From Sky-soar To Eyesore
November 20, 1967
With its substantial classroom and office facilities, few would deny that Wescoe Hall serves an important function at the University of Kansas. Yet few also would argue that the building is anything but an aesthetic nightmare that is truly unlovely to behold. Since opening in 1973, Wescoe has been the recipient of withering ridicule from faculty and students alike.
The University Daily Kansan has been particularly relentless in its satire. In spring 2002, for example, the paper announced, tongue-in-cheek, that Wescoe had been named to the “National Registry of Eyesores and Monstrosities” along with the “Los Angeles County Landfill.” And while it has been the butt of countless jokes for its “bunker-like appearance,” most do not realize that the original plans for Wescoe, unveiled on November 20, 1967, envisioned a towering 25-story skyscraper located in the heart of campus that would not only have been the tallest building in Kansas, but also the third-tallest educational building in the country.
As early as the mid-1950s, rapidly rising enrollments and the haphazard scattering of humanities departments all across campus led KU administrators to contemplate a new, large, centralized building that would unify these academic fields and provide much-needed classroom and office space. But due to the difficulties associated with approving, not to mention financing, such an ambitious project, KU was not able to begin the planning stages until 1966, when roughly $1.9 million in federal education grants became available. This sum, added to the $3.9 million allocated by the Kansas Legislature two years earlier, finally provided sufficient impetus for KU to select an architect. According to state law, however, the use of taxpayer money meant that the contract had to be awarded to a Kansas firm, and this promptly added another time-consuming hurdle to the long-delayed humanities building.
“This was the largest building project the state had ever taken on,” said Francis Heller, professor emeritus of law and then a member of the campus planning board, to the Kansan on October 18, 1993. “There were few architects in Kansas that could do a project of this size and even fewer that would be considered due to the political climate.” After long discussions and unreported internal machinations, the Wichita architectural firm of Woodman and Van Doren won the rights to design the $5.8 million structure. It was these architects who first proposed the massive 25-story edifice that would dwarf all surrounding structures and tower over the Wakarusa Valley far below.
The site of the proposed humanities building, straight across from Strong Hall on Jayhawk Boulevard, was hardly controversial, since by then old Robinson Gymnasium was already being razed and old Haworth Hall was scheduled for demolition in early 1969. Not surprisingly, it was the sheer size of the 280-foot-tall building that captivated most Kansans, worried some and appalled others.
“Everyone was awe-struck by those drawings,” said Professor Heller, most marveling at not only the giant tower, but also at the two proposed five-story wings; the 149 class-, study- and graduate seminar rooms; and space for 487 faculty offices in 13 academic departments. Other promised amenities included a 300-seat auditorium, a refreshment area, 12 high-tech electronic classrooms, a classics museum, and even, amazingly, parking spaces for 150 automobiles. “All concerned are pleased” with the proposed structure, said KU Chancellor W. Clarke Wescoe to the Wichita Eagle on November 21. To the Kansan he added, “At the risk of being corny, this building is the high point in the University’s master plan.”
On November 21, the Lawrence Journal-World editorialized, in somewhat gushing tones, that the proposed building symbolized “man’s quest for life,” and further claimed, “the handsome and beautiful new tower, reaching high into the sky of our great state, will bring even greater inspiration to all who look toward Mount Oread.” In a slightly more subdued sentence, the paper also suggested “the towering edifice will be a landmark for all travelers, as it stands high and in noble purpose as a constant reminder of the excellence of the University and the generosity of citizens of Kansas in providing the best in educational facilities.”
This sublime verdict was far from unanimous, though. On November 23, the Hutchinson News cautioned its readers that the 25-story tower, though undoubtedly a “conversation piece,” will nonetheless “destroy what architectural symmetry the campus offers. Rising from the top of Mt. Oread it will be incongruous.” The newspaper also could not understand why a tower was an intelligent option, given both the expense of vertical construction and the obvious problems of congestion, despite the promise of six “high-speed elevators.” Indeed, predicted the News, “at certain times of the day, traffic at the base of this soaring hall will be as bothersome as it is in Times Square in New York.” But perhaps the most biting criticism was an aesthetic one, not to be the building’s last: “Before a contract is [signed], it would be wise to send a delegation to the Soviet Union to study what difficulties have been involved in the operation of the skyscraper campus of the University of Moscow.”
As it turned out, however, the energetic debates over the desirability of KU’s skyscraper were all for naught once the pesky issue of cost was entered into the equation. As Heller recalled the exchange between Wescoe and the architects, “The chancellor said, ‘This is very impressive, but do you know what it will cost?’ And the architects replied, ‘that is not our concern, sir. We hope you are impressed by this plan and will find the money to pay for it.’” When all bids came in, none were commensurate with the University’s $5.8 million allowance; all were, in fact, over $7 million.
As a result, the great 25-story tower was abandoned in favor of a more modest 15-stories by March 1968. By December, though, skyrocketing construction costs and the loss of time-sensitive federal funds doomed even the reduced version, leaving KU with no plans, little money, and a giant, gaping pit in the center of campus that students quickly and scornfully dubbed “Wescoe Hole.” (Amid the chaos, though not apparently because of it, Chancellor Wescoe officially resigned his office effective June 30, 1969, to become vice president for medical affairs and research of Sterling Drug, Inc., in New York. He later became chairman and CEO of the company.)
By the fall of 1969, the University was in desperate straits in terms of classroom space, enrollments having increased 30 percent since 1965. According to Heller, “the classrooms were so limited that at one time students had to enroll in two Saturday classes. Later, freshmen were required to enroll in 7 a.m. classes during the week to accommodate the total class demand.”
Finally, though, KU paid off Woodman and Van Doren for its past work (to the tune of $200,000) and hired new architects, the firm of Horst, Terrill and Karst of Topeka, who submitted their plans in late 1969. Their design was for a dramatically scaled-down, 400-foot-long, 4-story concrete building, which was officially designated as Wescoe Hall.
The cost? $8 million: One million dollars more than the highest bids for the 25-story structure; two million dollars more than KU had to spend; and, worst of all, 21 stories lower with no parking facility and vastly reduced classroom and office capacities. But the University could not possibly countenance any more delays, so the frantic search began to raise the extra funds.
In response to the financial dilemma, on February 18, 1970, the KU Student Senate made a remarkably bold move by agreeing to assess an additional $7.50 fee per semester on every student. Amid the Vietnam-era protests and campus violence, the gesture was, according to then Student Body President David Awbrey, “an attempt to show that the students were concerned about the campus. It was certainly controversial, but I didn’t feel bad about the decision.” However, this proposal troubled many faculty members and outraged most students, who felt that it was the state’s responsibility, not the students’, to pay for classroom buildings. The students had, in the past, assessed themselves fees to pay for the Kansas Union and the student hospital, but this was something new and threatened to set a bad precedent.
In any event, over the 2-to-1 objections of the student body in an April 7, 1970, non-binding referendum, the new fee was allowed to stand after the University, the Board of Regents, and state legislators hammered out a compromise. “Either we were going to pay for it, or we were not going to have the building,” Awbrey recalled to the Kansan on October 18, 1993. “It was not a popular thing, but it was just one of those things that had to be done.” With that settled, construction began on Wescoe Hall in May 1971. The final cost of the building was $7.68 million, slightly lower than originally expected, and was paid for by $3.9 million in state funds, $2.17 million in federal funds, and $1.6 million from bonds supported by the new student fees.
The first classes began in Wescoe as the fall semester got underway on August 27, 1973, despite the fact that only the fourth floor was finished; it was February 1974 before the building was fully occupied. Though a far cry from the promises of 1967, Wescoe nonetheless provided substantial and essential space for 300 faculty and departmental offices in 12 humanities departments, 60 classrooms, two language laboratories, two auditoriums, and a cafeteria.
At its formal dedication, which took place on April 20, 1974, 300 people, including the former chancellor and namesake himself, gathered in one of the building’s auditoriums. “No act could be more appropriate in honoring the name of Wescoe on this campus than the naming of this humanities building after him,” said keynote speaker and former chairman of the Board of Regents Ned Cushing, “because Dr. Clarke Wescoe wasn’t narrowly concerned with the medical sciences or science in general, but rather with the entire range of human learning.” He added, “In addition to being a valuable and needed academic facility, Wescoe Hall is also a living monument to [this] man who contributed immeasurably to the University.” Cushing also was quick to commend “the dedication of those students to the welfare of their University as demonstrated by their willing contribution.”
As for those who actually had to work in the building, Heller recalled to the Kansan that they “weren’t so happy about it once they realized what it was like. The faculty realized they’d be working in windowless cubicles.” Yet this was the least of some people’s complaints, since by 1985 it became apparent that Wescoe’s basement floors and ceiling were a bit crooked, leading to serious concerns that the building may be slowly but deliberately sliding off the hill down towards Malott Hall.
This is, however, nothing more than an urban legend that has refused to die out, said Jim Modig, director of design and construction management to the Kansan in 1993. “When people saw the floors crooked, they feared major structural damage. But to the best of our knowledge, the building sits exactly where it’s always been, … on a firm rock base which is stable as far as anyone knows.” He said emphatically that Wescoe Hall poses no safety risks and is not going anywhere.
And that, for many, is the truly distressing part. The building’s design hardly blends well with its neighbors or the rest of campus, nor is it at all pleasing to behold in and of itself. “Wescoe was sort of the architectural cliché,” said University Architect Allen Wiechert in an October 18, 1993, interview with the Kansan. “It is characterized as brutalistic architecture.” David Awbrey, the former student leader who played such an important role in the funding of Wescoe Hall, was more blunt and must have the final word. “It was an architectural and aesthetic disaster. Every time I am on campus, I feel personally remorseful that I had any part in the construction of the monstrosity.”
John H. McCool
Department of History
University of Kansas