The Lord, it’s often said, works in mysterious ways. As such, a case could be made that divine intervention may well have played a role in the creation of Smith Hall, a house of worship in downtown Lawrence that temporarily was converted into a home for male undergraduates attending the University of Kansas.
Living there, according to the memories of some of its residents, wasn’t exactly a slice of heaven. But during the two school years of its existence, in 1946-47 and 1947-48, Smith Hall did nonetheless serve as a makeshift sanctuary for some 100 KU students – men who might have otherwise been told, so to speak, that there was no room at the inn.
The genesis of Smith Hall emanated from the severe housing shortage faced by KU amid the surging tide of post-World War II enrollment by military veterans on the GI Bill. This phenomenon sent student-body totals to their then-highest historical levels and heavily taxed the institution’s every capacity, resulting in overcrowded buildings, overworked professors and an alarming overall lack of classroom and laboratory space.
Yet for all these difficulties, nowhere was the University in need of swifter salvation than in the realm of men’s student housing. Smith Hall was one of the more creative solutions to this dilemma.
Located at 1201 Vermont Street, Smith Hall occupied an actual church. Originally, this structure had served the needs of Lawrence’s Unitarian community, but by 1946, it had come into the possession of the local Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints congregation, a Mormon denomination now known as the Community of Christ. In the summer of that year, the Mormon elders signed an agreement with the University that enabled KU to lease the building for use as a temporary residence for as many as 50 male undergraduates at one time.
According to the agreement, the naming rights for KU’s new housing concern went to the Mormons who chose to call it “Smith Hall,” in honor of Joseph Smith, the nineteenth-century founder of their religion. In addition, the Mormons obtained permission to hold their worship services in KU’s recently completed Danforth Chapel so long as Smith Hall was needed as a men’s residence.
With that settled, the pews at 1201 Vermont came out, the bunk beds came in, and the hastily converted church was ready to receive its full student complement in time for fall semester 1946 classes. On October 3rd of that year, the University Daily Kansan announced the news.
Apparently, the students who ended up calling Smith Hall home fell into one of two categories. “There were two ‘groups’ at Smith,” former resident Dr. Jordan W. Burkey remembered, “veterans of the war and 18-year-old freshmen – all glad to have a place to stay.” Numbering anywhere from 40 to 50 depending on the semester, the students, upon arriving in September 1946, encountered living conditions in Smith Hall that were closely akin to the barracks life the returning GIs thought they’d left behind forever. What they also quickly discovered, though, was that the military privileges of rank remained, in a civilian sense, firmly intact.
“John Margrave and I were proctors [i.e., upperclassmen supervisors],” George Worrall explained, “and had the luxury of living in the pastor’s study, which was fairly well appointed. The rest of the guys were not so lucky. They lived in the sanctuary area, where all the pews had been removed and replaced with double-bunks.”
Philip E. Smith agreed that, for most lodgers, the accommodations weren’t much to write home about. It was basically “a large dormitory room with no privacy,” he wrote in a 2002 retrospective. “We each had a bed and a footlocker in which to store our possessions and a rack with coat-hangers.” In Burkey’s recollection, the men also all shared a single bathroom that had been “plumbed in on the second floor.” And seeing as they had no kitchen or dining facilities, it was pretty much “every man for himself” when it came to meals.
With the sanctuary, sans pews, given over entirely to sleeping quarters, studying was relegated to the church’s basement, which Smith Hall resident Theodore C. “Ted” Bernard said was filled with desks and chairs and was “commonly referred to as ‘the dungeon.’” Elected Smith Hall president that first year, Bernard recalled that he and his fellow discharged soldiers “spent more time studying than most undergrads – we wanted to get our degree and get out!”
Speaking, too, about the veteran complement, Worrall remarked that they were a “fairly serious bunch of guys” who, aside from an occasional game of bridge, ordinarily had little time for anything but the books. As a result, he added, “I don’t think there were a lot of close friendships that developed.”
In Philip Smith’s account, one possible explanation for the general lack of comradeship was the fact that many remained in the Vermont Street church only a short time. In his case, he lived there for only about two months before moving into Battenfeld Scholarship Hall. The main reason for this relocation was that “there was too much talking and noise” for serious-minded Smith Hall students “to do any schoolwork.” (The basement study area, incidentally, also doubled as a communal, and no doubt cacophonous, “rec room.”)
What’s more, Smith added, there was also an apparent rash of Seventh Commandment violations in this house of God that also upset many residents. “There was no real security,” Smith wrote, and even during his brief stay, “we had a number of thefts. One of the men was suspected as the thief but nothing was ever proved.”
For Ted Bernard, however, Smith Hall evoked far fonder recollections. A “very good crew” was how he described the inaugural 1946-47 contingent, one which got along fairly well together and also, reportedly, enjoyed a great deal of behavioral latitude from their proctors and, indeed, from University officials as well.
In fact, Bernard’s most vivid memory was the time when “Claude Engelke and I were painting the rec room with the ‘assistance’ of illegal alcoholic beverages” and, sure enough, in walked the “head honcho of housing” on an unannounced visit. But instead of reading them the riot act, Bernard recalled, he “just told us to get it out of sight before we got everyone in trouble.” Having just helped win the Second World War, it seems, had merited the young men some well-deserved leeway.
In the end, Smith Hall’s own tour of duty of sorts as a men’s residence ended up lasting only two years. Deciding that there would be “enough space for single men” by the time fall semester classes rolled around, the University announced on June 29, 1948, that it would not be renewing its lease on 1201 Vermont.
But before returning the church to the Mormons, there was apparently a need for some physical, as well as spiritual, purification. A contemporary article in the University Daily Kansan noted that Smith Hall required a number of significant “redecorations,” while Bernard recalled a KU housing official once telling him that “This place will really have to be re-blessed, re-anointed and everything else when you ex-GIs get out of here!”
Once these tasks were accomplished, the church’s KU connection officially came to an end. So too did the story, observed Fred McElhenie, KU’s associate director of student housing, of how a “nondescript” Vermont Street building allowed “at least 100 men to attend the University and realize some dreams deferred.”
As for the original church building itself, while it has since been torn down, the property’s religious heritage does, in a way, endure. In its place currently stands the St. John’s campus of the Lawrence Catholic School.
John H. McCool
Department of History
University of Kansas