At first glance, someone passing by 1221 Oread Avenue on a hot September day in the 1930s and 40s may not have guessed that the white-columned, red brick mansion was a student religious center at the University of Kansas and home to the campus’ Presbyterian minister and his wife. On such days, sunbathing beauties lounged about on the broad front porch of the antebellum-style house, creating more the air of a Southern hotel than a Midwestern sanctuary for religious instruction.
But a religious center it was, officially known as Westminster Hall and built specifically to tend to the spiritual needs of KU students. From 1933 to 1946, Westminster Hall also fulfilled the temporal requirements of several dozen KU women who were able to obtain comfortable and economical accommodations on the building’s two upper floors. By the early 1940s, residents of this irregular University dormitory were accustomed to calling their quarters at 1221 Oread “The Abbey” or “Purity Palace.”
The idea for what became Westminster Hall arose in the early 1900s when a Lawrence pastor recognized that “the increased attendance at the University made more serious the problem of caring for the students who came from Presbyterian families.” Rev. Willis G. Banker, D. D., pastor of First Presbyterian Church in downtown Lawrence, had learned that a few Presbyterian churches throughout the country had designated pastors to serve the students at state universities. His determination to create such a center at KU became a blazing personal mission.
One of the reasons for the pastor’s concern was the almost total absence of student support services at the University of Kansas during the early twentieth century. Perhaps most noticeable in this regard was that KU students of this era lacked even a central meeting place on campus where they could socialize. (At this point in time, construction of the Kansas Union was some two decades in the future.) Indeed, for students who were not members of fraternities or sororities, the University offered little in the way of organized social events let alone venues for casual conversation.
Dr. Banker saw this situation as a unique opportunity for his church. He organized a committee consisting of congregation leaders and KU faculty members to explore the concept. The group included such notables as Dr. James Naismith, famed inventor of basketball and KU’s first basketball coach; Dr. E.H.S. Bailey, a KU professor of chemistry and the originator of the University’s famous Rock Chalk chant; and Dr. George Kay, KU professor of geology.
By 1905 Dr. Banker and his committee had incorporated the Westminster Association to act as an umbrella coordinating entity, rented a house at 1125 Tennessee Street to serve as headquarters and provide space for the center’s student activities, and hired the center’s first pastor, Reverend Francis A. Wilber, D.D., who would also live there.
This entire venture must have been a Herculean task, as Dr. Banker was never the same after Westminster Hall finally opened. The combined work was “too much and broke him down entirely,” according to a history of the First Presbyterian Church. “In September, 1906, he tendered his resignation; it was accepted as it seemed probable that he would never again be able to preach.”
Westminster Hall’s name was derived from the foundation that formed it. Each campus ministry set up by the Presbyterian Church in America was named a Westminster Foundation (the Lawrence group chose Association instead of Foundation, however), and the hall in Lawrence was named accordingly. The name Westminster figures prominently in the history of the Presbyterian Church, as the Westminster Assembly that first met at Westminster Abbey in London in 1643 established the Westminster Confession and Westminster Catechisms, cornerstones of the Presbyterian Church.
The house on Tennessee became very popular with KU students looking for religious studies, as well as social events such as Westminster’s receptions and homey Sunday night dinners. In two years the center’s goal to be “a home away from home for Presbyterian students and their friends” had clearly taken root, and the program quickly outgrew the house.
A larger facility, ideally one located closer to the campus, was needed. In 1907, William W. Cockins, a wealthy Kansas City man who was a former elder in Lawrence’s First Presbyterian Church, brother of the church’s former pastor, and treasurer of the Lawrence Sugar and Syrup Refinery, rose to the challenge. He announced to the Westminster Association’s board of trustees that he would provide $15,000 to cover the cost of a new building upon one condition – that an endowment of $60,000 be created that would cover the maintenance of the house and the pastor’s salary.
Cockins set a deadline of October 1, 1909, for the board to raise half of the endowment, $30,000, at which time he would begin construction of the new building. Thanks to generous members of the First Presbyterian Church, who pitched in $10,000, and a fundraising campaign carried out across the state by the board of trustees, all of the money was obtained in two years.
The Westminster Association’s successful fundraising effort reflected the Presbyterian Church’s strong belief – at the local, state and national level – in providing a place for Christian fellowship at the nation’s state universities. Evidence of this attitude is found in a fundraising booklet produced for potential Westminster Hall donors in 1909. In this booklet, prominent figures expressed their support of Westminster as a vital part of helping cultivate well-rounded students who were nurtured spiritually as well as academically.
