Haskell’s historic, long-shuttered Hiawatha Hall receives new red roof; reopening still years away

Workers replace the roof on Hiawatha Hall at Haskell Indian Nations University Thursday, Sept. 14, 2017.

The oldest structure on the Haskell Indian Nations University campus is receiving a long-awaited makeover this week.

By lunchtime Thursday, crews had just about reached the halfway point in replacing Hiawatha Hall’s old, leaky roof with brand-new architectural asphalt shingles.

The repairs will help guard the historic building against the water damage and ensuing mold issues that shuttered Hiawatha Hall back in 2005, said university spokesman Stephen Prue, and bring Haskell leaders one step closer to restoring and eventually reopening the 1898 limestone structure.

“It’s going to look beautiful when it’s done, and having that portion of it completed is exciting,” said Prue, who serves as executive assistant to Haskell President Venida Chenault.

Hiawatha Hall, which was originally used as a chapel and auditorium, is one of several Haskell buildings flagged for renovations.

A comprehensive facilities study published in spring 2016 — the university’s first in more than 15 years — revealed Haskell would need between $111 million and $123 million to bring its aging facilities up to par. Hiawatha, Prue said, was identified as one of the university’s top priorities.

As with other buildings on campus, mold has long plagued Hiawatha. Water infiltration under the hall’s foundation will require “extensive” repair work, Prue said. After mold remediation and cleanup, the Haskell Foundation will begin work on a capital campaign to fund interior renovations.

In recent years, estimates for the Hiawatha restoration have ranged from $5 million up to $12 million, Prue said.

“Of course the clock is ticking, and every day it ticks I’m sure the price goes up,” he said. “It’s going to be in that range of $7 million, I’d imagine, to get the building’s foundation issue fixed, clean it out and then begin to look at how we want the space configured for whichever programs we want to use in the building.”

For now, possible uses for the facility include distance learning, continued education and a future Haskell degree program, Prue said. In the 1990s, Hiawatha doubled as a performance venue for Haskell’s student theater company, Prue said, and also housed the Haskell band in the school’s early days.

The new scarlet shingles being installed this week closely match Hiawatha’s original roof, which was probably made with very rare, very expensive red slate. Asphalt, Prue said, makes a durable and low-cost alternative.

At one point in Haskell’s history, all pitched-roof buildings on campus had red shingles, Prue said. And many were constructed from the same limestone — quarried and dug in nearby Franklin County — used to build Hiawatha Hall, the oldest remaining structure on campus, in 1898.

“These are buildings that date back to our earliest days,” Prue said.

“And if we could have that building restored, we think it’d be a real point of unity,” he said, “Coming full circle from a time when the school started in a less-than-favorable way for Native Americans, to a time when Native Americans are being educated here and taught self-determination and their rights under the Constitution of the United States and the sovereignty of their tribes.”

Prue also hopes the restored Hiawatha Hall, with its “beautiful” hardwood floors and church-like interior, will bring in visitors from Lawrence and the surrounding community.

“Our president is determined to see that building restored to not just some functionality on our campus, but for it to be a real pivotal point in the life of our campus for a lot of different services,” Prue said.

Haskell’s student union, meanwhile, remains shuttered after closing two years ago for extensive repairs to its heating and cooling system. Prue said the university hopes to reopen Stidham Union by March 2018.