Save Smith Hall Open House: ‘We’re all in it together’

Smith Hall, home to KU’s Department of Religious Studies, has been earmarked for demolition. Lawrence Modern, alongside the Lawrence Preservation Alliance and the Historic Mount Oread Friends groups, hosted an Open House on Saturday, Dec. 3 to raise awareness of the building’s plight. The event drew an estimated 125 attendees—current and former students, faculty, staff and concerned local citizens—for an hour-long discussion about the building’s history, architecture, and relevance. LPA board member Dale Slusser gave opening remarks, followed by a list of speakers that included religious studies professor Tim Miller; retired distinguished professor Dennis Domer; Kim Tefft, son of sculptor Eldon Tefft; Lawrence Modern’s Tom Harper and Bill Steele; and Dale Suitor, great nephew of Irma I. Smith, who was the building’s primary donor (and namesake) who believed that young people should have the opportunity to engage with both religious and non-religious worldviews in religious education. A point that Domer expands upon in his talk above, which is a must-watch. “One of the reasons that a university is here is to ask the eternal questions,” Domer said. “Is there a god? And if there is not, why? And if so, why, and what difference would that make? This building, since 1967, has been putting the eternal question pretty much in the center of campus … [It] is a place for agnostics, it’s a place for religiously minded people, it’s a place for Buddhists, it’s a place for Muslims and Jews and all kinds of people, inclusively; we’re all in it together. We need a space like this so that those sorts of questions will be asked for evermore here. And if we don’t have it, what’s the point?”

To learn more about Smith Hall and the issues at stake read Tom Harper’s excellent article in the Lawrence Times or his more detailed post below.

This is a call for action. It’s important for the Chancellor, Provost and Board of Regents to hear your voice. If you value Smith Hall and what it represents we urge you to write a letter of support. Without it, a precious cultural resource and a legacy of religious thought at KU could be erased. We need your help!

Chancellor Girod: 

Provost and Executive Vice Chancellor Barbara A. Bichelmeyer:

University Architect Mark L. Reiske:

Regent Benson: 

Regent Dicus: 

Regent Harrison-Lee:  

Regent Ice: 

Regent Kiblinger:

Regent Lane:  

Regent Mendoza: 

Regent Rolph:  

Regent Winter: 

President Flanders:

Stop KU’s demolition of Smith Hall!

Photos by Tom Harper

Irma I. Smith Hall, home of the Department of Religious Studies located on the prominent northeast entrance of 13th Street & Oread Avenue is slated for demolition. The University of Kansas administration will seek permission from the Kansas Board of Regents to demolish the building during the summer or fall of 2023 after only 55 years of service. KU has no stated plans for the site. They plan on relocating faculty and staff to another location.

The Historic Mount Oread Friends along with Lawrence Modern and the Lawrence Preservation Alliance are leading the initiative to save Smith Hall. We welcome others who share our passion, vision and hope. There will be an open house on December 3rd from 2-4 p.m. with a presentation at 3 p.m. All are welcome.

Illustration by Chris Millspaugh

Since Smith Hall cannot speak for itself, we seek to share its history and relevance as a significant, intact example of midcentury modern architecture. Our hope is to raise awareness with the administration at KU, Kansas Board of Regents and the Lawrence community so alternatives can be discussed and implemented instead of demolition. We believe Smith Hall could be eligible for the Lawrence, State and National Historic Registers. Investing funds to address the deferred maintenance that has occurred during KU’s ownership and repurposing is an appropriate course of action.

Smith Hall is familiar to many because of sculptor Elden Tefft’s graceful bronze statue of Moses and a masterful stained-glass representation of the burning bush, pieces intentionally designed to complement the building. The pair are the only three-dimensional representations of the University of Kansas Seal on campus. KU Info describes the Seal, “Moses and the burning bush represent the humble scholar who kneels before the flame, a symbol of knowledge.” 

History of Smith Hall

Dr. William Moore, the Dean of the School of Religion in 1960, championed the idea to construct a new building to replace Myers Hall and led a $1 million fundraising effort. $200,000 was raised privately and by affiliated denominations throughout the state, but it was Irma I. Smith, a benefactor with banking and farming interests in Macksville, Kansas, who donated the lion’s share of the funds that achieved the fundraising goal for the School.

Moore was keenly aware of contemporary design trends in architecture and what would attract students. The School hired two prominent regional architects to design the building, Charles Marshall and David Prickett. Marshall held the State Architect of Kansas position from 1945-1952 and had a private architectural practice with Prickett in Topeka from 1952-1982. Following a lengthy construction period that began in 1966, the building was dedicated on October 8, 1967 and named after its main benefactor.

