Local History: What if KU’s campus were in downtown? History books show some thought it should be.

An aerial photo of the University of Kansas campus in August 2015.

Editor’s note: Local History is a new monthly column in the Journal-World. It is written by longtime Douglas County historian Steve Jansen. Look for the column each month in the Journal-World’s Crave section, or look for it online under the Living category of LJWorld.com.

When we view the University of Kansas in 2020, there is a general agreement on the beauty of the campus. Its original location on a hilltop for us today seems such a good choice as it adds to the overall layout and attractiveness. We take for granted the paved roads and sidewalks and hence the accessibility. Most of us do not physically climb up to the top of the hill, which makes it easier to emphasize the positive aspects of being on a hill and to discount the effort involved in ascending it.

Historical records show us that early residents of the community, especially in the nineteenth century, saw and experienced the location on the top of a hill in a much different light than we do today.

In “Old Fraser: The University of Kansas,” compiled by Carol Shankel and Barbara Watkins (1984), there is an interesting perspective offered in the University Courier student newspaper on January 8, 1884, by an author simply identified as “R.”

“It seems that a mistake was made in the situation of the University. It is a long, cold climb in the first place, especially hard upon young women; then the distance from the student’s boarding place enforces an arrangement of recitations that is damaging to good work and good health.”

The recitations of 1884 are what we call classes today. The University in Lawrence was known as Kansas State University then. In fact, most of the students in attendance were taking what were called preparatory courses; what we would today call high school studies. Latin and Greek were still prominent in the academic work of the college students. Climbing up the side of the hill without sidewalks and given the Kansas rains often meant that the young women, who often were wearing long skirts, had to use corn cobs to push the mud off their skirts.

Lucas Mortenson, a planner for the City of Lawrence, tells me that in 2020, the city occupies 34.85 square miles. He further told me that the university occupies at least 908.54 acres, or roughly 1 1/3 square miles. Whatever the size of the modern Lawrence, most of us believe KU is in the heart of the city. In reality, it is more on the east side of town. But think of this: In 1884, the location of KU relative to Lawrence was that it was southwest of the town and physically not part of Lawrence.

The University Courier stated in 1884: “it would be much better if the University were in the midst of the town, so that lectures and recitations could be scattered through the day allowing time by rest and study between them. This is the custom at the German schools, and to some extent at Harvard. It now is impossible to move the school down town. The only thing left seems to be the erection of boarding houses and dormitories … We think something should be done. Let us hear from others.”

It is important to note that then there were no university-built dormitories. I have read that one of the incentives to build the relatively large homes in what is now the Oread neighborhood was to provide for the owners of those homes a relatively reliable income in these years before Social Security was available. So the boarding places for students were located in those Oread homes.

While the student newspaper called for action, in reality it took the passage of time. In fact it took the passage of several decades. Even as late as World War II, KU was seen very differently. When I was working at the Watkins Museum of History, I had naval veterans who were trained here during WWII ask me if the university had been moved because when they were here, there were farms located right outside KU on 2 1/2 sides.

When I read community groups’ comments like those in the University Courier in 1884 as to how “much better if the University were in the midst of the town”, I caution them to be careful what they wish for. For community residents in the 20th and 21st centuries, the perception is that KU is in the middle of the town. Often they are frustrated as a result when they are moving about and trying to go from place to place in Lawrence because for us the location of KU complicates travel locally.

— Steve Jansen has been a resident of Lawrence since 1974. He was an employee of the Watkins Museum of History from 1977 to 2002, and served as the director from 1979 to 2001. He received his Ph.D. in history from the University of Kansas in 1985. He edited “Pictorial History of Lawrence, Douglas County, Kansas” in 1992.


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