The basis of preservation is education. In order to understand what should be preserved, it must be researched and its history built. This is what Lawrence Modern has been doing over the past five years with its survey of modern housing in Lawrence, the results of which form the basis of this website. By visiting these houses, meeting the people who live in them, photographing them, and digging into their past, we seek to educate the people of Lawrence about their rich and progressive history of modernism. In general, this has been forgotten, as it has been elsewhere in the United States.
In the U.S. of the 1950s and 1960s, there was a broad acceptance of modern design, not only in architecture but a vast swath of consumerism — automobiles, furniture, appliances. People were willing to accept modernism as symbolic of our nation’s future. And while not everyone in Lawrence wanted modern houses, the driving intellectual community around KU wanted it. Post-war Lawrence was a special place, too, not only because it had a modern-leaning architecture department at KU but also because of its topography, which invited young architects to take risks. New modern schools, banks, churches, restaurants, train stations, gas stations, dentist offices, and residential houses were built. Some of these properties have since been torn down, or are in danger.
History is written. The past is impossible to retrieve. Our aim is to write history by validating the modern architectural heritage we still have in Lawrence. Instead of waiting for buildings to be demolished and then responding with outrage and hand-wringing, we are taking a proactive approach that lays a foundation for preservation. This way, we hope that owners will recognize the historical significance of their buildings and want to preserve them. Ultimately, we seek to have properties listed on the Historic Registers. Below are some examples of our preservation efforts.
In November 2007, Lawrence Modern learned that the Ecumenical Christian Ministries building could be demolished by developers of the Oread Hotel. Many of us were alarmed at this prospect and organized a series of meetings with Pastor Thad Holcomb and the ECM Board of Directors to try and stop the demolition. Fortunately, the Board voted to decline the developers’ offer and decided instead to initiate a Capital Campaign to raise $832,000 to renovate and preserve the building. The Board also gave permission to Lawrence Modern to write the nomination for the building to be included on the National, State and Local Historic Registers. This was accomplished in 2009 and led to $135,000 in tax credits while raising awareness in the community. The fundraising goal of $832,000 was met in May, 2011.
The ECM was designed by William Kiene and Jack Bradley of Kiene and Bradley Architects, a premier architectural firm in Topeka. The local B.A. Green Construction company completed construction in 1959. The building is an excellent example of modern construction technique and material use in the service of an organic architecture that features circle and curve-like motifs. For example, poured concrete inserts exhibit a curved line pattern with random circles on much of the exterior; light fixtures made of spun aluminum resemble flying saucers; acoustic ceiling tiles are imprinted with random circular shapes; and a floating staircase spirals upward to the second floor chapel. The curved lines of the barrel roof allow extensive use of glass in the chapel on both the north and south sides, forming transparent walls oriented toward southern exposure and northern views of the Kaw River Valley. The original, elegant, durable, and in its day, affordable furniture by Charles Eames also compliments the modern style of the building. It is difficult to imagine any other building in Lawrence that embraces as many modern characteristics, coupled with a rich and progressive social history, than the ECM. The creation of the building in the late 1950s grew out of an era of optimism and a desire to use new materials and ways of organizing space in beautiful and functional ways. Today it remains a functional building that also uplifts the spirit, religiously and architecturally.
Links to flickr construction + new photos: http://www.flickr.com/photos/lawrencemodern/sets/72157626205060449 http://www.flickr.com/photos/lawrencemodern/sets/72157626204960871
Link to the ECM nomination: ecmhistoricnomination
The Double Hyperbolic Paraboloid, located south of KU at 934 West 21st Street, is the first midcentury residential property to be listed on the National and Kansas Historic Registers in the State of Kansas. The current owners, Randy and Kathi Masten, granted Lawrence Modern permission to write the nomination and the home was successfully listed in 2006.
The house was designed by Donald Dean, a professor of civil engineering who taught at KU from 1955 to 1960, with the help of his students. The impetus for the design was not driven by aesthetics: Dean wanted an inexpensive home that could be built relatively quickly during the housing boom of the 1950s. He was familiar with the reinforced concrete paraboloid roofs designed and constructed in Mexico by the Spanish architect Felix Candela, but thought the higher labor costs would make such a roof prohibitively expensive for mass production in the U.S. As an alternative, he experimented with wood lattice as his basic material. Dean estimated two or three carpenters could build a hyperbolic paraboloid roof the size of his house (2,400 sq. ft.) in three or four days using plywood sheets for $1 per square foot. As it turned out, he was right. The roof took three days to build and the finished house cost about $18,000 (partly furnished), which according to the February 1957 issue of Fortune Magazine had as much finished floor space as a conventional $36,000 house at that time.
Judging from local newspaper accounts, the construction of the house was controversial. “Some protested it as too radical, others admired the graceful lines of the roof,” proclaimed a Lawrence Journal-World writer in 1956. A Kansas City Star article stated, “It’s safe to say the unique home is now one of the most talked about housing units in the country.”
While the house’s space-age exterior is striking, the interior is equally futuristic, and powerfully transportive. At entry, the eye is met by a gorgeous wood plank ceiling that swoops wildly, opening space into the living-dining room and kitchen, and sharply compressing it in other areas. A squat, 23’ wide brick fireplace, the focal point of the living room, is nearly strafed by the sharply plunging ceiling. The living room is filled with light from the south side of the house in addition to floor-to-ceiling glass panels on the north and east side corners. There are three bedrooms and two full baths on the west side of the home and no walls meeting the ceiling. Such unconventional architecture is divisive, but never boring. Dean believed the paraboloid would be the “House of Tomorrow” due to its economical construction. He was right about the cost, just not the public acceptance.
Lawrence Modern is actively involved in the community effort to restore the Amtrak train station in Lawrence. Originally called the Santa Fe Depot, the station is located at 413 E. 7th Street. It was built in 1955 and designed by Warren Corman and the late Warren Jones, both KU architecture grads. Having learned principles of architecture in a school that turned modern very early through the influence of Frank Lloyd Wright, Corman and Jones found it easy to adapt Santa Fe’s “modern” replacement passenger station architecture to the site in Lawrence.
This train station is easily understood, inside and out. It is composed of two rectangles of light brown brick and glass that are attached end-to-end and tied together with a sweeping, overlapping metal cornice that shelters passengers and freight from drop-off to loading. The overall composition of the front elevation is asymmetrical and therefore dynamic, which expresses not only the movement of people and machines along the railroad lines but generally a “modern” idea of time, place, and relativity. The building was also built with great utility in mind. The larger rectangle with two facades of glass is the passenger waiting room, and that is very obvious to anyone approaching the building. The smaller rectangle of brick provides ticketing, bathroom, baggage, and administrative services. These two rectangles are separated by the main door which has an articulated roof to indicate in no uncertain terms that this is the way into the passenger station. The interior admits only the necessary and with as few materials as possible creates an atmosphere of calm, confidence, professionalism, and simple elegance that modern travelers of the 1950s expected to experience. What is extremely unusual is that the building is almost unchanged, one of the architects is still alive and, well; there is a great need for it as the United States restructures itself for a future that this building professed over 50 years ago. The building is a marvelous expression of a back to the future idea that Americans will need to increasingly understand.
Lawrence Modern members Dennis Domer, Tom Harper and Bill Steele sit on the board of directors for Depot Redux, a non-profit community organization seeking to transfer ownership of the Depot from its current owner, BNSF Railway, to the City of Lawrence so that it may be restored. Depot Redux has a few paid members and many volunteers, who in addition to working with the city and Amtrak, supplement passenger services at the depot. To learn more about this effort, visit www.depotredux.org.