In 1977, the program and faculty of the Kansas School of Religion was absorbed by the University of Kansas Department of Religious Studies and KU entered into a lease agreement for Smith Hall from the Disciples of Christ for $1 a year. For the next 20 years both entities shared building maintenance responsibility, and when the lease expired in July, 1997, a summary and recommendation letter sent to the KU Board of Regents noted that “in general the building is in good shape for its thirty years of use.”

In 1998, the Board of Regents and Legislature approved KU to purchase Smith Hall from the Kansas Bible Chair for $1.1 million with a payment of $55,000 per year for 20 years. A key provision in the agreement: “The University will assume responsibility for interior and exterior maintenance of the building and may make necessary improvements to meet the standard required by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).” 

While KU agreed to maintain and make necessary improvements, however, consistent maintenance has not been a priority over the last 24 years. The current solution KU has implemented is to sell or demolish buildings that are underutilized or require updating. The sale and demolition of Stouffer Place, Oldfather Studios, Oliver Hall and now Smith Hall are examples of disregarding historic preservation at KU and are a tremendous waste of material resources.

Smith Hall is a destination point for students and visitors. Timothy Miller, former Professor and Chair of the Department Religious Studies says: “There’s almost not a day that goes by that someone doesn’t come up to ‘Moses’ and the ‘Burning Bush’ stained-glass window to take photos.”

If we look beyond the two works of art and study the building, it reveals remarkable design features and strong craftsmanship. As one of the last mid-century buildings constructed on campus, these features make it an important example of midcentury modern architecture.

Smith Hall is T-shape in form, a two-story rectangle on the north side east to west. Much of the building on the north and rear east sides are made of tan brick with aluminum casement windows. The northeast section contains classrooms, offices and restrooms.

The north section of the front elevation on Jayhawk Boulevard is comprised of 4’ x 4’ panels of limestone found near Silverdale Kansas, identified by local stone mason, Karl Ramberg. The flat smooth appearance of the panels is rich with the texture of fossils.

This section is where the library, the crown jewel of the building is located. The soaring two-story room features a breathtaking 15’ x 17’ stained glass wall comprised of 16 panels that form the “Burning Bush”. Designed to provide a contemplative atmosphere for study, the sunlight through the stained glass illuminates the library in a wash of colors. In the evening when the interior lights are on, this magnificent dance of colors from the “Burning Bush” can be seen from outdoors.

The building corner stone, where a time capsule was placed during construction, reads ERECTED 1967.

Another striking design feature is the concave, dry-laid limestone tower, noted by Ramberg as a challenging construction and beautiful craftsmanship.

From the main entrance, a corridor with offices connects to the library and an assembly on the south side. The exterior roof cap of this section of the building is made of cast Terrazzo panels, each bearing an embossed cross motif.

The assembly, often referred to as Room 100, could easily be written off as an outdated lecture hall, but there are design details that deserve credit. The room is a dodecagon, a 12-sided form rarely seen in architecture. The seating is circular and several tiers in height forming a conversation pit popular during the late 1960’s, bucking the formal trend of desks in rows. Above, linear light fixtures radiate outward from the center ceiling like rays of the sun, a modern symbolical reference to spiritual light and domes of traditional religious structures. A window wall on the west side connects the space with Jayhawk Boulevard and Tefft’s ‘Moses’.

When “Moses” was united with the “Burning Bush” in 1982 the site was complete. Kim Tefft, Elden Tefft’s son, recalls numerous mockups that were made to unify both works of art with the building. “The location of the sculpture was integral, people were meant to interact with it, not be overwhelmed with it,” Tefft said. “The building had a lot to do with the scale of Moses, that’s why Dad opened it up, to let people experience it.” Eldon Tefft spent 10 years making the Moses sculpture.

To disassemble and relocate the “Burning Bush” and “Moses” removes them from the architectural context that gives them meaning and impact.

“It’s no Frank Lloyd Wright building but few buildings in town fall in that category,” says KU architectural historian Dennis Domer regarding Smith Hall. “It still has merit, especially from the user’s perspective. Many students love this building and are inspired by its spiritual library, dodecagon lecture hall and monumental sculpture of Moses facing the burning bush expressed in a stained-glass window. They see the embodiment of the university’s seal day in and day out so that they know their quest for knowledge is noble and embedded in our history and our university. You can’t ask for much more than that from a university building.”

Call for Action

Smith Hall was funded by private donations from numerous individuals and groups. They likely did not imagine the building would be demolished in 55 years because of KU deferred maintenance.

