The current Oread Hotel design represents a huge loss of opportunity for the community, the university, the neighborhood and, ultimately, the developer and the architect. It does not measure up to Lawrence's signature buildings: The Eldridge Hotel, Liberty Hall, Watkins National Bank, the Douglas County Courthouse, or the English Lutheran Church. Nor does it complement or enrich KU's renowned campus, especially not the towers of Dyche Hall and the Campanile to which the design's tower will always be compared. The design lacks an inspiring idea befitting a progressive city and university.
In a "city of the arts," that may contribute about $11 million to the proposed project through tax increment financing, the design is unacceptable. Ironically, even the architects and developers are disappointed. For them, the design is the unfortunate result of a constrained bureaucratic process. For us, it is a collective failure of the imagination that will remind us of our inadequacy for the next 150 years.
Given its magnificent and historic site, the Oread Hotel could symbolize the community and university working together, lending the best that each has to offer. This close relationship could be the signature of gracious hospitality to visitors who come to participate in the university's academic, cultural, and sports activities. Why not an architecture that manifests the long-term, essential partnership between the community and university? This new hotel should be a worthy representation of us to future generations but it must make an inspiring statement in the skyline about who we are and who we aspire to be.
The current design, perhaps influenced by nearby Corbin Hall designed in 1923 in the "English colonial style," has had mixed reviews. The Historic Resources Commission and the Lawrence Preservation Alliance turned down the design because they considered it too tall (95 feet) and too massive (west faÃ§ade 238 feet) for the historic neighborhood. They believed the hotel would diminish the historic value of the Snow House, and the Hancock and Oread neighborhoods, all on the National Register of Historic Places.
A prominent preservationist argued, however, that the neighborhood had lost its historic character anyway through slow fragmentation, so the design should be permitted.
Fragmentation on and around Mount Oread has occurred inevitably for a long time, but not by plan. The hotel is another piecemeal step at the north end of KU, and is more than simply a preservation issue.
An inspiring, living, symbolic architecture in the form of the Oread Hotel would not diminish any historic building or neighborhood. It would only enhance them and set a standard for the new buildings in this dynamic part of town. The best and most recent example of such enhancement is Steven Holl's brilliant addition to the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City. Though contemporary, it sustains the historic beaux arts museum and the Rockhill Neighborhood, both of which are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Holl's addition is also bringing unending international attention to Kansas City for its contemporary design.
Opinion about the hotel design among architects in Lawrence varies remarkably but all agree that we need an outstanding project. Most support a hotel on this site and most also believe that the design should be progressive, forward- not backward-looking. Whatever the design, many architects also believe that it should be a "green" building that is sustainable and accountable for its environmental impact. KU recently declared a campus sustainability day to draw attention to our environmental responsibilities, and this building should do the same. There are ideas about different sites, too, and questions about nearby new developments on the KU campus.
Unfortunately, there has been little public discussion which might inspire a progressive hotel design. A public exchange at this point should be understood in the context of a larger need for a regular public dialogue about architectural design and city planning in Lawrence. Now is time for all good architects, planners, developers, business and university leaders, landscape architects, engineers, contractors, artists, bankers, barbers, bakers, candlestick makers, lawyers, politicians, preservationists, and others to speak up in a professional manner about creating an enduring architecture in Lawrence.
A panel discussion on this topic is scheduled for 2 p.m. Saturday at the Lawrence Public Library. The dean of the School of Architecture and Urban Planning at Kansas University and I will moderate a panel of distinguished professionals and citizens. The architects and developers will participate because the design process cannot be over yet. The architectural discussion must begin.