Lawrence possesses a large number of modern university apartment and dormitories built large and small across the campus of the University of Kansas during the 1950s and early 1960s. One of the smallest but in some ways most ambitious of this housing type is Sprague Apartments designed by Kansas architect, Charles L. Marshall (1905-1992), and built in 1960. Professor Elizabeth Sprague (1874-1960), Professor and Department Head of Home Economics at the University of Kansas from 1914 to 1941, gave the apartment block to the University in memory of her sister, Amelia.
Charles Marshall was born in Atchison, Kansas, and received his professional architecture degree from Kansas State University in 1931. He was the State Architect from 1945 to 1952, and he had a private practice in Topeka from 1952 to 1986, when he retired. Mr. Marshall was an architect who loved to draw and claimed to draw something every day. His efforts resulted in a large collection of watercolors, paintings, drawings, architectural drawings, linoleum cuts, and letters at the University of Kansas and Kansas State University. Besides the Sprague Apartments, Marshall also designed Smith Hall that houses the University of Kansas Department of Religious Studies.
Sprague Apartments is a bold rectangle of concrete and brick with limestone trim that juts out unabashedly from one of the steepest faces of Mt. Oread at 1400 Lilac Lane. The north facade provides consistent rows of red and brown brick ribbons articulated by long horizontal strips of concrete lines that express the floors and line up the fenestration. In contrast to this strict “front side” of the house facing north on 14th Street, the sunny south façade functions as the “back of the house” and is softened into a relaxed U-shape with three inset rows of continuous balconies that serve the nine apartments for retired faculty.
The front entrance to Sprague Apartments is on the west facade that attaches a balanced complex of vertical and horizontal masses and lines to an arched walkway that bridges to Mt. Oread behind Danforth Chapel. The west end of this building functions not only as an entry and foyer but also provides vertical circulation for a stair and elevator made clear by a white hexagonal concrete block motif.
The laid-back look of the south elevation belies nine tightly designed floor plans, six of which are two bedroom apartments and three on the west end that are one bedroom apartments. These apartments give retired faculty less than 1,000 square feet of living space at a very inexpensive price.
The entrances to these apartments are off the balconies with a door opening into a living and dining room that spans the width of the building.
On one side of the living room is a hall leading to a bathroom and two bedrooms. On the other side the living room fuses with a small dining area connected to a narrow kitchen.
Under the lowest balcony runs a long basement that houses the HVAC systems as well as a tenth apartment that is rented to a student for maintenance work in the apartments. One of these systems sends hot water to wall heaters that line the apartment. They still work very well after more than 50 years of use. Wall air conditioners, along with window air conditioners that residents add to their bedrooms cool the apartments during the summer.
The structural and wall systems are solid as a rock because the beautiful doors click shut with the precision of a new BMW. Two original special folding wall systems in the bedrooms are also in excellent working condition.
There is a long list of retired faculty who would like to live in one of the Sprague Apartments, which have been very well maintained by the KU Endowment Association over the past 52 years.
One might criticize this mid-century modern building because, with its concrete grid structural frame, its concrete floor system and its fine brick walls, has not been easy to adapt to new technologies, such as cable wiring systems or central air conditioning. Also, perhaps if Marshall had known about George Beal’s heliodon, which we reported on in an earlier post, he might have designed the south façade with balcony overhangs that would have shaded the apartments during the summer and allowed full sun penetration during the winter. Beal’s heliodon was famous by 1960, and Beal and Marshall certainly knew each other in the small world of Kansas architects. But many modern architects at that time still thought that unprotected glass and window walls on the south side of a large structure did not constitute a problem, such as in the south façade of Summerfield Hall, designed by John Brink in 1960, that eventually had to be re-designed in the 1980s, sans the south windows that overheated the building winter, summer, fall, and spring. The problem re-occurred at new Green Hall with its window wall facing southeast, which was designed by Lawrence R. Good and completed in 1977. Mr. Good knew all about Beal’s heliodon, which suggests how fascinated very good modern architects were with glass facades and how much faith they had in modern HVAC systems to compensate for their glassy fantasies, no matter what problems those built forms might create. It was the light that made them glaze over these facades at KU and who could blame them. Architects had been doing this very thing at least since the 1851 World’s Fair in London when the Crystal Place blew people away.