If KU proceeds with bulldozing Smith Hall, it calls into question what loyalty and commitment means to current and future donors to KU. Can donors be assured their monies to a program or building will be honored in the future? Irma Smith will be rolling over in her grave if the university proceeds with this action.

On July 19, 2022, in response to a Lawrence Preservation Alliance letter expressing concern regarding the recent demolition of the historic 1906 Facilities Building and plans to demolish other historic buildings, Chancellor Girod writes:

“We don’t take decisions to demolish buildings lightly. As we do in each case, we weighed and considered all available alternatives before proceeding with demolition. As you are aware, the university has a limited amount of resources available to devote to maintaining our university facilities. Taking a broad view of the entire historic district, these decisions enable us to continue our longstanding practice of investing in, preserving, and maintaining our most historic buildings to ensure they will last for generations to come.”

The decision to demolish Smith Hall eliminates the opportunity for it to be considered as Girod says, “one of our most historic buildings.” Since it is now more than 50 years old it is eligible for the historic registers and could be repurposed, celebrated and promoted along with the ‘Burning Bush’ and Tefft’s ‘Moses’ to a wider audience of KU, our community and the region.

Wint Winters, recently appointed to the 10-member Kansas Board of Regents, confirmed KU has not yet made a request to demolish Smith Hall; the Board would have to approve the request. Winter states public input is welcome. Letters can be sent to the Regents and testimonial considered. The Board meets monthly.

A link to upcoming meetings and email addresses of Board Members can be found here.

It takes a community to save a building. You are encouraged to attend the open house and write each member of the Kansas Board of Regents and Chancellor Girod opposing the demolition.

—Tom Harper

Chancellor Giord:

Provost Barbara Bichelmeyer:

Regent Benson:

Regent Dicus:

Regent Harrison-Lee:

Regent Ice:

Regent Kiblinger:

Regent Lane:

Regent Mendoza:

Regent Rolph:

Regent Winter:

President Flanders:

Studio 804 Shines at 519 Indiana

Photo by Corey Gaffer Photography

Lawrence Modern has long maintained an interest in the work of distinguished professor Dan Rockhill’s Studio 804, the KU School of Architecture’s hands-on, design/build master class. Each spring we look forward to seeing what his tech-savvy students have concocted using the latest building technologies, usually from the always innovating Germans and Swedes. And while midcentury residential architecture remains our raison d’etre, the fact of the matter is if it weren’t for the Studio’s annual output in Lawrence we would eventually run out of cool modern buildings to admire and explore.

Studio 804’s latest effort, located at 519 Indiana Street in the Pinkney neighborhood is the 4th passive certified house in 804’s impressive oeuvre. Not only is it the most technically sophisticated 804 has ever done, particularly in the construction of the building enclosure, it sets an aspirational benchmark for how to sensitively introduce a hi-tech modern house into a neighborhood of mostly turn-of-the-century traditional houses. This is not easy to pull off: take a walk in any prewar Los Angeles neighborhood, for instance, and observe how rudely most contemporary homes regard their elders.

Perhaps Studio 804’s most significant breakthrough is how they have managed to make an environmentally sustainable LEED Platinum residential property highly desirable to live in, much like Tesla has for driving electric vehicles. The comparison is apropos. While still mostly viewed as a novelty appealing to a few early adopters and those who can afford them, both represent a new paradigm in living that inspires hope we can someday substantially reduce greenhouse gas emissions from buildings and transportation, which percentage-wise far surpasses all other sources. And all the while do it in style.

With passive solar houses, style is mostly found in the details and the materials. Which raises a rhetorical question: are we okay with function dominating form in our housing? That’s the essence of passive design and the Studio 804 program, which continually has been the tip of the spear when it comes to experimenting with the latest energy-efficient building materials and techniques. This has led to some Studio 804 designs receiving a cool reception from the buying public.

I was planning to ask Dan Rockhill about this in May when I met him and some of his 804 students onsite a few days before the Indiana Street open house. Perhaps anticipating my slant, Rockhill addressed the criticism up front: “I know the buildings that I do are really controversial because they look different and that ticks people off,” he said, using an expletive. “I always harken back to the technology. We don’t build the way my neighbor’s houses were built because we have the capability of doing things technically that they never had available. I think universities are about ideas, and I like to be able to take advantage of those ideas and share them with the community. They can’t help but be different because they are fresh and new, and I bear responsibility for that; but I’m not going to continue with my head in the late 1800s.”

Dan Rockhill, right, meets with Studio 804 students at the Indiana Street House in May. A total of 28 students participated in designing, project managing, and building the house. Photo by Bill Steele

While Rockhill has been maligned in the past for his preoccupation with tech-driven designs, if the open house was any indication, more people are starting to warm to his ideas. About a record high 700 people signed in for the house tour, and the reception was, by all accounts, overwhelmingly positive. Many seemed genuinely interested in the green building’s tech (all seamlessly integrated), but the architecture elicited the most praise. “Really a beautiful and impressive statement,” said Jim Williams, a long practicing architect in Lawrence.

