In post World War II Lawrence, modern architecture arrived in the form of sleek commercial buildings, monolithic university structures and unusual, geometric-inspired homes.
Love them or hate them, historian and consultant Dale Nimz said, these buildings tell the story of what was happening to our city at the time: change.
“There’s a great spirit of optimism and feeling of progress,” Nimz said. “The town is booming, and there’s a lot of excitement about that.”
Such midcentury modern buildings are now coming of age, at least in terms of becoming eligible for official historic designation. To prepare for potential preservation efforts, the city has begun formally documenting modern architecture and its significance to Lawrence’s history.
At the city’s request, Nimz researched modern architecture in Lawrence and is expected to present his report at the next Historic Resources Commission meeting, set for 6:30 p.m. Thursday at City Hall, 6 E. Sixth St.
Such research can be used to inform redevelopment decisions involving modern buildings, Nimz said. It can also knock out some of the legwork an applicant would face in getting an individual property on the historic register.
Nimz’s report focuses on modern buildings constructed from 1945 to 1975.
Modernism in architecture is generally defined by its emphasis on form rather than ornamentation, structure and materials over picturesque construction and the rational and efficient use of space, according to the report.
It was a sharp break with the look of the past, Nimz said, and that was on purpose.
As post-war Lawrence grew, so did examples of a modern building style to convey its focus on the future.
Starting with Carruth-O’Leary Hall, Kansas University built at least eight dorms and other group residences in the modern style between 1955 and 1965, according to the report. Starting with Hillcrest Elementary School in 1953, the city built at least six modern elementary schools, West Junior High and Lawrence High School in a roughly eight-year period.
People who built modern homes were looking for something different, contemporary and cool, Nimz said. Examples in Lawrence range from one-of-a-kind architect-designed residences to less unusual builder-designed homes.
And on Massachusetts Street, modern facades stood out against the rustic brick storefronts of an earlier era. For businesses, Nimz said, it was a way to tell potential customers, “We’re different, we’re up to the minute and we have the latest there is to offer.”
Registering takes research
Lawrence has two midcentury modern buildings on the National Historic Register, Ecumenical Campus Ministries at 1204 Oread Ave. and the Donald and Jewel Dean House at 934 W. 21st St., better known as the Double Hyperbolic Paraboloid House.
Tom Harper, a Lawrence real estate agent and founder of Lawrence Modern, led the charge on both.
And it was hard work.
“Why is this an important building?,” Harper said. “You have to answer that question, and it can’t just be a paragraph or a sentence. So there’s a lot of research involved.”
Much of the required research is property specific. For example, for the ECM nomination Harper interviewed close to 10 people who rewound their memories more than 50 years to describe their reactions to the “fabulous new building up on the hill.” He consulted an architecture professor to describe the building’s design in accurate technical terms.
The other part of a nomination is showing how the building fits into its surroundings historically. That's where Nimz's report is hoped to help.
“You have to provide context,” Harper said. “What’s going on with the world, our community when these structures were constructed?”
Harper leads Lawrence Modern along with Dennis Domer and Bill Steele. The group’s mission is raising awareness of midcentury modern architecture in Lawrence and promoting its preservation, and their research is part of Nimz’s report.
To preserve or not to preserve
Are all midcentury modern buildings worth bending over backwards to preserve?
That’s where the debates happen.
Nimz said like any art form where experimentation is involved, results include some successful and some not-so-successful specimens.
Especially for commercial and public buildings, he said, usefulness and viability factor in with historical and architectural significance.
But overall, Nimz said, modern architecture shouldn’t be discounted just because it’s not “old.”
“Modernism is one of the hot topics in historic preservation these days,” he said. “We realize that modern style buildings are beginning to be threatened ... so we’re trying to get ahead.
“We know choices are coming.”