Building Community through Shared History - A KU Memorial Union Program

Back In Power

It is a KU building with a highborn pedigree, boasting an original façade based on a palace in Oviedo, Spain, commissioned by King Ramiro I in the year 848 that is now a church called Santa Maria de Naranco. Yet for most of its time on campus, the structure that came to be known as the “Old Powerhouse” led an existence that was far from princely.

Serving variously as the “Boiler House,” the “Gardener’s Shack,” and the functionally generic “Facilities Operations Storage Building,” the edifice on Sunnyside Avenue was once virtually destroyed by lightning and was slated to be eliminated completely as recently as the year 2000.

But on October 2, 2002, the University announced that its oldest structure was soon, in a way, to be its newest. Thanks to a $3.26 million gift from the Hall Family Foundation (part of a $42 million total pledge package from the Halls to KU, which ranks as the largest private gift to education in Kansas history), as well as a major campaign by the Historic Mount Oread Fund preservation group, the former powerhouse was recalled to life and set upon a restorative course to become the new home for the Hall Center for the Humanities.

“We are delighted to be able to combine the old and the new in one building,” said Victor Bailey, Hall Center director. “In a sense, that’s a metaphor for the work of the center, making the heritage of civilization relevant to contemporary issues and concerns.”

The heritage of KU’s powerhouse extends back into the early 1880s when the University itself was less than 20 years old. At the time, campus was powered and heated by steam and coal-burning apparatuses indelicately housed smack in the middle of the campus.

Together with the University’s “water closets” or “privies,” this malodorous complex, in the words of one archival source, was “embraced” by a luckless collection of buildings housing classrooms and offices. (“There are no photos of this ‘embrace,’” it hastened to add. “Photographers artfully turned their cameras away from the presence of these particular ‘conveniences.’”) In addition to belching noxious fumes, the power plant was something of an eyesore and, moreover, was unable to supply an expanding University with all the power it needed.

In 1887 the Kansas state legislature came to the rescue with a $16,000 appropriation for a “new boiler house and engine room” set apart from the rest of campus. The exact location, chosen at a May 7 meeting of the University’s Committee on Buildings, Grounds and Services, was an area on the southeastern edge (next to the present-day Dole Human Development Center on Sunnyside Avenue) and about 60 feet below the level of the other then-existing campus buildings. Not only would it be out of sight, it also afforded “the best possible facilities for the distribution of steam and the return of condensate,” according to an undated report in the files at University Archives.

Lawrence architect John G. Haskell drew up the plans for the powerhouse. (Haskell was also the architect of KU’s Bailey Hall, as well as the original Snow and Fraser halls, the long-forgotten Chemical Hall, plus the Douglas County Courthouse in Lawrence and the east wing of the state capitol building in Topeka, among other notable structures.)

Built from Oread limestone quarried on site, the powerhouse’s most distinguishing features were ten decorative arches on its southern face, six in the first story, four in the second. “The most obvious reference,” wrote Karl Gridley in a 1992 article about the structure, “is to the famous Santa Maria de Naranco, a building Haskell would have known well, as it (like St. Trophime at Arles [France], on which the entrance to Dyche was modeled) has been cited for centuries as one of the seminal and most finely proportioned of Romanesque facades.”

Records suggest financial considerations required shortening the brick smokestack – its final height was 110 feet rather than an originally contemplated higher elevation – but other than that, Lawrence contractor E.H.F. Schneider erected the new 86 by 48 foot powerhouse and removed its predecessor in short order. On January 12, 1888, KU Chancellor Joshua Lippincott could report to the Board of Regents “the entire work on the Boiler House, boilers, etc., [is] completed.”

The powerhouse served not only the heating and electrical needs of the University (with six boilers and several current-generating “dynamos”) but played an educational role as well. By also housing “the engine and machine shops for the use of students in the Electrical Engineering course,” as noted in the June 1891 issue of the University Review, “it is the best possible facility.”

Additionally, a small third-story attic was used for “photometric and photographic purposes.” Thus, the powerhouse helped faculty members like physics and engineering Professor Lucien Blake (after whom Blake Hall is named) provide their students with invaluable “practical experience.”