Reminiscent of Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye, a modern take on the traditional French farmhouse, the Indiana Street House similarly achieves a “floating” effect for a luxurious, beautiful box that sits elegantly in the landscape. In some aspects it resembles an architectural lookout station or a treehouse, especially with the way the trees envelope the house. The living spaces are elevated and have controlled views on the east and west through massive “curtain walls” (sheets of glass in architecture-speak) that also open to balconies. A large curtain wall on the south side of the house is shaded by a louver that blocks 90 percent of summer sun but allows full sunlight to enter in winter. The result is a wonderfully open ambiance characterized by shifting light patterns throughout the day. This was achieved despite the house being on a very narrow lot, squeezed on both sides by multi-story houses.  

Photo by Tom Harper

The pièce de résistance of the design is the second floor main living area. It is, quite literally, startling. Climbing the rather long and narrow staircase that leads up to it, I was reminded of the time I climbed the stairs at a train station in rural Japan at the exact moment when a bullet train flew by at full speed. The force of the air blew my hair back and caused my knees to buckle. The analogy is a bit of an exaggeration, but you get the point. Perhaps without realizing it, the Studio 804 architecture students have done a splendid job of taking Frank Lloyd Wright’s concept of compression and release to the next higher level. They’ve made climbing up the stairs after a long, hard day’s work something to look forward to.

The main living area. Furniture provided by Rod Parks of Retro Inferno in Kansas City. Photo by Corey Gaffer
Photo by Corey Gaffer

Or maybe not? This is not a house for old people. Other parts of the plan also seem problematic, especially the bedroom and its big window facing the street. But how much do these things really matter to occupants? What’s it like to live in the house? To get some answers, I contacted the new owners, Frank “Ted” Goebel and Kelly Graf, who graciously let me into their home in mid-July.

Ted and Kelly are well-traveled paleolithic anthropologists who moved to Lawrence in May after teaching at Texas A&M University for 16 years. They were scooped up by KU’s anthropology department, where they have started teaching this fall and will research ice age archeology and how humans dispersed from the old world to the new world. A smart, chess-playing couple with good taste, they fit the ideal buyer profile for this residence. They are tech savvy, drive a Tesla, and love architecture, collecting modern furniture, and historic preservation. “We’re archeologists; archeologists are generally into historic preservation and the past,” Kelly said. “That’s what we do.”

Ted Goebel and Kelly Graf in the kitchen. The countertops are made of an eco-friendly paper-based composite material called Richlite. Photo by Bill Steele

While considering housing options in Lawrence last year, they came across Studio 804’s website. After emailing Dan Rockhill out of the blue asking about the Indiana Street House, which was still under construction, they found out it was for sale. Upon making two trips to the site and meeting with 804 students, they were sold. “We were like, ah ha, this is really cool,” Kelly said. “It’s an opportunity to own and live in a modern house with modern technology that from the beginning was designed to be a sustainable green building, urban sustainable living.”

The decision to buy the house and move to Lawrence was anything but happenstance for the couple, though. While at Texas A&M, they built a “modern farmhouse” in College Station, and ended up battling with builders to get what they wanted. “We tried to take a contemporary vernacular dogtrot of a German frontier house and turn it into something modern,” Ted explained. “They kept wanting to change things.” The house ended up compromised. To avoid similar disappointment, they spent considerable time vetting Lawrence to see if it would be a good fit. Interestingly, one of the deciding factors in their decision to move here was the Lawrence Modern website, which they stumbled on when researching local builders and architects. “We started to realize that there was an eclectic community here, in terms of the built environment,” Kelly said. “It wasn’t going to be a cookie-cutter suburban environment.”

Now three months into their new living situation, they say the Indiana house has exceeded their expectations and more than met their needs. The quality of light they enjoy is a big reason why. “I love being able to wake up in the morning and pull up the blinds and the sun is filtering in through the trees,” Kelly said. “It’s a beautiful light. The lighting is just so spectacular up here.” She singled out the lavatory for special praise: “The bathroom in the mid-morning is just beautiful because of the skylight up there. It’s just so amazing. I don’t have to turn on the lights in the bathroom until nine o’clock at night.” Ted added: “You rise with the sun rising and you sense that, and in the middle of the day the sun is focused in the middle part of the great room, and in the evening the sun is setting with you as you are having dinner and wrapping up your day. That for me is the most fantastic, the coolest part of this house.”

