UK can do it: Heritage isn't just for Ivies

A number of years ago I visited the University of Texas. After viewing an exhibit in the welcome center on the history of the university, I commented to the docent that I had seen many pictures of the UT campus but never one of Old Main, the first building. The docent explained that was because Old Main (1883) was torn down in the 1930's when UT came into its oil money and decided to rebuild the campus. She said that the loss of Old Main, "is our greatest regret" because now they have nothing that links UT to its origins. There are no pre-1930's campus buildings left.

This long ago visit came back to mind when I read that the University of Kentucky may demolish the Matthews and Ligon Houses and then continue to clear central campus with the possible demolition of Erikson (1942), Funkhouser (1942) and the old dorm quadrangle (1921-49) at the corner of Rose and Washington.

These buildings represent our collective past. Individually, and taken together with the landscape, they help tell the UK story; and it is incumbent upon the university to ensure that the story remains intact for future generations. The best way to preserve this heritage is to develop an historic preservation master plan for the UK campus.

Preservation plans are not just for the Harvards and Yales of higher education. Of the 85 universities and colleges that received funding from the Getty Campus Heritage program between 2002 and 2007, at least 22 were major state universities, including Texas, Tennessee, Wisconsin, New Mexico, Arkansas, Arizona, Illinois and Ohio. All of these are state schools which face the same funding and space constraints as UK. But, unlike UK, they all valued their campus history enough to incorporate their older buildings into their future.

In Georgia, the board of regents used the Getty grant to develop a single preservation plan which covers the entire state system. Some schools hired outside consultants to write their plans while others did it in-house. Pittsburgh worked with the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation. Mary Washington developed an in-house plan using its Historic Preservation degree program, which offered a for-credit course for students participating in the project. Oregon has two people on their planning staff who have degrees in historic preservation and the University of Chicago has an Historic Preservation Committee of both university staff and outside experts. Many universities have sought National Register Landmark status for individual buildings, and Arkansas is seeking National Register status for its entire core campus.

Having a preservation plan ensures that when future campus planning decisions are made, either on the individual building level or at a larger scale, the preservation values of the university community are incorporated. When an outside consulting firm is brought in, as is the case with UK and Sasaki, it gives the planners a context in which to work. It is interesting to note that nowhere in UK's charge to Sasaki is the firm tasked with taking UK's history into consideration or giving priority to the reuse of existing buildings.

Universities are evolving organisms. No one expects the UK campus to remain static and no one expects UK to start running house museums. Every building needs to be utilized to meet contemporary needs. However, rather than demolishing older buildings, UK needs to explore and consider their rehabilitation.

For example, UK should explore taking the quadrangle back to its original use as a dormitory complex. UK wants to retain students, especially upperclassmen, on campus. What better way to do this than to follow the example of The Lawn at the University of Virginia and restore this complex to its former glory?

Historic preservation is not about the past. It is about making sure that those buildings which express our history, culture and values are carried forward and integrated into our future. Developing a campus preservation plan is the first step in this direction.

I spent several hours on the Texas campus and the only thing I remember is their regret at losing Old Main. How much better for visitors to UK to remember our pride at having saved our heritage.