Architect Dennis Domer documents way we live

“You can be taught to read a landscape just like a book, and it will tell you a story that has an authenticity that is very hard to find,” says Dennis Domer, who was recognized at the 2012 Only in Lawrence ceremony.

Dennis Domer promises that Kansas never has to be boring again.

Domer, the director of graduate studies for Kansas University’s Department of American Studies and a former associate dean at the School of Architecture, has made that promise to a multitude of students over the years. The reason is because Domer is convinced every place has a story.

“You can be taught to read a landscape just like a book, and it will tell you a story that has an authenticity that is very hard to find,” Domer said.

Consider Domer a voracious reader.

Lawrence has been one of his most frequent subjects. Over the past decade, Domer has led an effort to catalog 50 working class homes in old east Lawrence. Researchers document details of the homes all the way up to the rafters in the attic. Many of the homes are ordinary but old. People drive by them daily, but may not ever give them a second thought. In time, they’re the type of structures that simply will fade away through decay or new development. And when they do, Domer is convinced a valuable piece of the past is lost.

“My goal, my service to the community really is to document as many pieces of architecture from the 19th and 20th centuries as I can, relate them to a larger context and then write a big tome about it,” Domer said. “I feel like the service I can provide is to write the history that no one else is writing.”

The work on the east Lawrence project is nearly complete. But Domer and others are now working to document about 50 houses in Old West Lawrence. When that project is completed in the next several years, Domer plans to produce a book for a broader audience that attempts to put the two iconic neighborhoods into context for Lawrence residents.

“It appears east Lawrence is very different than Old West Lawrence, but the biggest difference really is just scale,” Domer said.

But Domer believes studying the homes can reveal more than just the building techniques of the day or how people ran their households. He said the buildings and the development patterns of a neighborhood can say a lot about other issues of the time.

“Probably 85 to 95 percent of these building came out of a time that people today can hardly imagine,” Domer said. “Yet those times posed some very typical problems we still face.

“The issue of the economy and jobs, the issue of how the downtown responds to new needs, were all present back then. All of that is being repeated, but we don’t remember history very much. We don’t understand how much of the past is right there in front of us with answers to the future.”

Architectural history has been one of Domer’s specialities both while in the School of Architecture and the American Studies department. Domer, a native Kansan who grew up across the street from the John Riggins home in Centralia, also spent time at the University of Kentucky as the school’s distinguished professor in historic preservation.

But Domer doesn’t spend all his time analyzing the past. David Dunfield, a Lawrence architect and former city commissioner, said he always has been impressed that Domer can be an advocate for historic preservation while recognizing the importance of newer developments too.

“He has really brought an interest that goes beyond the landmarks,” Dunfield said. “It is unusual for a preservation-oriented architect to be a real promoter of more modern architecture.”

Domer, though, is spending quite a bit of time these days thinking about the future of architecture, specifically how it can work for baby boomers. Domer has put together a group, at the request of a Kansas City-area developer, that is studying how communities ought to be built to accommodate the baby boomers.

Like most things for Domer, the project goes beyond just lines on paper.

“We’re really trying to reconceptualize the culture of aging,” Domer, 67, said. “We can’t afford to do retirement how we have done it in the past. Unless we have a cultural change, we probably won’t be able to take advantage of a society that is increasingly aging.”

Changing America’s views about aging is just one a few projects Domer hopes to complete. He also wants to do a study on Downtown Lawrence’s continued growth as an urban core, about the rise and fall of “McMansion”-style homes in Lawrence, documentation of several 1950s and ’60s pieces of modern architecture, and several other topics.

It all leads him to believe that there is one thing he won’t be doing anytime soon — retiring.

“That is one of those words I have removed from my vocabulary,” Domer said. “I probably have a life or two ahead of me to get all of this done.”