 “These kids, they had a real sense of design,” Ted said.

The bedroom faces east, capturing morning sunlight. Hidden motorized curtains provide privacy and shade. Photo by Corey Gaffer
The bathroom is outfitted with products made by Duravit, a high-end German brand. Photo by Corey Gaffer

Indeed, Studio 804, as a graduate program, is packed with the cream of the crop of KU architecture students, many of whom go on to fill the ranks of America’s premier architecture firms. Largely thanks to the studio experience—what Rockhill calls “the blessed sacrament of architectural education”—many of his graduates exceed the technological proficiency required in today’s firms. But not every student in 804 has the desire to make an architectural statement, and most are not equipped to do it at this embryonic stage in their development, Rockhill says. “Fortunately, Rachel Johnston and only a small number of her mates are and could ride it out, and I’m glad they did.”

Rachel Johnston, of Olathe, took the mantle of leadership for the design of the project and became its most eloquent spokesperson. An intelligent, introspective designer with a precocious grasp of architecture, Johnston, who was hired to work for the distinguished Olsen Kundig firm before she graduated, said that the students arrived at the design through appreciating and observing the site, design charettes, and thinking about the flow of how a person would use the spaces throughout the day. “I think just feeling comfort in a space, where the architect fine tunes all these decisions to make you feel intimate in a space, is what we were aiming for,” she said.

Rachel Johnston and McKendree Mummy, Studio 804 students who figured prominently in the development of 519 Indiana. Photo by Bill Steele

A good example of that fine tuning, Johnston said, are the sliding black doors that separate the bedroom/bathroom from the main living area. Milled out of Richlite, a high-end recycled paper material, the thick and heavy perforated doors look like something you might find in a Turkish palace or a Japanese yakuza boardroom. Essentially decorative privacy screens, they provide filtered light that is quite stunning early in the morning. This see-through contributes a lot to the transparent feeling of light and space but still gives people living in the house the freedom to open up or close as they wish.

Photo by Corey Gaffer

Creative, simple and minimalist design permeates the building. Johnston, Kim Gordon, McKendree Mummy, and others on the design team pulled all-nighters trying to reduce clutter and conceal elements such as motorized roller shades, drainpipes, gutters, light fixtures, and so forth. One thing that Ted and Kelly highlighted was how the students put the baseboard flush with the drywall, so they can put furniture right up against the wall. “It’s real sleek,” Kelly said. “It’s something that you don’t think about, and the fact that they thought about that and how it would work nicely with everything being simple lines and straightforward is remarkable.”

While impressive design is the star of this effort, the prodigious engineering that went on under the hood is no slouch either. Consider this: Ted and Kelly’s average monthly electric utility bill, spanning one of the hottest summers in Lawrence in memory, was $13.63. About $13 of that is Evergy’s base charge. A big reason for the minuscule bill, of course, is high solar production during the summer. Energy data will need to be collected over a full year to get a true picture of the cost savings, but the results so far are promising. According to Rockhill, at another passive certified residence Studio 804 did in Lawrence, the New York Street House, the owner’s average monthly bill for several years has been $17 for a whole electric house, $14 of which is Evergy’s base charge. “So basically he’s spending three dollars a month in electricity,” Rockhill said.

The Indiana Street House’s energy conservation is even more astonishing when considering the substantially greater use of glass than the New York Street House. A major reason why is the building’s inner cocoon, which is sealed tighter than Donald Trump’s tax returns and affidavits. “Our walls and roof on this house, the R-value is twice what the code requires,” Rockhill said, referring to the house’s insulation. The unsung hero responsible for the air tightness of the building was a student named Emily Sanders, from Overland Park, who spent months going around the house constantly with a roll of tape and a vapor control membrane material called INTELLO to seal gaps. “It took longer than any of us expected, and it took a lot more tape than we thought it would because there were a lot more holes that needed to be made [in the structure] than originally planned,” Sanders said, somewhat wearily.  

The building’s charcoal outer cladding, made of a high-pressure laminate material called Fundermax, works in tandem with the inner cocoon to achieve the high R-factor. The cladding is physically separated by a ventilated “rainscreen,” a technology developed in Sweden. Rockhill explains: “In the old days, clapboard, stucco, or shingle was the extent of exterior finishes. Now we can pull that off the face of the building and literally have a drainage plane behind it. We can separate the two, we can have something that looks really great, lets the water through, hits the drainage plane and then comes down and drains out.”

