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Archive for Sunday, June 1, 2008

Poem in stone

Dyche Hall contender for architectural honor

Tristan Smith, visitor services coordinator for the Natural History Museum at Dyche Hall, steps behind a column on the building's front facade to point out some of the intricacies of its design. The building is under consideration to be named as one of the Eight Architectural Wonders of Kansas. The contest is sponsored by the Kansas Sampler Foundation.

Tristan Smith, visitor services coordinator for the Natural History Museum at Dyche Hall, steps behind a column on the building's front facade to point out some of the intricacies of its design. The building is under consideration to be named as one of the Eight Architectural Wonders of Kansas. The contest is sponsored by the Kansas Sampler Foundation.

June 1, 2008

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Dyche Hall: Architectural Wonder?

Kansas University's Dyche Hall is a finalist to become one of the Eight Architectural Wonders of Kansas. Tristan Smith, visitor services coordinator for the KU Natural History Museum, gives a tour of the building's architecture. Enlarge video

On the street

Which building in Lawrence do you think has the most interesting architecture?

I really like the older buildings, so the Eldridge is one of my favorites. Mostly because of the inside. It’s so well preserved.

More responses

Tristan Smith stares up at the Kansas limestone walls of Dyche Hall, and the beasts stare back.

There are real animals (monkeys, bears and many more), zodiac creatures and those truly imagined, such as flying rabbits.

"You could stand here for an hour and pick out animals," says Smith, visitor services coordinator at the Kansas University Natural History Museum, which is housed here.

The museum is one of the state's top tourist attractions, drawing 50,000 to 60,000 visitors a year. But most of those tourists want to see the collection inside - including the dinosaur skeletons, the more modern taxidermic collections and Comanche, the only Union survivor of the Battle of Little Big Horn.

They simply walk past the architecture that makes this one of the most unique buildings in Kansas - not even realizing the building includes an early version of the "Rock Chalk Jayhawk" chant or the earliest-known rendition of the Jayhawk mascot.

But thanks to a statewide competition, the 105-year-old Dyche Hall is getting some new recognition as an architectural gem.

The hall is one of 24 finalists to become one of the Eight Wonders of Kansas Architecture, a competition sponsored by the Kansas Sampler Foundation. Voting continues for the winners through June 15.

The goal of the competition, says Kansas Sampler director Marci Penner, is to make people realize that incredible architecture doesn't just exist on the coasts. Kansans should appreciate what's around them, she says.

"They may not recognize what they have in their own backyard," she says.

Science and art

By 1901, the need was clear: KU needed a place to showcase its world-renowned collection of animal specimens from all corners of the earth.

The need was driven, in part, by Francis H. Snow, former chancellor at KU, and curator Lewis Lindsay Dyche, who were both prolific collectors of the world's animal specimens.

Construction started in 1901 and ran through 1903. Dyche, who provided an elaborate taxidermic panorama for the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago, provided the rudimentary design for the Natural History Museum. That design was honed by Kansas City architects Walter C. Root and George W. Siemens.

The architects' design is in the Venetian Romanesque style - specifically, the Church of St. Trophime, a 15th-century Catholic cathedral in Arles, France. Dyche Hall's iconography includes several church-related symbols, including the eagle of St. John and the style of windows found in European cathedrals.

But the overwhelming majority of iconography is that of critters - those meant to represent the biology collections being showcased inside the building. Those carved critters, numbering in the hundreds, are found in every crevice of the building.

"The closer you get, the more you find," Smith says. "You have all these nooks and crannies where everything is hidden, and it's a lot like nature - until you get up into it, into the world and habitats, you don't know there are bobcats and deer a few hundred feet from you."

Creature comfort

And yet, looking at the Kansas-harvested limestone, you can find creatures of every type.

There are grotesques - not gargoyles, which spout water.

There is an owl peering across Oread Avenue at the owl at Spooner Hall. Those represent a gateway to the KU campus and the connection between libraries (Spooner was the original KU library) and sciences (at Dyche).

And there are the names of several scientists, including those of Charles Darwin - both the founder of evolutionary science and the villain in evolutionary debates - and Thomas Huxley, another evolutionary scientist.

"It is our desire to carve (the building) beautifully with all manner of birds, beasts and reptiles," the architects said in their official statement. "We think the exterior should represent the uses of the building in its details, and in a general sense that its architectural character should be sufficiently dignified and beautiful to fittingly express the dignity of the institution."

But this building is more than science - it's about the connection between science and art.

Ted Johnson, a retired classics professor, knows that. Johnson, who is known for his Stop Day tour of campus, has been studying the iconography of Dyche Hall for decades.

"It's the interrelations of the different details that make the whole work become, in a sense, a wonderful poem in stone," Johnson says.

That interrelation helps to make the connection between science and other academic forms a reality.

"It takes fantasy and reality and blurs them together in some ways," he says.

The building has experienced some tough spells through the years. In 1932, the state closed it down, citing unsafe conditions - in part, because of the heavy load the mammal collections put on the floors. It reopened in 1941, once state funding rebounded after the Great Depression.

And Dyche Hall has experienced two major expansions to hold growing collections - in 1963 and 1996.

Today, it houses millions of specimens and remains a space for both scientific research and tourist appeal. Aside from some normal limestone erosion and weathering of the front steps - which contain fossils that are more easily shown after a rain storm - the building is still functional, still being used for its original purpose.

"It seems to stand up well for itself," Smith says.

'More you find'

In some ways - at least architecturally, from a lay perspective - the variety of the building is what makes it worth stopping on the steps to admire.

"Everybody reads it differently," Johnson says. "Children one way, adults another."

For any KU fan, the building contains a source of pride. Three grotesques proclaim the "Rock, Chalk, Jayhawk" chant, which at the time was the motto for the university's science club. And on the east side, on a small pillar, it has a Jayhawk depiction - believed to be the earliest one in history - next to the words "KU."

Dyche Hall, which has a tower that can be seen for miles, is more than a house of science. This houses the traditions of the university.

But it takes more than a quick walk across campus to realize the treasures on the limestone. It takes time to examine.

"The closer you get," Smith says, "the more and more you find."

Comments

Paul Decelles 6 years, 7 months ago

jrlii,I agree. Unfortunately creationists have made a cottage industry of distorting Darwin's ideas and those of other scientists as well.

Janet Lowther 6 years, 7 months ago

". . . Charles Darwin - both the founder of evolutionary science and the villain in evolutionary debates. . ."Darwin is the HERO of the evolutionary debates, at least unless you are one of those people who can't keep the difference between science and dogma straight.Science is about discovering physical explanations for physical phenomena. Once you admit "God made it so" as an explanation, you have exited the realm of science and entered the realm of religion.Indeed, admitting "God made it so" as an explanation stifles all future research, because there is no explaining God. That God might have taken a role in causing mutations is irrelevant: We can see evidence of the change, but have no way to access the cause beyond the physical world. Did God cause a cosmic ray or chemical toxin to alter a gene? There is absolutely no way to know, we only know that the gene changed.That said, Dyche hall is easily one of the most distinguished buildings in the state, well ahead of the capitol building.

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