Don’t tell Dennis Brown that buildings don’t matter.
It was on a December afternoon in 1984 that Brown became surprised at how much they do matter. He had picked up a copy of the Lawrence Journal-World and read that a demolition permit had been filed for the Union Pacific Depot in North Lawrence.
Brown didn’t have any intimate knowledge of the building, but he knew he liked it. He had always liked stone buildings, which is kind of odd for a house painter who probably would be out of business if everybody had built from stone.
But even Brown was surprised at how the news of this building’s pending demise struck him.
“I just remember thinking that I couldn’t hold my head up and still live here if I didn’t do something about this,” Brown said.
Brown had been living here since 1977, and this seven-year Lawrence adventure hadn’t treated him too well. Then along comes this building that perhaps was feeling a bit like he was.
“My personal life was going really bad,” said Brown, who left it at that. “I didn’t know it at the time, but I thought it was easier to save the building than work on what was wrong in my own life.”
By the mid-1990s, the building’s malaise was over. Back on that December day, Brown had written a letter to the editor that ran in the next day’s paper. Several others ran too, and before you knew it, a group had formed and Brown was part of it. After a multi-year effort that involved everybody from City Hall leaders to U.S. Sen. Bob Dole, the building had been refurbished and reinvigorated.
It would be fun to say that the building’s rebirth led to one for Brown. But Brown is a stickler for historical accuracy.
“That would be life as a fairy tale, and it is not,” Brown said.
But Brown had his day, too, and don’t think that the building didn’t play some role in it.
“I certainly didn’t save that building,” Brown said. “Lots of people were involved in that. But there’s probably seven to 10 people in this town who can say that if they hadn’t done what they did, that building probably wouldn’t be there. I’m on that list and that makes me proud.”
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Not everybody in Lawrence uses the word pride to describe historic preservation efforts. Sometimes it is described as more of a pain.
Brown understands that better than most. Today, he is the president of the Lawrence Preservation Alliance. He’s been the group’s president for the last four years and recently was re-elected to another term.
He’s missed only one of the city’s monthly Historic Resources Commission meetings in the last seven years, and he long has been the fellow who often stands up at a microphone and asks city officials to slow down on approving a project that involves building in a historic area.
He knows that doesn’t always make him the most popular guy in a development community that frequently laments of a process that is “business unfriendly.” But he said he does it with good reason.
“When you are going to make an irreversible change, it behooves you to take a moment and make sure you know what you have,” Brown said.
These days there are plenty of opportunities to stand up. Brown recently was instrumental in a compromise that appears destined to save the old Varsity House in the Oread neighborhood while still allowing a new apartment complex to be built on the site. Brown also will be watching plans for a new hotel in historic downtown, a major redevelopment of an old warehouse district in east Lawrence, hopes for the renovation of the old Santa Fe Depot, and a host of other projects that don’t garner nearly as many headlines.
But to Brown those lesser-known structures that maybe weren’t the home of anyone prominent have become an important cause to trumpet.
“I know grand old buildings like the Castle Tea Room or the depot are often the introduction to historic preservation for a lot of people,” Brown said. “But it needs to go beyond that. Historic preservation shouldn’t just be about rich white men. Stories of all types need to be told.”
Fellow historic preservationists who serve with Brown said that even though Brown is often described as quiet, you can bet he’ll find a way to tell those stories.
“He really has just made this his life,” said Carol von Tersch, who serves on the LPA board. “That is really what he brings to this.”
Von Tersch said she can see the efforts of Brown and others beginning to pay off.
“I think there are a lot of people in Lawrence who are a whole lot more knowledgeable about historic preservation than they used to be,” von Tersch said. “I’d like to think that is in part because of the LPA and people like Dennis.”
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Maybe it is surprising that a man who loves old buildings so much was raised in Johnson County — a place that seemingly has more Hummers than history. For awhile it didn’t make sense to Brown either. Growing up in the early 1960s, he would build tree houses with the scrap lumber from the new homes that were constantly popping up around his once rural neighborhood near 87th and Pflumm.
“It wasn’t until high school that I realized I was watching a major cultural change, and I really didn’t like it,” Brown, 59, said.
But old houses were different. Brown likes hearing the stories about how some old homes used to come with a knot-hole guarantee. The builder would pay the homeowner a dollar for every knot found in a piece of lumber.
“Think about how broke you would be today,” Brown said.
But there is more to this fascination than straight lumber and heavy timber. At some point, Brown discovered that an old home could become a canvas. That was an important discovery for a man who had toiled at becoming a short-story writer — a man who read Kerouac and searched for ways to give more layers to words.
A short-story writer, though, had better have another job or a very small stomach. So while in Northern California, Brown met an excellent house painter who taught him the trade. When he returned to Kansas, he brought the trade with him. But even then he wasn’t sure it would be for him. He remembers being frustrated by the dullness of painting a house a single color. Finally he began to persuade a few Lawrence residents to let him add a few extra colors to their house — at no extra charge.
He remembers how his job on one large house in Old West Lawrence produced a steady stream of cars to see the progress. Today, many of Lawrence’s most prominent “painted ladies” have come from the brush of Dennis Brown Painting — a business that he runs with his son Duncan.
“Now I kind of think of what I do as street art that is available to view every day, including Christmas,” Brown said.
Brown isn’t the first to treat a house as a canvas. He realized that one day when he was working on the old home at 701 La. He was painting the shingles that sided the gable above the front porch. Near the top, there was triangle of diagonal shingles placed in a pattern unlike any other on the house.
“I couldn’t figure out what was going on. Then I realized that these guys who built this house so long ago had signed it,” Brown said. “They were saying: ‘We were here and we’re damn proud of it.’”
Buildings matter for a lot of reasons — sometimes because they speak for people who no longer can.
“I painted those shingles with a different color,” Brown said. “It was my way of saying: ‘I understand.’”