Archive for Monday, October 8, 2001

Historic buildings halt plans ––— Usher House, Spooner Hall are center of demolition controversy

October 8, 2001


Fraternity members live in a mansion at 1425 Ky. built by President Lincoln's secretary of the interior. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

It's one of two properties at the center of a debate whether KU should demolish houses it owns in the 1300 block of Ohio to make way for scholarship halls.

The other is KU's Spooner Hall, the oldest academic building on campus. It now houses the Museum of Anthropology.

Because the houses slated for demolition are near the two historic buildings, the city and campus historical review boards must approve the plans to destroy them.

The Campus Historic Preservation Board unanimously approved the plans in August; the city's Historic Resources Commission unanimously rejected them last month. The groups will meet later this month to resolve their differences.

If they can't resolve their differences, the proposal could end up in the hands of the State Historical Society.

Usher House

The Usher House, now home to Beta Theta Pi, was built in 1872 by John Palmer Usher, secretary of the interior under Lincoln. He left office early to become general counsel for the Union Pacific Railroad.

The building, of Italian design, includes walnut paneling donated by the Pullman railroad manufacturing company and a fireplace given by Usher's former associates in Lincoln's cabinet. A clock once owned by Mary Todd Lincoln hangs in what is now the Trophy Room.

Usher was elected mayor of Lawrence in 1879. He was best known for stopping the grazing of cattle in South Park, which made many irate.

Walt Whitman stayed in the house for a weekend in 1879.

Beta Theta Pi bought the house in 1912.

"This house binds you to the past while we're here at college learning for the future," said Chris Adams, a senior and a fraternity member.

President Tom Alderson, a senior, said he wasn't sure how tearing down the houses would affect the Beta House's historic value. The houses were built around 1900 but suffer from neglect and have been divided into apartments.

"I don't know if it would have much effect in general," Alderson said. "It would have an effect on the historic neighborhood itself. If they build a new scholarship hall, it's (the Beta house) not going to be looked at any differently."

Anthropology museum

Mary Adair, interim director of the Museum of Anthropology, said the conflict between preservation and progress would someday make a good exhibit for the museum.

Until then, the museum is part of the controversy.

Spooner Hall, best known for its red sandstone building and tile roof, was built in 1894 after William B. Spooner of Boston left money to the university in honor of his great-nephew, Chancellor F.H. Snow.

The building originally housed KU's library and was praised in Harper's Weekly for its modern conveniences such as iron bookshelves and electric lights.

"It represented a real sign of progress of the time," said Steve Jansen, historian with the Watkins Community Museum of History. "And being on the hill, it was still part of the landscape of the university."

When Watson Library was built in 1924, Spooner Hall became an art museum. It also was a classroom building and residence hall before housing anthropology exhibits.

Like fraternity members, Adair, who also serves on the State Historic Sites Board, said the proposed scholarship halls certainly would affect the neighborhood, but she isn't sure how they would affect the historical value of her building.

"Housing is a big problem, but should it be done at the cost of preservation?" she asked. "Part of our environs is the historical context. The buildings create a sense of place in that area."

-- Staff writer Terry Rombeck can be reached at 832-7145.

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