These supporters included Kansas Governor Walter R. Stubbs. A Quaker who had a made his fortune in the railroad contracting business, Stubbs explained that “the State of Kansas has always stood for religion and education in combination . . . and never more so than at present.” He urged donors to support Westminster Hall’s scholarly Bible instruction and “pastoral oversight” to students.
After the Westminster board met its fundraising deadline, Cockins followed through by purchasing a prime piece of property on top of Mt. Oread, one block north of the present-day Kansas Union. Construction began on April 24, 1910, with a cornerstone laying ceremony. The festivities included the placement of a time-capsule box in the cornerstone. Its contents included Presbyterian literature, copies of that year’s KU catalog, and a Bible. Some six months later, a completed Westminster Hall was dedicated on October 7, 1910. The program book that day valued Cockins’ entire gift, including house and land, at $18,000.
After the pomp of the dedication ceremony, Westminster Hall was open for business. From the street, its appearance was formal yet inviting. The dedication ceremony program book described the house as “substantial and elegant,” on a site that commanded “a superb view of the Kaw valley in both directions.” The most striking feature of the red brick building was the stately four-pillared portico that faced Oread Avenue.
Inside, the house had a more casual air. Westminster’s entire main floor was designed as an open house for students of all denominations to come and relax with friends and play cards or board games. Throughout its first decade, word spread about Westminster as a comfortable place to unwind and socialize. A World War One-era pamphlet distributed around the campus invited servicemen to visit the house: “For that week-end shore leave . . . Make Westminster Hall your club—magazines, piano, radio, victrola, ping-pong. A hearty welcome awaits you. Here you are a stranger but once.”
As visitors entered the house through the portico, they found two large drawing rooms to the right and a large living/recreation room to the left. This room contained a ping-pong table, radio, record player, piano, shelves stacked with games, small tables, and chairs and sofas.
One of these public rooms also contained the hall’s library, which had been donated by Kansas State Senator and former KU Regent Thomas M. Potter, namesake of KU’s Potter Lake. He gave the books in memory of his son, D.E. Potter, an 1892 graduate of KU who had died while serving as a missionary secretary.
The most prevalent feature of the first floor was the grand central staircase that led to the top two floors. Visitors were not allowed beyond this point, as the top floors were the living quarters of the pastor and his family; they also provided dorm rooms for KU women students from 1933 to 1946. (Although KU Student Directories list Westminster as a dorm only during these years, there is evidence that women did reside in the house prior to 1933. What is unclear is whether these roomers were guests, KU students, or women with some other affiliation with the University or the First Presbyterian Church.)
Westminster Hall’s grand staircase did more than provide a focal point for the building’s main floor. It was also central to the memories of many Westminster Hall residents. Ruth Douglass Woods, who lived in the hall as a KU student in the 1940s, recalled that the staircase was part of one of her fondest memories of Westminster. The day she was selected to join the Mu Phi Epsilon Music Fraternity, her housemates “gathered at the foot of the stairs to serenade me,” she wrote in a reminiscence that was part of a collection of retrospectives from former Westminster residents gathered by the KU Department of Student Housing in 2002.
Others recall more somber moments on the staircase. Mary Jellison Miller, who lived in the hall from 1941 to 1943, wrote, “I remember so clearly sitting on the stair steps and hearing that war had been declared on Japan. That was not much of a beginning of college years.”
A powder room for guests was located beneath the staircase on the main floor, and another stairway led down to the basement. Sarah Paulk Barelli, a resident in 1941 and 1942, also remembered living quarters in the basement that served as the home of a black married couple whose “main job was to keep the furnace going and to clean the floors.”
The second floor landing led out to a large deck along the back of the house—another favorite location for sunbathing. The second and third floors each contained a full bath, the living quarters for the pastor and his family, and eventually, rooms for 16 KU women students.
Residents recall that the rooms were spacious, and each outfitted with a desk. Some women, usually the older graduate students, had the luxury of their own room. Carolyn Southall McMasters, who roomed at Westminster from 1944 to 1945, recalled that even doubling up with a roommate was very comfortable. “Our bedroom was on the second floor, and it was much larger than my quarters at Jolliffe Hall had been,” she wrote in her reminiscences for KU Housing. “We were quite comfortable there.”
