Tom Eblen: Reconsider demolition of research lab that played role in space race

Herald-Leader columnistApril 22, 2014 

I have made several trips to the University of Kentucky campus over the past year to take a good look at some of its iconic architecture before administrators demolish it.

The most recent trip was to see Wenner-Gren Research Laboratory. It is unique among several mid-20th century buildings designed by noted Lexington architect Ernst Johnson that may soon meet a wrecking ball.

Swedish industrialist Axel Wenner-Gren, who got rich selling Electrolux vacuum cleaners, gave UK $150,000 in 1940 to build a laboratory for aeronautical research.

The mission called for a structure about as utilitarian as you could get: thick, strong walls to contain aircraft engine tests and funnel out the exhaust. But Johnson found a way to give his building style.

The long, narrow building resembles an airplane, with tail fins on the back roof and a curved front façade of glass block and fine brick work that reminds you of a cockpit. Form elegantly reflected function.

Wenner-Gren is one of the area's few remaining examples of Streamline Moderne architecture. The style, which also was used in everything from steam locomotives to toasters, reflected mid-20th century Americans' hopeful visions of a space-age future.

In the 1950s, the lab's mission evolved from aircraft to biomedical research. In 1959, the lab got an Air Force contract to train chimpanzees, the first astronauts of the Mercury Space Flight program.

During a recent visit to Lexington, retired Space Shuttle astronaut Story Musgrave recalled doing biomedical research in Wenner-Gren while earning degrees in physiology and biophysics that prepared him for his future NASA missions.

As with many older UK buildings, renovation and updating of Wenner-Gren over the years appears to have been basic and minimal. A water leak in the annex recently damaged a display case chronicling the lab's significant scientific history.

Dr. Eli Capilouto, who became UK's president in 2011, deserves a lot of credit for moving swiftly to play catch-up to longtime facilities needs, from student housing to academic buildings. But that rush has at times reflected a narrow vision of campus improvement, with little regard for history or architecture.

Architects and preservationists have complained about the planned demolition of several Ernst Johnson dormitories to make way for generic-looking residence halls outsourced to a private contractor.

Dining services also are to be outsourced to a major corporation willing to invest in new facilities. That has drawn criticism from students and others concerned about UK's commitment to the local food economy and worker wages.

UK also plans to demolish Hamilton House, an 1880 Italianate mansion, to make way for a residence hall. Mathews Garden, a unique plot of diverse plant life managed by the biology department, along with two adjacent early 20th century houses, may be destroyed for a proposed expansion of the law-school complex.

UK plans to replace Wenner-Gren with a new science classroom building. The dozen research labs now housed there will be moved to a College of Engineering building when this semester ends.

Critics have urged UK to preserve all or some of Wenner-Gren as part of the new science building. One good idea: Turn it into a cafeteria, café and coffee shop whose architecture and illustrious history could help inspire future scientists.

But, so far, UK administrators have shown little interest in investing much imagination or money in such adaptive reuse projects. So far, the architecture of the new buildings is nothing special.

You would think that, in their master-planning process, UK administrators would have involved their in-house experts, the College of Design professors who train most of Kentucky's architects and historic preservation specialists. Well, no.

"I find it extremely disappointing that UK, as the flagship state university and our state's keeper of culture, is letting accountants make decisions about what is architecturally and historically significant," said Robert Kelly, a Lexington architect and longtime UK adjunct professor who has advocated for preservation of Wenner-Gren and other significant Ernst Johnson buildings.

"I find it analogous to asking your hairdresser how to perform cardiac surgery," he said. "Hmm, that doesn't look important — you can probably remove it."

Tom Eblen: (859) 231-1415. Email: teblen@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @tomeblen. Blog: tomeblen.bloginky.com

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