Lawhorn’s Lawrence: The beauty of Allen Fieldhouse

Warren Corman looks over Allen Fieldhouse, one of the many buildings he designed in Lawrence.

Here’s the thing about Allen Fieldhouse: It is hard to pinpoint why it is so beautiful.

Sure, a lot of winning basketball certainly has helped, but that’s not what has turned the building into a revered icon. Lots of schools have won lots of basketball games, and then turned around and torn down their old gyms and replaced them with something newer and fancier.

But as Allen Fieldhouse celebrates its 60th birthday this year, that’s obviously not been the fate of the old barn. Warren Corman, the longtime former architect for Kansas University, said it has never even been seriously mentioned on Mt. Oread.

“I think we probably would have shot and buried them on campus if they ever suggested it,” Corman says.

The building has a special place in the hearts of many people, but especially Corman. He’s the last living member of the team of state architects who designed the building. So, he’s as good as anyone to help me figure out just what it is about Allen’s beauty that has allowed it to stand the test of time.

Warren Corman looks over Allen Fieldhouse, one of the many buildings he designed in Lawrence.

I have my guesses. The windows would be near the top of the list. Rays of sunshine on a Saturday afternoon, streaming across a row of banners, is beautiful indeed. Or maybe it’s just how the perfectly organized bleachers frame the hardwood court like a fine piece of art. I don’t know. My inability to draw a stick figure dashed my dreams of being an architect long ago. But Corman knows. He can reveal that critical detail that makes the place so special.

The women’s restrooms.


I’ve been assured there aren’t gold-plated trays of chocolate bars in there or anything. But there are a lot of toilets. A lot more than there are in the men’s restrooms, and Corman said that is the detail of Allen Fieldhouse he is proudest of.

In the 1990s when Allen Fieldhouse was getting a renovation, he successfully lobbied that the women’s restrooms should get roughly three times as many toilets as the men’s restrooms. The idea seemed critical to Corman because women spend so much more time in the restroom than men. To support his argument, Corman spent a good deal of time standing outside women’s restrooms at sporting events. He would notice when a woman went into the restroom, start his stopwatch, and then stop it when she left the facility. The conclusion was unmistakable.

“I was pretty suspicious there for a while,” Corman, now 88, says.

Ah, the life of an architect. They get to do many things, and for years one of Corman’s regular tasks was to wander around KU’s campus with sketchbook in hand. When a new building is proposed for the campus, someone has to figure out exactly where it is going to go, and that task often fell to Corman.

Allen Fieldhouse was just one of many projects Corman worked on. He started his career in 1946 in the state architect’s office, and later moved to the Kansas Board of Regents, and then served as the university’s architect for 13 years before retiring in 2010. He is still serving as an advisor on the construction of a new building for the school of engineering.

The fieldhouse is among his favorite buildings, but the Dole Institute of Politics and the boathouse for the Kansas rowing team on the Kansas River also make the list. And plenty of projects have created memories.

There was a time when the chancellor asked him to figure out how to get a bit more space for the humanities. Corman drew up a plan for a rather mundane expansion of an existing building on campus. The idea was pitched to the Hall Family Foundation, the foundation that is connected to founders of the Hallmark Cards empire.

Corman remembers that the director of the foundation wasn’t impressed and asked Corman what could be done to improve the quality of the project. Corman said a new building could meet the expectations of the foundation. But Corman added that his proposed expansion would cost a quarter of a million dollars while a new building would cost $6 million to $7 million.

“He told me he didn’t ask what it would cost,” Corman recalls. “The chancellor told me to go find a site.”

And sometimes some of the best buildings are the ones that didn’t get built. Corman remembers how former football coach Mark Mangino once had a plan to build the football program’s offices and training facility into the side of the hill at the base of the iconic Campanile. Corman, of course, knew that would never work. Then he heard the chancellor say that such a building could be built — then the chancellor added “and we’ll be sure to bury Warren Corman beneath it.”

It was good for a number reasons that didn’t happen, including that we would have lost a lot about Allen Fieldhouse’s history. Corman has had the chance to tell a lot of stories during this 60th anniversary year. He remembers how they had to put on the plans that Allen Fieldhouse could be used as an armory, if needed. That helped the project get the necessary steel during the Korean War. He remembers that the plans were all drawn by hand. Every number of every seat was inked onto the plans showing the bleachers. Then one day, someone spilled a bottle of ink on the set of plans. It was perhaps Allen Fieldhouse’s first turnover.

Corman says it has been a lot of fun seeing the fieldhouse create its own character over the years. He sits 11 rows up from the court, in case you are wondering. He said it has taken on a feel that designers hoped it would.

“I think it is intimate,” Corman says. “When you are in the crowd, you definitely feel like you are part of the crowd, and I don’t ever hear anyone fuss about that.”

Maybe that is what makes the fieldhouse beautiful. I give Corman another chance to explain the beauty of Allen.

“I don’t think anyone would ever say it would win an award for being a beautiful looking building on the outside,” Corman says. “It would never show up on the front of any architectural magazine for being so beautiful.”

But Corman says the building does function very well. It was designed to be a place to play basketball, hold P.E. classes and, in a real pinch, store a tank. It has done most of that very well. Maybe that is what makes it beautiful. But it seems to me that Corman and his colleagues built one other function into this grand building, whether they intended to or not.

For 60 years now, perhaps its most important function has been as place where people from all ages and backgrounds can come together and scream, chant and unite in a common cause. For six decades it has been a place that has produced far more happiness than not.

Now that’s beautiful.