The house is fully powered by a 6kWh solar array capable of offsetting 82% of the average Kansas home energy consumption. Photo by Corey Gaffer

All this technology is draining, no pun intended. So much tech is involved in the building of these houses that the uptake of information can be head spinning for lay people, myself included. But if we, as consumers, are to play a significant role in decarbonizing our environment and meet climate goals we are obliged to pay close attention to what Rockhill and his students are preaching. We must demand that our leaders and developers pay attention, too, and act by strengthening building codes. Doing so will increase the likelihood that high-performance passive houses can reach price parity with code-built houses. That may be a way off, but in the meantime, we are fortunate to live in Lawrence, which thanks to Dan Rockhill and Studio 804 has some of the most progressive housing in the country. Their latest work is their best to date, and while it’s not perfect, it is worthy of appraisement.

“Some people might say, ‘Oh you know, students built that house,’” Ted said. “But for me, yeah, students built this house! They really cared about what they were doing. They were here every step of the way, and they were all engaged in everything and they were criticizing each other’s work. They talked through problems together. After the open house was over, apparently Dan gave a teary-eyed speech and said this group was ‘the best.’”

It’s hard not to see why, and we can’t wait to see what the creative minds at Studio 804 are up to next year.

-Bill Steele

Painting this old (midcentury) house

Photos by Bill Steele

Like death and taxes, painting your house is another one of those things in life that eventually comes calling. According to a cursory search on the internet, most homeowners can expect to repaint their house every 10 to 15 years, depending on the type of siding they have and other factors. Which sounds a lot like the advice you get from plumbers who say you need to replace your water heater tank every 10 to 15 years, doesn’t it? But anyway, whether you live in a house that’s sealed in a vacuum or ravaged by the elements, the exterior will eventually need repainting.

In our case the inevitable became increasingly unavoidable about four or five years ago, when I started to notice the telltale signs around our house: paint fading, cracking, peeling, bubbling; paint flaking away on window frames and sills, exposing dry-rotted wood; rotting wood along the bottom of cedar boards and cedar shingles; warped cedar siding. The deterioration was especially noticeable on the eastern facade, which endures a merciless pounding from the sun all summer long. Things were starting to look bad.

Despite the worsening situation, I held off repainting the house until this year because 1) I’m a drive-it-’till-the-wheels-come-off cheapskate, and 2) I absolutely dreaded the prospect of having to deal with the mess and hassle of repainting. (I have some very un-nostalgic memories of helping my stepfather remove layers of oil-based paint—undoubtably lead-filled—from the house I grew up in Maine during my 6th grade summer vacation.) While I considered hiring a crew of local college kids who would parachute in and likely knock out the job in a week or less, my wife and I decided it would be wise to take a more historically sensitive approach by hiring a contractor who specializes in painting historic houses.

Historic you say? We live in a midcentury house, built in 1955, that is described by our insurance company as a “tri-level ranch”—hardly “historic,” right? This dismissive categorization is out of date and culturally tone deaf, however. Some midcentury houses are approaching 100 years old and are increasingly being added to local, state and national historic registers. And despite their modest footprint many have soared in value, even ones that were not designed by modern architects. They should be treated with historic preservation in mind, i.e., with the same kind of respect and attention that is lavished on the Victorian mansions of Old West Lawrence (OWL). That is, if you can afford it.

And as you will see, it is affordable if you are willing to get your hands a bit dirty. But more on that later.

Last summer, upon a referral, we sought out the services of Rob Lacey, a lanky and dexterous 50-something who for 25 years has ensured the exterior (and interior) preservation of many OWL dwellings. After two on-site consultations, Rob provided a basic services proposal using Benjamin Moore Ultra Spec flat or satin paint for $9,480. (If we wanted to change the original color it would cost an additional $4,250.) This fit within our budget, which I estimated would land somewhere between ten to fifteen grand. As part of the deal, Rob agreed to discount the price when I offered to prep the front door for painting, handle storm window removal and reinstallation, and also clean all the windows.

The only thing left to decide was the paint color and finish type. This led to some debate as we considered the economics, aesthetics, and environmental impact of our choice. Dark paint absorbs heat, which is a problem for our poorly insulated house. I calculated, however, that the heat gain in summer was offset by heat loss in winter, practically negating each other. We decided to keep the same dark brown color the house had when we bought it in 2007, and as we later found, hadn’t changed over the years. Meanwhile, Rob convinced us to go with a flat finish for the body and satin for the trim after proving in a demo that satin would dramatically highlight the imperfections of our cedar siding, akin to applying oily makeup on acne.

Rob scheduled us for August 2022—his earliest available date—but when a client ahead of us postponed their plans we suddenly jumped to the head of the line. Rob and his crew, Daniel and Tony, arrived on site in mid-May to start work.

