5.4.7: KU students build arts center for Greensburg

Hundreds of Greensburg residents gather May 4 - the one-year anniversary of the 2007 tornado - for an open house at the 5.4.7 Arts Center. The center was constructed by students in Kansas University's Studio 804 graduate design/build program.

Former Lawrence resident Stacy Barnes has an affinity for an object, one that usually doesn’t inspire much affection – a building.

More than just a physical structure to Barnes, the 5.4.7 Arts Center is the first finished building in Greensburg since the EF-5 tornado destroyed 95 percent of the town’s structures more than a year ago.

To her, the 5.4.7 Arts Center, which gained its name from the date the tornado hit the town, is a symbol of rebirth and a sign the town is heading in the right direction.

“This building is very important to our community right now,” Barnes said. “Since the tornado hit, we don’t have a lot of activities to do outside of work. The building, as an arts center, gives us somewhere to go, something to do.”

KU architecture students in Studio 804 designed and built the Arts Center, completing it in early May. A chameleon of sorts, the building operates as an adaptable hub for the Greensburg community. Greensburg residents conduct town meetings, social gatherings, movies on the lawn, art exhibits and art and theater classes at the center.

Dan Rockhill, architecture professor at KU and founder of Studio 804, said the building was designed with versatility in mind.

“The building has a number of uses, beyond just displaying art,” Rockhill said, “and right now, it’s about the only thing (in Greensburg).”

Real-life experience

Studio 804 is a design studio for KU students earning professional master’s degrees in architecture. Annually, Studio 804 builds an affordable house or building for a neighborhood or community that exhibits need as a final project before students complete the architectural program. This year, the group decided to build in Greensburg, a resolution Jenny Kivett, a graduate who participated in the program, couldn’t be more happy about.

“I feel fortunate that this opportunity was taken during my time as a student,” Kivett said. “It’s probably the best building (Studio 804 has) done, both architecturally and socially.”

Kivett and the other students worked on the project for two months, often starting early and working until midnight. The group sketched and designed and assembled, sleeping little and working hard. When they finished building, they unassembled the structure, hauled it to Greensburg and put it back together again. All of the work, Kivett said, was well worth it.

“I was really satisfied to have finished and to have taken part,” Kivett said. “It was a huge relief to complete the project, but this wasn’t just relief from the two months it took to build it, but from the four years before that, too.”

Justin Cratty, another graduate who participated in the project, said Greensburg residents were welcoming, making the work more enjoyable. Because Greensburg is so isolated, however, Cratty said one setback was the lack of necessary supplies. Often group members had to shuttle back and forth to surrounding towns to buy tools. Despite the obstacles, Cratty was satisfied with the result.

“Overall, I’m really pleased with the way the building came out,” Cratty said. “It was a real honor to be involved.”

Multifunction building

The fact that Greensburg residents made the creation and exhibition of art the central function of the town’s first building resonates with Kivett and Cratty. Both attended the center’s grand opening and viewed the artwork of the first exhibit.

“I think (making the building an art center) was a great choice,” Kivett said. “The building really represents what they want the focus of the town to be: community and culture.”

The artwork of Justin Marable, Topeka resident and KU graduate, will be on display at the center until July 12. In his work, Marable tried to capture images of Greensburg in its present state, juxtaposing pictures of rubble and debris with pictures of environmental progress. He said what he tries to convey with his art aligns well with what Greensburg is striving to do: step in a new direction.

“I feel like it’s a special thing to be a part of,” Marable said. “The building itself is really unique. It’s the only one of its kind in the state, and it’s an important marker, showing the possibilities of what a building can be.”

Green-friendly building

Given an opportunity to redefine the community after the tornado, Greensburg residents pledged to live up to the town’s name by going green. In January, Greensburg residents passed a resolution mandating that all city-owned buildings reach LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Platinum status. To earn the designation, a building has to be considered ecologically sensitive in several areas of environmental health: water and energy efficiency, sustainable site development, indoor environmental quality and materials selection.

The first building in the state of Kansas to earn LEED, the 5.4.7 Art Center utilizes solar panels and wind turbines, and it is built with wood salvaged from an abandoned building.

On the radar

Chris Ballard, a 5.4.7 Arts Center board member, said the center will give tourists a view of Greensburg’s future. Since the tornado, instead of just zipping by on U.S. Highway 54, traffic tends to flow into town. Tourists want to gain a glimpse of the aftermath. Now they can see a new beginning.

“The building is a very visible sign of what our goals are, and it verifies all of the hard work everyone involved put in,” Ballard said. “It’s a very positive thing for Greensburg, and it has really boosted our efforts in getting this town rebuilt.”

It’s uncertain whether Studio 804 will work in Greensburg again. Rockhill said he leaves decisions like that up to his students, and he won’t have a new batch until next year. In the meantime, Rockhill is simply satisfied with the success of this year’s project.

“I couldn’t be happier with the outcome,” Rockhill said. “With our skills and Greensburg’s need, I think it was a perfect match.”