Westminster was a rare find on campus at a time when women faced a paucity of housing options administered or sanctioned by the University. Besides sorority houses, the main choices for KU women in 1940 were the Watkins and Miller scholarship halls; the Corbin Hall dormitory; and the Ricker Home, an off-campus residence maintained by the Unitarian Church. “We were not interested in sororities,” recalled Sarah Paulk Barelli, “nor in associating with the ‘little girls’ who were freshman in Corbin Hall. Westminster did provide suitable housing that our parents approved of right on campus.” In 1940, rent for a shared room at Westminster was $12.50 a month.
Residents of Westminster Hall did not have to be Presbyterian, as Helen Zentz recalled. “I was a Methodist, but that didn’t seem to be a deterrent. I chose to live there because of its unique religious endorsement and preferred a smaller unit to a sorority or dorm.”
Westminster did not provide meals, but the kitchen on the main floor was open to those who wanted to prepare their own food and keep a coffee pot brewing. Residents took most their meals at the Kansas Union or nearby cafes such as Brick’s, which was less than a block south on Oread Avenue. “I remember that Wiedemann’s Restaurant [on Massachusetts Street] was a popular place to go,” wrote Barelli, “or we went to the Union where meals were 15 to 25 cents apiece.”
Westminster also did not provide laundry facilities. However, women could utilize a washing machine at the nearby Henley House, which was operated by the Young Women’s Christian Association. They also had the choice of sending their soiled clothes home for cleaning via Westminster’s special laundry mailing box. For Barelli, neither of these alternatives was viable. She recalled that her parents insisted that she come home to do her laundry, mainly because they wanted to keep her free time on campus at a minimum. “Unfortunately,” she recalled, “my parents didn’t like my boyfriend and would make me personally bring my laundry home on the bus.”
Like other KU women’s residences, Westminster Hall enforced curfews and other rules to ensure the safety and scholarly discipline of its student residents. But unlike most other halls, Westminster’s main floor was a flurry of activity throughout the day and many evenings. Anna Olinger, whose husband, Dr. Stanton Olinger, replaced Dr. Wilber as student pastor in 1911, lived at the house for 18 years and served both as housemother and, for a time, director of the Westminster Association. According to Martha Pinneo Petterson, Olinger gathered the women together for regular meetings and also arranged social evenings at the house, to which the residents could bring their dates. As a housemother, Olinger dutifully gave advice to her charges. “One of her precautions to us was not to touch our young men’s hair,” wrote Petterson. “What a different world that was!”
The 1933 Jayhawker yearbook summarized Olinger’s duties next to a listing of the residents of the house that year. “The housemothers . . . are faced with the problems of discipline, as well as a certain amount of house management. They become to each girl, in time, just what their title, housemother, implies; she is a mother to these girls while they are away from their homes.”
Olinger was a warm and patient woman who made lasting friendships with many Westminster Hall residents over the course of several generations of KU students. In 1917, six years after moving into Westminster Hall, the Olinger’s relocated to Iowa, where Dr. Olinger had been named president of Buena Vista College. After his death in 1921, Anna Olinger returned to Lawrence with her two daughters and resumed her work at Westminster Hall. Many former Westminster denizens came back to Lawrence to attend Olinger’s 100th birthday party at her home in Lawrence in April 1972. When Olinger died in October 1974 at the age of 102, she was believed to be Douglas County’s oldest resident. Lively and alert to the end, her last years included daily walks and work in her garden.
Under the watch of each of its housemothers, the pervasive religious atmosphere of Westminster Hall did not stifle the more rambunctious spirits among its residents. Zentz recalled that she and her housemates on the third floor made effigies of two of the residents who lived on the floor below, “as a reminder of our superior (higher) position.” They also invented “teasing” songs to sing throughout the upper rooms, asking “who was the fairest of us all.” In retrospect, Zentz admitted, “I’m sure I was the silliest resident who ever lived there.”
Rather than cramping a young KU woman’s social life, the programs at Westminster actually enhanced residents’ chances of meeting eligible KU men. Westminster was well known for its Student Forums held every Sunday evening, preceded by a fellowship supper and devotional service that began at 5:00 p.m. The services included music, hymn singing and a sermon, and the forums featured guest speakers who delivered talks on current events or religious issues.
Attendance at Sunday fellowships and forums was not mandatory for Westminster residents, but it had its advantages. “My roommate and I attended that on a fairly regular basis,” wrote McMasters, “and – I must admit – we did so hoping that some ‘new boys’ might happen in!” A music major at KU, McMasters sometimes sang a solo at these weekly meetings.
