An old home may spur a new battle between Lawrence City Hall and one of the city’s more prominent developers.
A pair of city commissioners said they are upset with how Lawrence developer Thomas Fritzel is following through on a deal to rebuild the old Varsity House at 11th and Indiana streets. Fritzel and city commissioners last year agreed to a compromise that allowed his development company to move the 1900s-era Varsity House to make way for a new apartment complex.
But now commissioners are expressing concern that the Varsity House isn’t being returned to the site but rather a replica of the house with largely new materials is being constructed.
“The truth of the matter is, something has to be made right up there,” City Commissioner Mike Amyx said. “The building that is being built up there is not the same building that was taken down.”
Amyx said he wants the city to consider levying a large fine against Fritzel for deviating from an approved site plan. Mayor Bob Schumm said he also wants to have a discussion about how the city could force the project to come into compliance with the agreement that stated the “existing structure” of the Varsity House would be “relocated.” Technically, the city can deny an occupancy permit for the 50-unit apartment building that Fritzel is constructing adjacent to the Varsity House, if the city believes the site plan agreement has not been fulfilled.
“I want to give him the opportunity to address the issues, and then we’ll see where it goes,” Schumm said. “But I’m concerned that if we allow this to continue, we’re sending out a very bad message to developers that rules are bendable and we’re not really that serious about enforcing the rules.”
But Fritzel is speaking out against the idea that he is not upholding his end of the Varsity House compromise.
“I would say we absolutely are following the agreement,” Fritzel said. “I totally disagree with anyone who says we are not.”
This is a controversy that has been percolating since last winter. In December, several community members expressed surprise at how Fritzel had chosen to move the house. Instead of moving the house in one piece to its new site on the lot, Fritzel’s crews essentially chopped the house into three large pieces and hauled it off-site on semitrailers.
City commissioners said they were surprised too.
“The next thing we know, the house is being dismantled and carted away,” Schumm said.
But Fritzel said city leaders shouldn’t have been surprised. He said he met with members of the city’s Planning Department before work began to dismantle the house. He said he told them a consultant hired to determine how to move the house strongly recommended the house not be moved in one piece.
Unbeknownst to Fritzel when he bought the house from Kansas University in a public auction, the house was built using an old-style “balloon framing” method. The framing style meant the house had no headers above the windows or doors and lacked stabilizing floor plates.
“There absolutely was a concern that the house was going to collapse if we tried to move it in one piece,” Fritzel said. “And we told the city that.”
Attempts to clarify what the city was told about the need to disassemble the house weren’t successful Monday afternoon.
The house began to draw attention again this month as crews began to reassemble the house. Members of the public said the Varsity House — which gained its name by serving as a boarding house for the Kansas University varsity football team in the mid-1900s — appeared to be a new house simply made to look old.
The house has all new siding and windows and will have a new roof when it is completed as well. But Fritzel said he told city officials all along that the exterior components of the house had deteriorated to the point that they could not be re-used.
Dennis Brown, president of the Lawrence Preservation Alliance, said his group did know the roof and siding likely wouldn’t be saved. But Brown said Monday that he expected interior staircases, window trim and other materials to be saved to a greater degree than they have been.
“It is basically a new house that uses some salvaged framing materials,” Brown said.
The house does use large amounts of old two-by-fours and floor joists from the original structure, but often times those pieces are directly next to new framing that Fritzel said is needed to better support the house and meet current codes.
Fritzel, who gave a tour of the house to the Journal-World, said the project has done a lot to respect the history of the house, which was built in 1908 but is not listed on any historic registers and is not receiving any historic tax credits. The elements include:
l Saving stone and wood from the front porch to ensure the front of the house has an authentic feel to the original;
l Making exact replicas of window trim that were too rotten to be re-used.
l Replacing the siding of the house with actual cedar shingles rather than the more modern method of using concrete composite replica shingles.
l Interior trim and woodwork that is more historically appropriate than many of the 1970s-style doors and hardware that were installed in the house by KU.
“If people would just give us a little more time to do our work, I think they’ll be really impressed,” Fritzel said. “My number one goal is to enhance the environment up there. I feel the Varsity House will be a true enhancement. I really do believe that.”
Commissioners, though still aren’t sure it was what they were promised.
“I can just say that I’m not very happy about how this has happened,” Schumm said. “I would not have voted in favor of this project if I thought what we were going to get was a replica of the Varsity House.”
Commissioners will debate the subject at their 6:35 p.m. meeting tonight at City Hall.