University of Kentucky master plan weighs renovation against demolition

UK's Blanding and Kirwin towers, foreground, were designed by modernist architecture pioneer Edward Durell Stone, who also designed the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.
UK's Blanding and Kirwin towers, foreground, were designed by modernist architecture pioneer Edward Durell Stone, who also designed the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. LEXINGTON HERALD LEADER

In the early stages of developing the University of Kentucky's master plan, hired consultants Sasaki and Associates took a deeper look at some of UK's oldest buildings, putting an emphasis on renovation over demolition.

"We do believe that the cultural and architectural values of places are embedded in built landscapes," said Mary Anne Ocampo, a UK graduate who is now an urban designer with Sasaki, based in Boston. "We're kind of deciding what are costs and benefits."

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For example, when the UK administration adopted a plan in October to build new student housing, it was assumed that the Kirwan-Blanding complex would be torn down to make way for new dorms.

But in the proposed master plan, there are three options for that complex of low buildings and two towers. The buildings were designed by Edward Durell Stone, a pioneer of modernist architecture who also designed the Gallery of Modern Art in New York and the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

The first option would be to renovate Kirwan-Blanding residences with more social spaces and more bathrooms, including constructing two new buildings along University Drive. The second option would keep the two towers and dining hall, and replace the low-rise buildings with new housing. The third option would be to demolish all the buildings and rebuild.

The prices for each plan range from $100 million to $154 million, depending on several factors, including the price of demolition.

Stone's son, Hicks, hopes they choose the first option.

"I'm always saddened when any of Dad's work is demolished," said Hicks Stone, an architect who wrote Edward Durell Stone: A Son's Untold Story of a Legendary Architect in 2011. "That era of modernism has not been fashionable, but I think the temptation is to embrace whatever the latest style is, then ask later, 'Why did we replace it with something not as well-executed?'"

Other college campuses with Stone's work have chosen to re-adapt, Stone said, particularly as planners embrace more "green" approaches.

"If a building can be restored, it's always good to preserve, adapt and renew," he said. "Wouldn't conserving materials and conserving money be a better approach?"

Lexington architect Graham Pohl said he's very concerned about demolition.

"I can't imagine they're even thinking about tearing down those towers," Pohl said. "He (Stone) is a shining example of a mid-century architect who did work that was exemplary of that period, and it's really quite remarkable. The relationship between the canopies (the lower buildings) and the towers is really sublime ... the canopies are opposite of the towers, almost like a sheet of paper floating in midair."

Pohl also is concerned about possible plans to tear down buildings by architect Ernst Johnson, who designed 13 buildings at UK between 1938 and 1950. For example, UK's housing plan calls for replacing Jewell Hall and Holmes Hall at South Limestone and Avenue of Champions. Other structures designed by Johnson include Memorial Coliseum, Funkhouser Building, the original student center building and Lafferty Hall.

"Holmes Hall is a wonderful example of mid-century design; to lose that piece of history is just a tragedy," said Pohl, who has criticized the architecture of the new residence halls being built by a private developer.

Bob Wiseman, UK's vice president for facilities, said preservation of old buildings is part of the "give and take that will go on for many years."

For example, Donovan Hall on Rose Street is another of Johnson's buildings. It's slated to be replaced by a new $100 million science building in the next two years.

Wiseman said it would be prohibitively expensive to retrofit Donovan with much-needed laboratory space and modern classroom facilities. He also said Donovan is not one of Johnson's better works, certainly not in the same class as Memorial Coliseum or Funkhouser Building.

"We have to think about preservation versus need," he said.

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