Daniel and Rob scraping away old paint

As in most house painting jobs, the majority of effort is spent in preparation, and ours was no exception. Two-thirds of the three-week job was spent on prep work. The first order of business was a top-down power wash of the whole building, followed by laborious scraping of peeling areas. This action revealed that we had more rotted wood around the house than I had previously thought. The equivalent of two gallons of Bondo and more, as it turned out.

“This is going to involve quite a bit more work,” Rob said, climbing down his ladder to inspect the latest rotted wood discovery.

Soon enough, restoring and repairing these decayed areas became a subordinate project that lasted nearly a month, longer than the main project. As often happens, the full scope of the project is not known until you dig in, and cost estimates (which tend to be overly optimistic) butt up against reality. Still, despite a 25 percent increase in estimated labor and material costs, the project stayed within our original budget. And in the long run, doing it the right way was well worth the added expense. Tony, who filled the house’s cavities with the precision of a highly accomplished cosmetic dentist, not only preserved the architectural integrity of the structure but actually improved on it.

Another major issue was the condition of the cedar shingles, many of which needed to be replaced because of warpage, shrinkage, and rot. This was not factored into the scope of the project at the outset. A costly error on my part; in the past year or so the cost of cedar shingles has tripled in price, and the right material has become difficult to source. I spent a week looking online, calling lumberyards in Lawrence and Kansas City, and visiting places like Midway Wholesale and Menards looking for the single course siding that matched ours at a reasonable price. When I finally found what I was looking for, in Topeka, I was nevertheless shocked at the price: nearly $350 for a six-pound, 20″x18″x18″ box of shingles. But far worse than the cost was the knuckle-breaking labor required to replace each one, a job which I took on to keep costs from spiraling out of control. Rob helped remove some shingles and prime new replacements early on, but when it was all said and done I ended up replacing about 40 shingles myself.

I was fortunate in that Rob was very accommodating and open to having me participate in the project. “I actually prefer having the homeowner get involved,” Rob told me. “It allows me to more easily get to other jobs I’m working on, and they [the homeowner(s)] get to appreciate what’s being done to the house.” Some contractors may not welcome homeowner involvement, however, so it is a good idea to discuss it with them before they show up to start work on your house. If you have the time and inclination, though, it is worth the effort. You will save some money, acquire new skills, and importantly, learn more about your house than you thought you knew.

For example, while removing the storm windows, I noticed something I hadn’t noticed before about the large window in our basement mechanical room, where we keep our washer and dryer. To my surprise, it was an awning type that swung out but had been frozen solid by layers of old paint. It also included a screen window but the screen had been carefully cut out of the frame. Voila, after restoring all this we had fresh ventilation in a space that is usually damp and musty. Another thing I discovered, while in house restoration mode, was that one of our heating and air conditioning return air vents was not working in our kitchen area, lowering the efficiency of our HVAC system. Someone, years ago, had stuffed the vent’s throat with fiberglass insulation. The only way to pull it out was to remove a section of exterior cedar siding to gain access. A very messy job, but since we were repainting the house anyway the timing was perfect.

Aside from the cedar siding, by far the most labor-intensive aspect of the project was the windows. Including every single painted window in the house and garage, I counted a total of 383 that Rob and his crew were responsible for. (This does not include the storm windows.) Almost all of them are framed by wood, and many needed to be reglazed and carefully prepped for repainting. The work required was painstaking and meticulous. And this is where I tie back to my earlier contention that midcentury houses should be treated as historic houses, because it is in the window detailing in particular that you often find the distinction and greatest need for preservation. How many midcentury modern houses have we seen that have been seriously marred by retrofitting the original windows with vinyl replacements that frankly don’t merit either the cost or energy savings? Too many.

Overall, we are extremely happy with the project results. Rob and his crew were very thorough, they completed their work on schedule, and (despite some unforeseen additional costs) he billed close to the original estimate. Most importantly, the quality of the workmanship is outstanding. Everything was done by hand the hard way—the right way—and it shows. The facelift has restored the house’s youthful glow. Rob advised that since most of our house is well-shaded, we should only need to repaint the front facade about every 8 years. The rest of the house will last much longer. That should save us a lot of money over time.


Here’s the breakdown of project costs:

LaborLacey’s Painting & Restoration8,857.00
Extra laborWood replacement, restoration & repair2,826.25
PaintSherwin-Williams Super Paint & Resilience* 359.65
Cedar shinglesMcCray Lumber327.45
Primer (5 gal. bucket)Menards*164.00
Extra materialsBondo, hardener, brick mold*152.44
Sandpaper, putty, calkSherwin-Williams store101.35
Window glass Cottins Hardware65.58
Box nails, screwsWestlake Hardware/Home Depot43.39
WeatherstripCottins Hardware26.19
Window screen repairCottins Hardware26.11
Window reattachmentOwner labor-775.00
*Contractor supplied. Note that Sherwin-Williams figures are not retail. Contractors get discounted prices.

