, especially in his early work, and made an occasional error in his use of these building materials. Similarly, as regards KU in particular, Haskell may not have had a thorough comprehension of the soil conditions on Mount Oread.
Finally, in the narrow and fiercely competitive arena for public building contracts in Kansas, Haskell was hardly the only architect working in the state who focused on aesthetics over structural integrity or practicality in an effort to win a bid.
Given these ameliorating circumstances, biographer Peterson’s summation of Haskell’s career appears on the mark. Haskell, he wrote, was “a force for good design” at a time “when many felt that economic necessity dictated the cheapest of building materials and techniques, and the plainest of designs.”
John H. McCool
Department of History
University of Kansas