A decade later, nearly all this was lost. On March 22, 1898, a terrible fire sparked by a lightning strike ripped through the powerhouse. The entire heating plant area was destroyed and the machine shops suffered major damage. Only the building’s smokestack, peering over the charred remains, plus the stonework façade, escaped serious ruination.

An added bit of misfortune (though perhaps not in students’ minds) was the fact that unseasonably cold weather forced the University to cancel classes for the next two weeks since none of the classrooms and offices could now be heated.

Fourteen days was not much time in which to recover, but the University scrambled to raise funds to turn the power and heat back on. According to KU historian Robert Taft, “The Board of Regents had no funds for replacing the power plant, the Legislature was not in session, and Chancellor [Francis H.] Snow was sorely pressed for a plan to repair the damage.” His solution, after “consulting with [Kansas] Governor [John W.] Leedy and a committee of Lawrence citizens,” was to ask the (hopefully) generous townspeople for a $30,000 loan, to be paid back during the next legislative session.

The response was overwhelmingly positive; subscriptions poured in from Lawrence as well as the greater Kansas City area. Ironically, this wave of generosity effectively doomed KU’s powerhouse to almost a century of neglect.

While Chancellor Snow was soliciting support in Lawrence, Prof. Blake did some backdoor fundraising in Kansas City. During his two-week hiatus from classes due to the power outage, he approached a wealthy acquaintance, meatpacking magnate George A. Fowler, for a donation to build a new machine shops building.

Blake tailored his plea to a statement Fowler had once made in support of practical engineering education. Astonishingly, after a 10-minute meeting, Blake walked away with a check for $18,000. A year later Fowler Shops (present-day Stauffer-Flint Hall) was completed.

But this unexpected beneficence came with strings attached. Fowler insisted that $20,000 of the $30,000 public contribution for rebuilding the powerhouse must go to purchase engineering equipment and supplies for the new Fowler Shops, so KU students could have the most up-to-date facilities. Since Fowler had replaced the powerhouse as an education facility for the applied engineering function, this condition may have not seemed unreasonable. In any event, it became an offer Blake and the University could not refuse.

This facility, though a welcome addition to campus, would not, however, serve any power-generating function. That meant the University still had to undertake the reconstruction of the burned-down powerhouse, a project that was now $20,000 poorer. This monetary shortfall ensured that no permanent and comprehensive restoration could be undertaken. It was to be merely a salvage operation.

Repairs were made to the powerhouse, but funds were available only to renovate it to a one-story facility. The building’s six distinctive lower arches were kept and three more added, lengthening the structure somewhat. Under the circumstances these could only be makeshift measures, considering the continuing expansion of the University and its accompanying power and heating needs.

Thus in 1922, the state authorized construction of a new $300,000 plant on Sunflower Road, effectively ending the power-producing career of KU’s now “old” powerhouse. In that year, it was given over to sand and gravel storage. Over time, it came to be known as the “Gardeners’ Shack.”

From its effective retirement in 1922 through the ensuing 70 years, the old powerhouse received little attention. Its lowly role and out-of-the-way location consigned it to obscurity. In 1990, another fire ravaged the structure, causing significant damage to the roof.

Considering this degradation, coupled with the facility’s deteriorating interior stonework, it came as little surprise on October 11, 1991, when the University Daily Kansan ran an article headlined, “KU Awaits OK to Raze Damaged Storage Barn.” The story reported that this “oldest building on campus … might be torn down because of structural defects.” In fact, the University had sought and received permission for demolishing the structure at a September 19 meeting of the Board of Regents.

According to James Modig, KU’s director of facilities planning, an architect had been consulted and had rendered a verdict recommending razing the old powerhouse on the grounds of safety. Parts of the roof and stone walls were in a bad state, Modig told the Kansan. ”A portion of the building is unused,” he added, “because the defects make it dangerous to work in that area.”

All that now stood between the old powerhouse and the wrecking ball was the approval of the state legislature. Asked about what might take its place, interim Executive Vice Chancellor Del Shankel speculated that either a more modern storage facility, or perhaps a parking lot, were the likely candidates.

