A pair of building demolitions begin at KU, and historic preservationists decry one of the projects

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World

Debris from demolition work at Oliver Hall on the University of Kansas campus is shown on June 8, 2022.

A pair of demolitions — one high profile and another much less so — are beginning on the University of Kansas campus.

Motorists in recent days have noticed preliminary demolition work underway at Oliver Hall, the vacant dormitory building at 19th Street and Naismith Drive. By the end of the month, they’ll likely notice an even more dramatic sight — a backhoe equipped with a special 100-foot boom that will be used to tear down the nine-story building that has been part of KU’s southern skyline since the mid-1960s.

A spokeswoman with KU said Oliver’s demolition — unlike some past demolitions of KU dormitory buildings — won’t involve an implosion but rather will be a mechanical tear-down with the special backhoe.

Up the hill on Mount Oread, a smaller demolition project was set to begin Thursday, and it was creating concern from area preservationists. KU spokeswoman Erinn Barcomb-Peterson said “abatement and light demolition” was scheduled to start Thursday on the university’s former Facilities and Operations building — an early 1900s stone structure near KU’s School of Journalism building.

KU and the Kansas Board of Regents determined in late 2019 that the old building — which has been vacant since 2018 — needed too many repairs to be saved and put back to use. The Regents in November 2019 approved the demolition, but the State Historic Preservation Office objected to the demolition, noting that the building was deemed to be a contributing structure in KU’s historic district that stretches over large parts of Mount Oread.

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World

A construction lift is parked outside KU’s former Facilities and Operations Building on the Lawrence campus of the University of Kansas on June 9, 2022. The vacant building is scheduled to be razed in the near future.

The idea of tearing the building down seemingly went dormant for about two years, as the idea was not brought back to the Board of Regents for further discussion and didn’t receive any noticeable public discussion from the university. But as the law allows, the Historic Preservation Office’s denial can be appealed to the governor. On Dec. 2, 2021, Gov. Laura Kelly issued a letter — addressed to no one in particular — that said there were no feasible and prudent alternatives to demolition of the old building at 1503 Sunflower Road on the KU campus.

That letter cleared the way for KU to restart the demolition process. On June 7, KU took the next step by forwarding the governor’s letter to the State Historic Preservation Office, Patrick Zollner, acting executive director of the Kansas Historical Society, told the Journal-World via email on Thursday. Zollner said via email that the June 7 notification started a five-day waiting period, meaning “the building cannot be demolished” before June 13.

It wasn’t immediately clear whether any of the light demolition work scheduled for the building Thursday would be in violation of the five-day waiting period. The waiting period is designed to give interested parties a chance to file a lawsuit prior to demolition.

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World

Stone work is shown on KU’s former Facilities and Operations Building on the University of Kansas campus on June 9, 2022.

Dennis Brown, president of the Lawrence Preservation Alliance, did not indicate that his group was going to file a legal challenge to the demolition, but he said the project and its unexpected start had created concern.

“They are tearing down a contributing property in their own historic district,” Brown said. “That is a pretty big deal.”

Barcomb-Peterson said KU did not take lightly the decision to tear down the building, which Brown said dates back to 1906.

“Given KU’s financial constraints and the need to provide for deferred maintenance across the university — including for properties on the National Register of Historic Places — the university is not in a position to repair and maintain the Facilities Administration building in a safe manner,” Barcomb-Peterson said via email. “We take this action seriously, and carefully and thoroughly considered the other possibilities before concluding that there is not a feasible and prudent alternative to demolishing the building.”

The idea of tearing down buildings at KU is one that may get more consideration in the future. As the Journal-World reported in July, the Kansas Board of Regents is putting more pressure on KU and other universities to get their deferred maintenance costs under control.

The board has pointed to a report that shows large amounts of unused space on university campuses in Kansas. At KU, the report found a “potential surplus” of more than 100 classrooms totaling more than half a million square feet, plus an additional 350,000 square feet of office space that may not be needed.

Regents aren’t suggesting that it is feasible or desirable to demolish all of that unused space. But they have suggested that universities look at demolitions where feasible. Every building that gets torn down creates one less maintenance cost for the university in the future.

That is, as long as another building isn’t built to replace the demolished one. KU doesn’t plan to build new structures on either the Oliver Hall site or the Facilities and Operations site. Barcomb-Peterson told the Journal-World via email that there will be some parking on the southern end of the old Facilities and Operations building site.

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World

Detail work is shown on KU’s former Facilities and Operations Building, which is scheduled to be razed in June 2022.

While the demolitions may produce some cost savings in future maintenance, Brown argues that there are other costs to tearing down such buildings rather than finding new ways to use them.

“Lovers of stone buildings are beside themselves that this is going to be torn down,” Brown said. “There is some style to this building. It is not just one stone upon another.”

Brown said the Lawrence Preservation Alliance would meet in future weeks and likely would seek more explanations about the process surrounding the Facilities and Operations demolition. Given that demolitions could be more common on the KU campus in future years, the Journal-World also has asked for details on the Regents’ policies related to university building demolitions.

In the meantime, Brown said preservationists were bracing for the old Facilities and Operations building to come down, perhaps as soon as early next week.

“It is going to be tough for people who love historic, old stone buildings in Lawrence because when those true masonry buildings come down, you know they’re not going to build any more like that,” Brown said.

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World

Preliminary demolition work is underway on Oliver Hall, the vacant dormitory building at the corner of 19th Street and Naismith Drive on the University of Kansas campus.


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