Colorful history of UK's Wenner-Gren building, slated for demolition, sparks conversation about conservation

lblackford@herald-leader.comFebruary 8, 2014 

The Wenner-Gren Aeronautical Research Laboratory, built in 1940 and designed by renowned local architect Ernst Johnson, is slated for demolition. The Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation and others hope that UK can see its value.

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  • IF YOU GO

    "Rendered in Brick: The Modern Architecture of Ernst Johnson"

    When: Monday, Feb. 21

    Where: Design Library at University of Kentucky's Pence Hall

    Free lecture: Architect Robert L. Kelly will speak at 12:30 p.m. Monday, Feb. 10, at 209 Pence Hall

On Sept. 3, 1939, a German submarine torpedoed the USS Athenia, a British ship, and 1,000 passengers scrambled for safety. Among them was a young Lexington woman named Adele Headley, daughter of Keeneland founder Hal Price Headley.

A yacht called the Southern Cross picked up more than 300 of the Athenia's passengers, including Adele, according to press reports. The yacht was owned by the Swedish industrialist Axel Wenner-Gren — who, coincidentally, a year later, would fund an aeronautics laboratory on the University of Kentucky campus.

That building, the iconic, curved brick Wenner-Gren Laboratory, is now slated for demolition in favor of a new science building on Rose Street, but its unique history and design have sparked a new conversation about conservation on the UK campus.

"It's astounding that a building like that could be lost," said Graham Pohl, a Lexington architect. "It's just a little quirky thing, but when you really think about what that represents, it has more stories in it than you could write in a lifetime."

UK plans to raze four historical buildings, including Wenner-Gren, to make room for new construction.

University trustees last week decided that the other three buildings — Jewell and Holmes Hall, dorms designed by iconic architect Ernst Johnson; and Hamilton House, built in 1880 and later used by female students at UK — will be replaced by new dorms on the corner of Limestone and the Avenue of Champions. UK has already held a pre-bid meeting for demolition, and all bids are due back on Feb. 14.

Sheila Ferrell, executive director of the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation, wrote to UK President Eli Capilouto on Wednesday asking him to give more consideration to UK's unique architectural stock.

"If the university is truly dedicated to hereafter engaging in a meaningful discussion regarding the preservation of its historic resources, let's begin that discussion now with regard to the other seven buildings on its endangered list, as well as with many other structures owned by the university which are worthy of preservation," Ferrell wrote.

Ferrell pointed out that because UK is a state agency, it does not have to go through any approval process before demolishing historical structures. Last year, UK tore down a pre-1800 house at Spindletop Farm without notifying any preservation advocates.

UK spokesman Jay Blanton said the plan to build new dorms has been public for two years, ever since the Board of Trustees toured the dorms and were shocked by their age and condition. UK officials have discussed the changes with the Blue Grass Trust and other advocates.

"But dialogue is not the same as agreement," Blanton said. "We don't agree that outdated buildings should come before the learning and living needs of our students. Students want and deserve residence halls that come infused with technology, classrooms and space where they can collaborate and learn with each other. The residence halls in question not only don't facilitate such learning, they inhibit it."

The new dorms are being built in a partnership with a private developer, Education Realty Trust, which puts up all the equity for construction.

Pohl says it's clear that UK isn't interested in preservation, or design that integrates old and new.

"They're pushing the easy button," he said. "It's so much easier to imagine a new building on an empty site. It's hard work to use your imagination."

UK's historic preservation department in the College of Design was not consulted about UK's plans, said chair Allison Carll-White. Historic preservation students will choose one of the doomed buildings and thoroughly document and photograph them before they are razed.

"We're just doing this on our own, because we think it's imperative to have documentation of these buildings before they're destroyed," Carll-White said.

The College of Design is also hosting an exhibit titled "Rendered in Brick: The Modern Architecture of Ernst Johnson." Architect Robert Kelly will give a lecture on Feb. 10. "I'm going to talk about who Ernst Johnson was, and the various buildings on campus and connect them with architects of the times," Kelly said.

Johnson designed numerous buildings at UK, including Memorial Coliseum and Funkhouser Hall. He was hired as the university architect and taught architectural engineering before the architecture school was founded, Kelly said.

Johnson and his wife, Irma, were also steady supporters of UK. According to an open records request, they gave the College of Design and other departments more than $44,000 between 1972 and 2005.

Pohl said that while many of Johnson's buildings are great examples of mid-century architecture, the Wenner-Gren building is unique.

It was built in 1941 as fears of World War II crossed the Atlantic; the building was funded by Wenner-Gren, who helped invent the first vacuum cleaner and owned the Electrolux Company. In a 1940 edition of the Kentucky Engineer about the new lab, Engineering Dean James Graham told the story of Headley's rescue to show "the world is not so large after all." But Graham said he contacted Wenner-Gren because of the industrialist's interest in aviation. By the 1950s, the Wenner-Gren was used to train chimpanzees for space flight.

In an interview in the same issue of the Kentucky Engineer, Johnson tried to explain the building's unusual modern design.

"Architecture has been called the art of building beautifully, a fixation of man's thinking, and record of his activity," Johnson said. "Keep in mind that last phrase. It is important."

Linda Blackford: (859) 231-1359LTwitter: @lbblackford

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