Lawrence Modern: Group focused on preservation of city’s historic structures

The living room of Tom Harper and Terri Erickson-Harper’s Lawrence home is a classic example of midcentury modern style.

Lawrence residents Tom Harper and Terri Erickson-Harper are pictured Dec. 9 in their Lawrence home that was built in 1952 and designed by John C. Morley. A defining feature throughout the majority of the home are the Philippine mahogany walls. Harper is one of the founding members of the Lawrence Modern group.

Modern meeting

Lawrence Modern will meet from 3 p.m. to 4:40 p.m. Jan. 29 at the Kansas University Boat House in Burcham Park, 200 Ind.

The Boat House, dedicated in 2009, is the training facility for the KU women’s rowing team and was designed by Treanor Architects.

Jan Burgess, senior project manager with Treanor, and rowing coach Rob Catloth will speak at the meeting.

For more information, visit

Often when we think of wonderful Lawrence homes, we imagine the majestic properties in Old West Lawrence, palatial structures with long histories as intricate as the architecture itself. Fortunately, efforts to preserve these grand residences have been in place for a number of years, ensuring that future generations will be able to appreciate the homes as much as we do today.

But Lawrence is becoming known for another type of home — smaller, leaner dwellings that have none of the dramatic presence or ornamentation of their showy older siblings. As a matter of fact, some of these homes are so inconspicuous that it’s easy to overlook them entirely. They are known as midcentury modern structures, and a growing number of individuals are interested in preserving them.

“Midcentury Modern is an umbrella term that catches a lot of variables,” says Kansas University professor of architecture Dennis Domer. “These buildings are typically more horizontal than vertical. They often have flat roofs, but not necessarily, and cantilevered overhangs and verandas,” he says, noting that thought goes into how the building will relate to its environment.

Construction materials are also different in modern architecture with ample use of steel; longer, flatter bricks; and larger panes of glass.

“The windows connect these homes to their backyards, which expands the living space,” Domer says. “There are sleek lines and smooth surfaces, formica in the kitchen and simple tiles in the bathrooms designed for easy cleaning. It reminds me of the things we valued during the period: speed and efficiency.”

All these architectural details translate into a unique experience when you enter one of the structures, an experience Bill Steele remembers when real estate agent Tom Harper brought him to his home for the first time in 2007.

“At the time, I was interested in golf course architecture and had little interest in homes,” says the owner of a midcentury modern on Avalon Road in the Hillcrest neighborhood. “(Our) house changed that. It resonated with me the moment I walked in the place, although at the time I didn’t even know what midcentury modern was. I just liked the house.”

“The open floor plans inside are sensible and allow people to move around easily,” Domer says, adding that there is a separation between the public and private spaces. “The private part of the house, the bedrooms and bathrooms, are usually a corridor, like a tail off of the main part of the house.”

If at this point Frank Lloyd Wright’s Prairie home style comes to mind, that is no accident. Wright had an enormous influence on these homes, although he personally didn’t design any of them.

Instead, his ideas were channeled through his friend, George Beal, member of KU’s faculty from 1928 to 1970. Beal spent time at Wright’s home in Taliesin in 1937, and the famous architect made many trips to Lawrence throughout the 1930s and 40s. Beal is credited with ushering in a more modern style at KU at a time when most architecture schools were clinging to older, more traditional styles and teaching techniques.

“KU Architecture delivered us from the French!” Domer says, referring to the European Beaux-Arts style with its emphasis on classic Greek and Roman style, symmetry and ornamental detail.

“I doubt my interest in modern architecture would have gone very far if it wasn’t for Lawrence,” Steele says. “What makes the midcentury modern architecture in Lawrence so interesting is that the majority of the best examples were done on a very tight budget … by young architects who graduated from the School of Architecture. … It’s a combination seen in few other communities this size in the United States. These young architects worked with what they had and showed what good design can do, even on a small budget. So in a sense, Lawrence became a kind of experimental station for modern architecture from the 1930s to the 1960s.”

Steele’s reaction was similar to Harper’s, who had sold his Old West Lawrence home to purchase a midcentury home several years earlier. Enter architectural historian Domer, who started talking to Harper and Steele about their homes’ unique style, and Lawrence Modern was born, dedicated to documenting and preserving examples of modern architecture in Lawrence. For though the structures are modern, they are not new.

“We are at a turning point with these buildings,” Domer said. “They are getting older, and we have to decide, are we going to do what it takes to preserve them or are we going to tear them down and start again? … Modern style went through a period when a lot of people disliked it, and many of these homes have been demolished.”

Modern architecture is a style that encompasses more than residences, and Lawrence has numerous public examples of the style, according to Domer: Hillcrest Elementary School, the dorms on Daisy Hill and Allen Fieldhouse to name a few.

“The kind of intimacy in the fieldhouse is masterful,” he says.

The Ecumenical Christian Ministries building on Oread Avenue is another example, and in 2007, the men learned it might be demolished to make way for the Oread Hotel. Lawrence Modern helped convince the ECM board to reject the developer’s offer and instead embark on a capital campaign to raise necessary funds to preserve and renovate the structure. Lawrence Modern wrote the application for the ECM’s placement on the National, State, and Local Historic Registers, which became reality in 2009.

More recently, Lawrence Modern is focusing on the Amtrak train station at Seventh and New Jersey streets, east of downtown. Already having secured funding for a new sign and platform, they now hope the city will take ownership of it and create a transportation hub serving Amtrak, the T bus system and taxis.

The depot, designed in the 1950s by KU architecture graduates, is “an excellent example of Midwestern Modern architecture,” according to the Lawrence Modern website, “… an honest expression of structure and materials without obvious historical references to encumber the facades or interiors.”