Rethink plan to tear down buildings; UK should try harder to preserve history

February 19, 2014 

The University of Kentucky — in its drive to construct much-needed dormitory, classroom and research space — is moving unfortunately fast to demolish buildings important to the university and Kentucky's past, and which could and should contribute to the future.

Several of the buildings were designed by Ernst Johnson, the remarkable young architect from Ohio who came to UK in 1937 after working his way through two architecture degrees at Yale as a bricklayer. During the next three decades he designed most of the buildings that created the modern campus. Not surprisingly, his work reflects the best of mid-20th century design and remarkable brick work, both elaborate and subtle.

UK also is planning to demolish the 1880 Hamilton House on South Limestone, an Italianate beauty built as a residence for a prosperous miller whose flours and meals were sold throughout the country. It has served the university since at least 1942, when a cooperative residence was founded there, according to a yearbook, "to give women an opportunity to learn practical and useful lessons in living."

How you frame a question can determine the answer. Here, UK puts saving outdated relics of the past against offering students wired-in, updated dorms and learning spaces — as if there were no other options.

But there are. Students live, learn and connect to the Internet in buildings that are hundreds of years old at schools throughout the country and world. Thousands of buildings have been adapted to accommodate modern technologies, from indoor plumbing to electric lights to central heat to broadband.

Doing that requires intelligence informed by curiosity, determination to solve problems and willingness to adapt — the very skills we are constantly told students need to compete effectively in a fast-changing world.

That's what makes this demolition derby so disappointing. UK is missing the opportunity to demonstrate what it espouses from the president's office to the lecture hall.

Perhaps the greatest irony and uproar involves Wenner-Gren Research Laboratory. It was built in 1941 to house UK's earliest efforts at aeronautical research. In the 1950s and '60s, under grants from NASA, chimpanzees were trained there to participate in space flight. Johnson designed the building, funded by Swedish industrialist Axel Wenner-Gren, who developed the Electrolux vacuum cleaner and the first monorail at Disneyland, in the form of an airplane.

A rounded cockpitlike front section has brick glass windows, and there are finlike extensions at the rear. Through two expansions, it has been used for scientific research and has long been home to UK's biomedical engineering department.

UK spokesman Jay Blanton said the school had looked into incorporating Wenner-Gren into the new, $100 million science building planned for the site but "it was not feasible." Likewise, Blanton said, consideration was given to designing new dorms to include Hamilton House, but it was "decided that it would not fit in the context of much larger, more modern residence halls."

UK also looked at moving the house but decided the $1 million cost was too high.

So here is where things stand. A house built in the highest style and workmanship of its time, that has served UK and the community for 134 years, has just run out of luck.

No one can solve the problem of how to incorporate a small, unique building that's been home to cutting-edge research at UK for more than 70 years into a $100 million project to continue that tradition.

It's a sad lesson, one UK should reconsider.

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