Estimates were that necessary repairs to make the old powerhouse completely useable again would cost around $650,000, far in excess of the $230,000 figure cited to knock it down and erect a new storage building. Though its demolition was not quite yet a fait accompli, the situation looked bleak for the University’s oldest remnant structure.

That was, however, until the local preservationist community took up its cause. Dennis Domer, then president of the Lawrence Preservation Alliance and associate dean of architecture at KU, recounted to the Kansan the University’s poor record over the past several decades when it came to saving its most venerable (and vulnerable) buildings. During the 1960s and 70s, he said, “they started tearing everything down, like Old Fraser Hall, which was really superior to the present one.” This penchant for demolition over preservation, he added, “hit KU like a war.”

Dennis Farney, president of the Historic Mount Oread Fund (now Historic Mount Oread Friends) at the time, added his voice, reminding people how, earlier that year, the fire that gutted Hoch Auditorium had inspired a preservationist spirit, something that eventually would help save the building’s original façade. “There wasn’t much concern in those days [speaking of the 60s and 70s] for preserving what was there,” said Farney, but he believed attitudes were changing and that the old powerhouse might be salvaged as a result. Farney also pointed out that the forlorn 1887 structure was one of only three extant nineteenth-century KU buildings, the others being Spooner Hall (1894) and Stauffer-Flint Hall (1899).

The Historic Mount Oread Fund (HMOF) consulted architect John Lee, designer of the plans used to restore Lawrence’s Union Pacific depot into a visitor center, on how the old powerhouse might be saved and reincorporated into campus. In a letter dated November 13, 1992, Lee responded that the “remaining portions of the power plant offer the University a unique opportunity to demonstrate its commitment to preserving its own history.” While admitting, “Much of the original building has been lost or altered over the years,” Lee noted the stonework that remained was “a gem” that would provide “a meaningful – and beautiful – framework on which to base an expanded new building. The grace of its proportions and the integrity of its construction are lessons in simple beauty as well as in nineteenth century technology and aesthetics.”

But just as funding shortages back in 1898 prevented the powerhouse from being fully restored to its original size, appearance and generating capacity, monetary issues would again intervene nearly 100 years later, this time delaying, and in the end preventing, its final destruction

Despite the preservationists’ early efforts, explained Jim Modig during an interview in early 2004, the University’s fiscal year 1993 budget included the sum of $75,000 to comply with abatement issues involving the safe disposal of asbestos and lead paint – a precursor to demolition. These funds, however, were later diverted to other construction projects; and since no money had been allocated yet to actually raze the powerhouse, it effectively won its first temporary stay of execution.

However, plans still called for its ultimate elimination at some point in the future. The only question was when. With this fate in the offing, HMOF decided that at least measures could be taken to preserve the building’s decorative stone arches. In April 1994, local architect Craig Patterson, who was then HMOF president, prepared an extensive set of instructions on how to salvage the façade so that eventually it could be reassembled elsewhere. With drawings detailing every stone of the arches, he described how to shrink-wrap and store the disassembled façade on palettes.

HMOF also sought to raise money to pay for this operation, all the while hoping KU administrators would continue to consider razing the old powerhouse a low-priority expenditure. For the short-term, this seemed like a good gamble. Six years passed and the wrecking ball was still nowhere to be seen.

When the University’s fiscal year 2000 budget came out, however, the end seemed ominously near for the old powerhouse. A full $250,000 had been earmarked both to comply with abatement regulations and to demolish the building. The execution warrant, it appeared, had been finally signed and sealed. It was about to be delivered.

But then, in February 2000, fortune once again smiled on the powerhouse. That month, a transformer exploded in Strong Hall. The repair bill was enormous. To take care of the damage, KU was forced to use the funds allocated for the demolition of the powerhouse. Once again, the University’s oldest building gained another stay of execution.

Not content to sit back and pray for yet another reprieve, the Lawrence preservationist community continued formulating plans to preserve the powerhouse’s distinctive arches or, if possible, the facility altogether. The Kansan of May 2, 2000, quoted Dennis Domer (by then the Distinguished Professor of Historic Preservation at the University of Kentucky), on how this might be accomplished. “A good architect,” he said, “could incorporate the building’s arched façade into the design of a new building. It’s a wonderful opportunity to integrate the old and the new,” he added. “Tearing it down reflects a lack of imagination.”