Key stats:

  • 1,720 sq. ft. midcentury house with attached garage
  • Year built: 1955
  • Previously painted in 2003
  • 419 windows (all-inclusive)
  • 36 storm windows
  • 22 double-hung windows
  • 8 gallons of Sherwin-Williams Super Paint Exterior Acrylic Latex (Flat) – body
  • 1 gallon of Sherwin-Williams Resilience Exterior Acrylic Latex (Satin) – trim
  • 1 gallon of Sherwin-Williams Resilience Exterior Acrylic Latex (Satin) – 3 doors
  • 1 quart of Sherwin-Williams Resilience Exterior Acrylic Latex (Satin) – front door
  • 4+ gallons of Zinsser Peel Stop, Triple Thick primer
  • Project duration: May 17-June 17, a few workdays interrupted by rain
  • Total project cost: $12,174.41

Some advice & lessons learned:

  • Choose a reputable paint contractor, preferably someone who works on midcentury houses. “Some contractors who work on newer houses don’t know what they are doing, or cut corners,” Rob says. “I’ve seen plenty of houses where the painter didn’t prepare thoroughly enough and sprayed it, and when you get up close to it, it just doesn’t look right.”
  • Calk and seal all gaps, cracks, nail holes, etc. Rob says this is extremely important in our climate.
  • Make sure you backbrush if you spray paint the house. “A lot of contractors spray siding without backbrushing,” Rob said. Backbrushing essentially means brushing over freshly sprayed paint, getting into the gaps and crevices that are oftentimes missed by spraying.
  • Make sure you wear the proper protective gear if you plan on painting the house yourself. Tony wore a special chemical respirator when he worked with Bondo, for example.
  • Book well in advance. The best painters are in high demand.
  • Be flexible, and ready to go when the painter calls.
  • Be open to the painter’s suggestions. At the outset I was dead set on a satin sheen for the body paint. I’m glad I took the painter’s advice.
  • Don’t get too hung up on brands or so-called superior paints. “I had one customer who insisted on going with Benjamin Moore’s top-of-the-line paint, which I did, but when I went back to look at it after a number of years it was performing about the same as their midline product,” Rob said.
  • Don’t assume you can get a quote over the phone or the internet. “There’s so many variables with painting,” Rob says. “Some [houses] require not much prep at all, and some require one to two weeks of prep work, which is pretty common for midcentury houses.”
  • Have a contingency budget. A good rule of thumb is to budget an extra 15-20% over and above the project estimate cost.
  • Prepare to make a lot of runs to the hardware store.
  • Make plenty of space in your garage for the contractor to store tools, paint, and materials.
  • Don’t cheap out on paint brushes. They do make a difference.
  • Rob’s final advice: “Often in painting an older home you get what you pay for.”

A constructivist appreciation

On May 1st, Lawrence Modern gathered for its first event in nearly three years at the former Zimmerman Steel building in east Lawrence. A veritable Sunday buffet of architecture cogniscenti were guest speakers, including the Lawrence Preservation Alliance’s Dennis Brown, architect Stan Hernly, our own Tom Harper and Dennis Domer, as well as the principals from Mar Lan Construction, who seized an opportunity to buy the property a few years ago, promptly fell in love with it, and went through a lengthy and painstaking process of refurbishing this vital piece of Lawrence industrial history. What started out as a hardware store with a steel fabrication shop on Mass. St. after WWII continues to serve the Lawrence construction community, and thanks to Hernly is now on the historic registers as a significant example of midcentury modernism.

The interesting thing about the Zimmerman Steel building is that it appeals equally to the left and right brain: to the Mar Lan construction team, the building is an attractive and functional workspace; in the eyes of experts like Hernley and Domer, an unadorned manufacturing facility with a folded plate (aka, “zig zag”) roof. Hernly said the aesthetic is defined by utilitarian parts and pieces of steel and metal, akin to Russian constructivist architecture. Domer said when he looks at the Zimmerman Steel building he thinks of automobile dealerships from the 50s and 60s, and when he looks at the zig zag roof he sees a 1958 Dodge with big tail fins. “The beauty is the design of the building, but the structural pieces are what make it beautiful,” Domer said. Praising Mar Lan’s renovation effort, he summed up the proceedings: “You really understood what you had, and now you’ve preserved it for another generation. The next generation is going to adore this place, if not already, like we do.”

%d bloggers like this: