Finger In The Dyche
November 30, 1932
With an architectural design and exterior ornamentation reflecting the Venetian Romanesque style that graced eleventh- and twelfth-century European churches, Dyche Hall may be the most striking and unique building on the campus of the University of Kansas.
Since 1903, it has housed Lewis Lindsay Dyche’s world-famous Panorama of North American Mammals as well as numerous other plant, animal, and fossil holdings of the KU Natural History Museum, all of which have made Dyche Hall one of the state’s most popular tourist destinations. Yet on November 30, 1932, a mere 30 years after its opening, the state architect of Kansas ordered the building condemned after inspections revealed that outdated construction materials threatened to collapse the floors and ruin KU’s priceless collections.
The resulting near-decade interim closure of Dyche Hall frustrated thousands of students and cost the state countless tourist dollars. It also displaced hundreds of thousands of long-dead invertebrates, dinosaur and bird skeletons, and the preserved remains of numerous animals, including the famous warhorse Comanche who spent nine lonely years in the basement of Hoch Auditorium and nearly never came back.
Before there was a Dyche Hall, there was Lewis Lindsay Dyche, once a student of natural science professor (and later chancellor) Francis H. Snow, who, in 1889, became a professor at KU in his own right. Officially serving as the University’s “Professor of Anatomy and Physiology, Taxidermist and Curator of Mammals, Birds and Fishes,” Dyche rose to national and, indeed, international renown after his display of North American mammals wowed audiences at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. According to KU historian Robert Taft, Dyche “had collected many specimens of the larger mammals of the West” and, uniquely, had mounted them “not in the stiff, formal position of ordinary museum exhibits, but in natural lifelike occupations against a convincingly real background of their natural habitat.”
Dyche’s animals, featured in the Kansas Pavilion, made the state (and Dyche himself) the talk of the Fair. In Lawrence, this positive reception prompted Chancellor Snow to seek to capitalize on his former student’s fame by lobbying the state legislature for a new building. “[When] this collection of animals is returned from Chicago, the capacity of the natural history building [Snow Hall] will be taxed to its utmost extent to give it shelter,” he reminded the habitually stingy legislators.
Indeed, Snow continued, “the proper arrangement of this collection and a moderate provision for the continuation of Professor Dyche’s work would seem to indicate the speedy necessity of a special building.” At the time, however, the state felt that KU was in greater need of a new home for electrical engineering, which in 1898 became the original Blake Hall, and so Dyche’s stuffed animals would have to make due in Snow Hall for a few more years.
In the meantime, Dyche’s reputation continued its meteoric rise. From his daring adventures in the Arctic with Robert Peary and Frederick Cook, to his further expeditions throughout the American and Canadian wilderness in search of new and exotic specimens, to his tours on the national lecture circuit, Dyche, according to KU historian Clifford Griffin, was proving to be “a perfect publicist for himself and his university.” Indeed, “his fame became so great that a number of his less colorful faculty colleagues were extremely jealous,” due in no small part to his special 1897 salary raise at a time of across-the-board pay cuts.
Nevertheless, Chancellor Snow was firmly in Dyche’s corner, and in 1901 made a renewed push for funding to build a freestanding natural history museum. At the time, the “mood of the legislature,” according to Griffin, was “not extravagant but only generous” and it agreed to a $75,000 appropriation, $25,000 less than Snow’s original request.
The winning design plan, submitted by Kansas City architects Walter C. Root and George W. Siemens, called for a style that was characteristic of many European churches built between 1050 and 1200 AD called Venetian Romanesque.
The proposed museum featured rounded arches, Ionic columns, an intricately ornamented exterior complete with sculpted grotesques (essentially gargoyles with no drainage function), and a main entrance modeled after that of the St. Trophime Cathedral in Arles, France, reputed to be “the most beautiful portal in the world.” (Interestingly, among the museum’s grotesques, designed by sculptor Joseph Robaldo Frazee and his son, Vitruvius, was one figure that many believe was the first representation of the Jayhawk.) Construction began in 1901 and by October 1902, “the Museum” as it was simply called, was far enough along to play host to the formal inauguration of Frank Strong, the University’s new chancellor.
Commenting on the purpose and function of this distinctive building, its contractor, Henry Bennett of Topeka, explained that “the general idea … is to exhibit in a novel and natural manner principally the American mammals and American birds. It is hoped that the university and the state may receive credit from the result of this undertaking. The building is designed to express outwardly its uses.” By this he was referring not only to the animal-laden friezes and carved names of the world’s most famous natural scientists (including Newton, Huxley, Darwin, and paleontologist Edward D. Cope) that decorated the museum’s exterior, but also to its interior, most notably the lobby floor that itself depicted “groups of organisms generally in the order in which they appear in the fossil record.”
Once inside, visitors were overawed by the impressive panoramic display of Dyche’s North American mammals, which filled the first floor; on the second was the University’s extensive bird collection, numbering some 25,000 skin and skeleton specimens; and on the third floor were the fossil exhibits. The Museum also housed classrooms, offices, and workspaces for students and faculty alike.
Following its opening in 1903, the Museum was formally christened the Museum of Natural History, although in 1915 following Lewis Lindsay Dyche’s death, it took on the informal name of the Dyche Museum. The institution quickly became a popular tourist attraction and, as Henry Bennett had predicted, brought great credit to the University.
By the early 1930s, according to one account, the museum boasted a mammal collection of “5,500 skins representing 500 species”; an ornithological collection of 21,000 skins and 5,000 skeletons; 10,000 fish and reptile specimens; and nearly 10,000 pieces of Native American artifacts. Yet the museum’s magnificent façade masked an increasingly shaky and dangerous structural interior, as Kansas State Architect Joe W. Radostinsky (’24) found during a 1932 inspection.
After a ceiling collapsed in the Kansas State Teachers’ College of Pittsburg, the State Board of Regents ordered all school buildings inspected for possible structural flaws. When it came time for the Museum of Natural History to be given the once-over, Radostinsky found that the floors and ceilings, built at the turn of the century with wooden beams and reinforced woven wire, were simply too weak to support themselves much longer.
Moreover, the exceptionally heavy animal and fossil exhibits were causing the floors to bow ever so slightly, but enough to warrant serious concern. Radostinsky was not going to take any chances. He recommended that Dyche be condemned as structurally unsound until major repairs could be made. The Regents agreed, and on November 30, 1932, the Dyche Museum was closed indefinitely, to students, faculty, and the general public.
This was truly a significant loss for KU. Since the museum’s opening, as the Graduate Magazine noted, “young and old have been drawn to this Mecca for the curious – Old Dyche, with its external beauty and internal treasures.”
But those most directly and irrevocably affected were students and faculty, who could no longer continue their work since most of the collections had been boxed up and placed in storage throughout campus. According to Robert S. Schwarz, who has researched the Dyche restoration process during the1930s, “This [also] meant that research being conducted … nearly came to a halt” and since the University was already overcrowded, “moving classes and research made conditions even worse.” Perhaps most unfortunately, “many qualified students were rejected because there was a lack of room for the to attend Kansas University.”
Schwarz’s catalogue of tribulations associated with the closing of the Museum of Natural History also included the loss of significant tourist revenues and the near demise of the building’s most famous resident: the war horse Comanche, then considered only non-Native American “survivor” of the Battle of Little Bighorn.
Comanche’s case “is an example of what happens to a specimen when not put in a safe environment,” cautioned Schwarz. He “survived the battle of Big Horn [sic], but when stored in the basement of Hoch Auditorium, moisture that entered the basement split the horse’s plaster body as well as the hide stretched over it. The Museum taxidermist, Klaus Abegg, believed that Comanche was in such bad shape that he wanted to burn the specimen … and replace it with a horse from a barber shop in Lawrence that looked exactly like Comanche.” Fortunately, no one in a position to do so took Abegg’s advice. The temporary closing of Dyche Hall did not result in Comanche’s “last stand.”
The restoration of Dyche occurred over a painfully long time (nine years), but considering that most of this period corresponded with the Great Depression, the slow going is certainly understandable. Funding trickled in, on and off, from 1933 till 1940, principally from the state legislature, but also from federal agencies, such as the Public Works Administration and the Works Progress Administration, and from private donors.
The day of Dyche’s grand reopening finally arrived on June 6, 1941, and nearly 400 people joined in the festivities which, incidentally, coincided with the University’s 75th anniversary celebrations. The complex was doubled in size after a 1963 addition and, on July 14, 1974, Dyche Hall was entered on the National Register of Historic Places.
Before 1995, the Museum of Natural History at KU was a repository exclusively for vertebrate organisms, living and fossil. Since then, however, it has merged “with the McGregor Herbarium, the Snow Entomological Museum, and the Museum of Invetebrate Paleontology to become the Natural History Museum and Biodiversity Research Center,” according to Leonard Krishtalka, museum director.
Today, the museum is home to internationally respected collections, now totaling seven million distinct specimens, and welcomes more than 100,000 visitors each year.
John H. McCool
Department of History
University of Kansas