In the same Kansan article, Sandra Weichert, a founding member of HMOF and author of Historic Mount Oread: A Catalog of KU’s Landmarks, explained why it was so important that the structure be saved. “It’s an ideal location,” she said, “…right at the foot of Mount Oread and the entrance to campus.” University officials, Weichert added, were refusing to acknowledge that the old powerhouse was the “oldest building” left on the KU campus. “They say it’s just a junk building or it’s just for storage. But that’s the building that made everything else happen,” she asserted. “It’s my darling,” she concluded. “It just looks like it holds many secrets and many tales.”

One secret that remained unknown – perhaps because the tale was not yet finished and no one knew how it would end – was the final fate of the old powerhouse. On July 7, 2000, little more than two months after the Kansan article appeared, KU Chancellor Robert Hemenway wrote a letter to Dennis Farney, who had resumed the HMOF presidency.

Hemenway’s note contained several ambiguities that left him a good bit of wiggle room, but one could divine some positive portents in this communication. To be sure, the chancellor pointed out that much of the powerhouse was “in very poor shape,” and that it would “take a considerable fund to restore the arches to their original state.” However, Hemenway also indicated he favored at least partial salvation for the building’s key design element.

“My hope,” he wrote Farney, “will be to preserve the old south façade with the arches as part of a new structure. If that is not possible, we will dismantle the arches and erect them elsewhere, thereby preserving a very special architectural feature.” While Farney interpreted this message to mean that the powerhouse itself was doomed, he did take “consolation” from the fact that now the chancellor himself was “talking about incorporating the façade into a new building on the site.”

Another tea-leaf intimation that could be gleaned from Hemenway’s letter – perhaps only in retrospect – was the implied admission that there was no longer a firm timetable for the old powerhouse’s dismantlement. In his brief discussion of the state of the building’s masonry, the chancellor noted that “due to its density [the stonework] will not fall apart or be damaged in the next few years while a final decision is made for the disposition of the building and for the preservation of the stone arches.” Whether anyone at HMOF gave serious weight to this hint is unclear. What is clear is that the effort to preserve the building, or at least its arches, continued.

HMOF members – with assistance from John Gaunt, dean of the KU architecture school, Kansas State Senator Wint Winter Jr., and Jeff Weinberg, assistant to Chancellor Hemenway – persisted in making the case for the old powerhouse. On September 11, 2001 – a date now infamous for mass destruction – HMOF member Karl Gridley and Dean Gaunt toured the site. Shortly thereafter, Gaunt drafted an architect’s rendering of how the old structure might be reincorporated into a new building. This sketch laid the groundwork for the Hall Center’s eventual decision to select the powerhouse site, and strongly influenced the subsequent design as well.

It all became official on October 2, 2002. On that day, the KU Office of University Relations announced that the structure would not only be saved but given a fresh and sustained lease on life as well. It was going to become the new, modernized and wholly renovated home of the Hall Center for the Humanities – with its decorative stone arches preserved.

hallcenterThe $5 million powerhouse reconstruction and restoration project (which included $3.26 million from the Hall Family Foundation plus more than $1.5 million in public and other private funds) began in mid-2003 and was completed in early 2005. The “purpose-built” and “tailor-made” quarters, nearly twice the size of the Hall Center’s long-time location in the cramped 6,800-square-foot Watkins Nurses Home (originally built in 1937 as a residence for nurses), includes a 120-seat auditorium as well as offices and conference rooms for staff, distinguished humanities professors, and visiting scholars. The facility also contributes greatly to the Center’s mission of promoting academic research and interdisciplinary communication.

“The humanities will soon have a permanent, nationally prominent home here in Lawrence,” said Bruce Cole, chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, at a KU ceremony on April 10, 2003, that honored the Hall family for its support and praised the imagination and preservationist efforts that had shielded the old powerhouse from destruction. “The University’s oldest structure,” Cole added, “will be preserved, but ingeniously, the façade will become part of a new building that links the past, present and future.”

Hall Center Director Victor Bailey elaborated on this vision for the new facility: “We’re preserving a fragment of University history that is itself a link to a much older medieval structure. The new building will enhance the southeastern entrance to campus and will be a daily reminder of the way in which the modern world is a web of many cultures and influences.”

