It looks as if the fears of local residents concerned about the future of the Varsity House near 11th and Indiana have been realized.
The significant house, which once served as home for the Kansas University football team, found itself in the way of “progress” last year when Lawrence developer Thomas Fritzel submitted plans for a 50-plus-unit apartment complex near the house. Fritzel originally proposed demolishing the house, but after local preservationists objected, he agreed to move the structure closer to the corner to accommodate his development. Based on that promise, preservationists dropped their objection to the project but were shocked when Fritzel decided to “move” Varsity House by dismantling it and putting the pieces in a warehouse. At the time, observers questioned whether the house ever could be reassembled in a way that would preserve its historic character.
That question now has been answered. The house is being “reassembled,” but with almost none of its original materials. The smaller house that is being constructed with mostly new materials on a concrete slab is not the Varsity House. Only the first floor of the three-story building has been rebuilt, but it’s clear this structure will be nothing more than a poor replica of the original structure, without any of its distinctive elements, such as the stone foundation.
Lawrence city commissioners have added an item to their agenda for tonight to receive a “staff update” on the Varsity House project. Unfortunately, any discussion city commissioners have at this point won’t save this significant structure. The city can fine Fritzel or perhaps take other action — and it should consider all the available penalties — but it cannot bring this house back.
This is the third time in recent memory that Fritzel has ignored city regulations or approved plans and gone in a different direction without informing city officials. There were substantial changes to the exterior appearance of The Oread hotel and Fritzel’s decision to install artificial turf at one of his apartment complexes even after city inspectors informed work crews that the turf violated city codes. In each case, including the Varsity House, he made a conscious decision to move forward, knowing that what he had in mind didn’t meet the spirit, or perhaps even the letter, of city law.
The history of this developer should give the city some pause as it moves toward constructing a major recreation center in which Fritzel almost certainly will be involved. His past actions don’t inspire the kind of trust the city needs to have in the people with whom it works.