Archive for Saturday, October 29, 2011

Building the case for historic preservation

Dennis Brown is president of the Lawrence Preservation Alliance and a long time historic preservationist in Lawrence. His group helped save a historic home at 1120 Rhode Island St. in collaboration with the Tenants to Homeowners organization that helped a young couple acquire the house.

Dennis Brown is president of the Lawrence Preservation Alliance and a long time historic preservationist in Lawrence. His group helped save a historic home at 1120 Rhode Island St. in collaboration with the Tenants to Homeowners organization that helped a young couple acquire the house.

October 29, 2011


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.”

• • •

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.”

• • •

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.’”

— City reporter Chad Lawhorn can be reached at 832-6362. Follow him at


consumer1 2 years, 5 months ago

Why didn't any of these so callerd hero's save the Japanese interment camp off 11th street??? Or was that not the history they wanted to save?? There in lies the problem, a thimble full of people determine what is historic, Just like the Lawrence art commission decides what art is... And you can tell by some of the debri downtown, they don't really have a clue!


Ron Holzwarth 2 years, 5 months ago

Many times I have driven out of town guests around Lawrence. In every case, they were all very awed and impressed by the sheer number of classic structures that have withstood the test of time.

Very, very few have gasped in awe at our modern Walmart or any of the new subdivisions that have sprung up lately.

In fact, I can't remember a single one that did.


roadwarrior 2 years, 5 months ago

Sorry your having trouble getting rid of your historic Alceste. I'm not sure what your referring to but it sounds like 'who you sell it to' has some restrictions. ...I hope you can find a historic loving home-owner for your home.


kansasplains 2 years, 5 months ago

Oh-I forgot to mention - Ron, where are the locations of these houses which are still standing, which you mention?


kansasplains 2 years, 5 months ago

Thanks for your wonderful work. It is great to see houses with different colors-a lot like San Francisco. Even in the wintertime, these houses attract your attention.

Flatonthekaw-you are right on, as is RonHolzwarth.

Flatonthekaw, you are so right - this is real history happening! Not something in books alone from times past.

And RonHolzwarth, you are right on too - Lawrence is a community that VALUES HISTORIC SIGNIFICANCE!


poolside 2 years, 5 months ago

Thanks to Dennis for all you and your group does. Seriously, How can I join?


Bushloather1 2 years, 5 months ago

Thanks Dennis and the other people for looking out for Lawrence. This town has heart.


FlawontheKaw 2 years, 5 months ago

We should celebrate because these homes have significant human and social value far beyond your mere materialistic evaluation of them. They have served as a sanctuary and a place to call home for many different families through many different generations. Within their walls many stories of hope, love, tradgedy, and triumph have played out over the years with one thing in common--They have always been in the same place--Within Lawrence and a part of the community in which it stands. People come and go, but the houses always stay. This is pure history happening. With funding cuts to the Arts and social programs and the present economic situation so dire it seems like a good idea to preserve what we already have here and take care of it for future generations.


kshiker 2 years, 5 months ago

A career made out of telling other people what to do with their own property. Why are we celebrating this?


Alceste 2 years, 5 months ago

These fancy pants "historic professionals" do NOT work for the working class or working people. Get a bid for painting a single story house built between 1910 and 1930, in decent condition all things considered from Dennis Brown Painting and hold onto your shirt. Only the 1%ers can afford it.....

This outfit, LPA, wants to restrict what a person can or cannot do to their own owner occupied home and yet won't buy it off of you to demonstrate they're so all REALLY concerned. Piffle.


roadwarrior 2 years, 5 months ago

plenty of wood to paint on a stone house...pfft...never seen stone doors, eaves or windows anywhere but on the flintstones cartoon. Well done Dennis.....enlighten on the passion of protecting what was created by those that came before us with respect for that craftsmanship. It truely is a labor of love.


Ron Holzwarth 2 years, 5 months ago

There was a very interesting house in my home town that was demolished in 1963 or 1964 that can never be replaced. It was a sod house within the city limits of St. Francis, Kansas just west of the bowling alley. Some of us remember it stoically sitting at a 45 degree angle on a lot within the town that had grown up around it.

Yes, it could have been preserved, its condition was really not that bad in 1963. But, it's gone now. Along with one of the small homes that had been constructed from an old railroad boxcar on the west side of Scott Street on the 600 block. I remember that one well, when I was young it was right across the street.

A small home built from an old railroad boxcar was featured in the film 'Harold and Maude'. They are rarely seen today.

Today, there are no sod houses or old railroad boxcar homes in St. Francis at all. But fortunately, there are a few still standing in other locations.


verity 2 years, 5 months ago

While I am all for preservation of worthwhile structures and recycling, making as small a footprint as possible, etc., it seems to me that not every structure is worth saving.

For instance the house pictured above---I know it went over budget, but no one could/would answer my question about how much it actually cost to renovate it. As far as I know, it has no particular historical value as far as design or events happening there. I was shocked to see the interior of the house after the renovation---it seemed to me that cheap materials were used and many things were not done well.

On the other hand, the (sort of rent to own) structures put up in the empty lots next to this house looked pretty slapped together quickly. I didn't see the interiors after they were done, but looking at some of the work done outside I suspect that there are going to be structural problems pretty quickly. They are also not designed or oriented to make the best use of sunlight. I have no idea what they cost in relation to the renovation---does anybody have those figures?


blindrabbit 2 years, 5 months ago

Wish Dennis was not around when they decided to demolished the old Santa Fe Train Station.


Mike Myers 2 years, 5 months ago

Keep up the great work Dennis and thank you.


Richard Heckler 2 years, 5 months ago

It could be that these older homes are better constructed than a lot of newer homes that our children dubbed as cardboard houses such that they were building in our living room.

Hats off to the LPA. Older buildings and homes have good resale value and are attractive to buyers. In fact I speculate that spending $200,000 on a rehab home project would be the better dollar value over buying a new constructed home for the same price that which not much is known about the quality of construction behind those walls.

At least in a rehab project one can take a peek and fix if necessary.


Richard Heckler 2 years, 5 months ago

I'm all for historic preservation but I am NOT for school district tax dollars to become part of tax rebates,abatements or any other tax dollar give away program that has come to our tables in 2011.


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