Through the benefits of a twenty-first-century architectural facelift, the University is ensuring that its nineteenth-century century powerhouse will remain the campus’ oldest building far into the future.

John H. McCool
Department of History
University of Kansas

Source Notes

[Source Notes: Materials on KU’s old powerhouse and new home for the Hall Center for the Humanities are found in the Hall Center (New) and Power Plants file folders at University Archives, Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas. Several documents are either undated or the date is obscured because of poor photocopying or simply the passage of, in many cases, decades of time.

For early history, see the Index folder in the Power Plants building file. It gives a brief summary of the structure’s history and lists dozens of meticulously noted sources, from building scrapbooks, various editions of the alumni magazines, yearbooks, and articles appearing in numerous student newspapers, all pertaining to some aspect of the powerhouse’s more than 100-year history on campus. Following the 2001 decision by the Hall Family Foundation to fund construction of a new Hall Center for the Humanities upon the old powerhouse site, information about the structure began to be stored in the Hall Center (New) file.

The sources for this article include:

The medieval (and earlier) architectural influences on KU’s powerhouse are discussed in “The Old Powerhouse at the University of Kansas: 1887– “, Marilyn Gridley, ed., (Historic Mount Oread Fund, 2000). This 12-page booklet contains a number of images from the structure’s nineteenth-century origins to the present and important information and quotations from many of the principals involved in the effort to save the powerhouse from destruction.

The pre-history of the powerhouse – dealing especially with earlier power plants on the KU campus – can be found in a short unattributed piece, “Boiler House and Engine Room – 1887” in the Power Plants building file in University Archives. It offers a wealth of information on why the original power plant was inadequate, how and why the 1887 powerhouse was constructed, what equipment it housed, and the damage done to it by the 1898 fire.

More detail on the effects of the fire that severely damaged the old powerhouse, the efforts by Prof. Lucien Blake to secure money for a new machine shops building, the $30,000 loan given by local residents, and the $18,000 gift by Kansas City meatpacking magnate George A. Fowler is in this author’s article titled “Lighting Strikes … Twice” about the Fowler Shops (present-day Stauffer-Flint Hall). URL:
See also Robert Taft, The Years on Mount Oread (University Press of Kansas, 1955), pp. 62-64, 199.

General historical and architectural information on the 1922 Power Plant and the 1887 powerhouse (which came to be known variously as the “Gardeners’ Shack” and the Facilities Operations Storage Building) can be found in undated photocopied pages of Jayhawker yearbook in the Power Plants building file.

The story on KU’s plans to raze the old powerhouse comes from the October 11, 1991, University Daily Kansan. The quotes from Dennis Domer and Dennis Farney, and the speculative comments of Executive Vice Chancellor Del Shankel, come from this article. Other subsequent quotes from local preservationists are taken from Marilyn Gridley’s “The Old Powerhouse at the University of Kansas: 1887– “.

Copies of the July 7, 2000 letter from KU Chancellor Robert Hemenway to HMOF President Dennis Farney, and the July 17, 2000 follow-up letter from Farney to Marilyn Gridley were provided to the author.

For the University’s announcement of the Hall Family Foundation’s $3.26 million grant, specifications of the new Hall Center, and quotes from Director Victor Bailey on the events, see the KU News press release (from the 2002 folder in the Hall Center building file) for October 2, 2002. See also, University Daily Kansan, October 3, 2002, and a Kansan editorial on October 11, 2002, titled “Hall Center incorporates past with ideas of the future,” p. 4A. For the Hall Center’s proclamation that the design was complete for its new home, see Lawrence Journal-World, April 12, 2003.

The author wishes to thank Marilyn Gridley, president of the Historic Mount Oread Fund, and Karl Gridley, author of numerous articles and monographs relating to historic preservation at KU and in Lawrence, for speaking with me about their knowledge of, and participation in, preserving KU’s old powerhouse as the new home of the Hall Center for the Humanities. Also thanks to Jim Modig, director of the Design and Construction Management department at KU, Dennis Farney, former president of HMOF, and Greg Sims, AIA, of Robert Slemmons Associates in Topeka.]