Some residents, however, were drawn to Westminster specifically because of its Christian foundation and participated regularly in the religious activities of the house. Helen Blincoe Simpson, whose father was a trustee of the Westminster Association, recalled how much she enjoyed the in-depth discussions of Westminster’s Friday night groups in which they discussed topics such as “Prayer” and “Is There a God?”
Westminster Hall developed a series of traditions that drew KU students throughout the year. All Presbyterian students were invited to the house on the first Friday of each school year for a get-acquainted event. And all students were invited to the annual Tree-Trim and Pancake Supper held before winter break. Starting at 5:00, one group would begin decorating the house and the Christmas tree while others mixed pancake batter in the kitchen. When the decorations were set, everyone gathered for the tree-lighting ceremony, followed by supper and carol singing. The house also sponsored formal dinner dances throughout the year, which were held in the Kansas Union.
Some KU parents were grateful that Westminster Hall existed, even if their daughters didn’t actually live there. Carolyn Bailey Berneking, a granddaughter of Dr. E.H.S. Bailey, resided elsewhere during her years at KU in the mid-1930s, but she spent many Sunday evenings at Westminster on the strict guidance of her mother back in Oklahoma City. “My mother didn’t know whether I was attending church regularly,” Berneking said in an interview in 2005, “so she wanted to make sure I was staying on the straight and narrow while I was attending college. Westminster was a resource she had to keep an eye on me.”
Westminster’s role as a women’s residence ended with a shift in Westminster Association leadership in the spring of 1946. In a Daily Kansan article published on April 15 of that year, Dr. Theodore Aszman, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church, announced that the hall would no longer house KU students. “Use of Westminster Hall as a student religious center as it was originally planned instead of a woman’s dormitory follows the policy of the Presbyterian church,” he explained.
Dr. Aszman also announced at this time that he was resigning as director of Westminster Hall. For several years he had been dividing his pastoral duties between the main church in downtown Lawrence and Westminster Hall, and a church history noted that “in 1946 the Westminster Board decided that it would be better to resume the plan of having a full time director at Westminster.”
Dr. John H. Patton, a professor of Church History and World Religions in the KU School of Religion, was then named the hall’s new director and pastor. He and his wife Celeste moved into Westminster Hall, where Dr. Patton ministered “with loving concern, friendship, spiritual guidance, instruction and pastoral care on the Campus,” according to a foundation yearbook.
With the tremendous growth of the university after World War Two, the Westminster Association began making plans for a larger facility. The fund drive for a $200,000 building to be built at 1204 Oread began in 1952, and half of that was raised by 1955. The building was completed in 1960, and during construction long-time housemother and director Anna Olinger paused to reflect on the student work she and her pastor husband did at KU. “Together we worked to have the Christian ministry keep pace with the growing University. We dreamed of the day an enlarged ministry would outgrow beautiful Westminster Hall and the day has come.”
Westminster Hall was subsequently sold to the Kansas Convention of Southern Baptists in 1960. Later in that decade, the KU Endowment Association purchased the building.
It is not clear whether Westminster Hall was used for offices or classrooms immediately after it was acquired for the University, but several memos written in 1969 about the condition of the “recently purchased” building indicate it was in very poor condition. The outward appearance had declined greatly, according to a missive sent by Keith Lawton, Vice Chancellor for Operations, to Irvin Youngberg, Executive Secretary of the KU Endowment Association.
“It is extremely unsightly,” Lawton wrote in November 1969. “The high front colonial type columns are rotted out at the bottom” and may be “in dangerous condition.” He surmised that the building had probably not been maintained since Dr. Patton moved out, and concluded that it would cost more than $50,000 to “make a minimally satisfactory facility out of this property.”
In December 1969, Acting Provost Francis Heller advised Lawton that Westminster Hall should be razed. The building was torn down shortly thereafter, in February 1970. The entrance ramp to a large University parking garage now occupies the site of the antebellum-style mansion.
However, the work begun by the Presbyterian Church on behalf of KU students in 1905 has continued just north and across the street from old Westminster Hall at 1204 Oread Avenue. Today, this building is home to Ecumenical Christian Ministries (ECM), an interdenominational center run by a group of Presbyterian, Methodist, Lutheran, Quaker, Congregational and other Christian denominations.