"Let Us Raze Historic Halls!"
When it first opened in the fall of 1872, Old Fraser Hall, then called the “New Building,” was quite simply a marvel of nineteenth-century construction.
Few universities could boast of such a modern structure that combined beauty and massiveness of design with the practical needs of education and accouterments that, at the time, were little short of luxurious. Indeed, according to the Fort Scott Daily Monitor, “it may be said … that Harvard College has existed more than two hundred and thirty years without having a building equal to this in size or usefulness for the purposes of instruction.”
Over the course of its near-centenary history at the University of Kansas, the New Building underwent dozens of remodelings, refurbishments, and some major foundational repairs, not to mention two name changes: It was re-christened University Hall in 1877, and Fraser Hall (after KU’s second chancellor, Gen. John Fraser) in 1897. In the process, it became a local and University landmark.
But Old Fraser was also a building in which nearly all KU faculty and students spent time, whether in its classrooms, offices, or 700-seat theater that hosted commencement ceremonies, chapel services, plays and musical performances. So it certainly came as disappointing and unwelcome news to many when, on February 19, 1962, KU Chancellor W. Clarke Wescoe announced a decision made by the Kansas Board of Regents two days earlier to replace Fraser, which had “outlived its usefulness” and must come down.
As early as December 1885, responding to complaints of poor ventilation and the settling of both interior and exterior walls, KU Chancellor Joshua A. Lippincott asked State Architect John G. Haskell to “make a complete and careful survey” of Fraser Hall. In his report, Haskell, who ironically had been the building’s original architect, admitted that he found “not only the foundation in a very bad condition, but likewise partitions of the walls of the superstructure, the latter caused by the defective foundations.” He wrote of water seepage, “serious cracks and disturbances,” and, in general, of the “treacherous and unstable nature” of what was then only a 13-year-old structure. “Sooner or later, it will be necessary to strengthen the foundation in order to preserve the building,” although, he confessed, “we cannot see the hidden elements of danger, those which might cause a wall to crumble and fall.”
In the years following, the University could never secure sufficient funds from the state to stave off disaster completely, and was able merely to prolong the day of reckoning. In 1923, a faculty report on the condition of Fraser Hall told of potentially dangerous structural problems and manifestly unhealthy infestations of rats and mice. The floors, the report noted, were “one of the most serious obstacles in the way of maintaining proper standards of cleanliness and sanitation.” They were “so full of cracks and crevices,” and “so splintered and impregnated with dirt, that nothing less than entirely new floors can be recommended.” The faculty echoed the 40-year-old complaints of inadequate ventilation and added new ones concerning “poorly arranged and poorly distributed” lighting, an “uncontrollable” heating system, and a vermin situation that demanded a “systematic campaign of extermination.”
By January 1923, the University Daily Kansan had already decided that, with all the administrative offices having just moved into the newly opened Strong Hall, Fraser’s “day is past.” However, in spite of repairs that were becoming costly and frustratingly annual, the venerable building celebrated its 60th anniversary in 1932, with the Graduate Magazine professing that it “still stands strong and apparently secure for many years to come.” As Fraser neared its 70th anniversary in the late 1940s, the Kansan began reporting on pieces of falling rock that were becoming dislodged from the building’s façade and were threatening to seriously injure unsuspecting passersby. “These boulders out of the blue, plus several ugly cracks in the north and east walls of the oldest building on campus,” noted the Kansan on February 7, 1949, “have led many to believe Fraser is not long for this world.”
Remodeling and repair continued into the 1950s, with the building undergoing several interior and exterior facelifts. Indeed, on September 23, 1952, the Lawrence Journal-World judged that Fraser seemed “comparatively untouched by crippling infirmities of old age,” noting that it remained one of the “busiest buildings” on campus, housing the School of Education, the University Extension Division, and the departments of English, home economics, Latin and Greek, and Germanic languages. Ten years later, though, as the University prepared to commemorate Fraser’s 90th year on campus, Chancellor Wescoe reported that its days were numbered.
On February 19, 1962, Wescoe issued a public statement in which he reported, first, that the Kansas Board of Regents had just voted funds for Fraser’s replacement; and second, that the building itself would be razed within five years. “The University’s burgeoning enrollment,” said Wescoe, “demands the most efficient and economical use of the area in the heart of the campus. This efficiency and economy relates to the utilization of time of both students and faculty, as well as the employment of building funds made available.”
As for Fraser Hall, it “has outlived its usefulness [and] is no longer efficient space in terms of modern classroom buildings…. It is being kept usable only at unusual expense. It is an increasingly unsatisfactory educational facility” owing to its age, condition, and precarious construction. In fact, according to architectural estimates, “renovation could cost twice the amount necessary to provide a modern building,” and thus the most rational and practical course was to raze Fraser to the ground. Wescoe acknowledged, however, that this “decision … produces mixed emotions because of the age of old Fraser and its long years of service.” Yet he likely had little conception of how mixed, and powerful, those emotions would prove to be.
In the subsequent aftermath of Chancellor Wescoe’s announcement, the University and local media found themselves flooded with protests from alumni demanding that Fraser be spared the wrecking ball. Perhaps the most moving and eloquent came on June 4, 1965, when William J. Sollner of the Save Old Fraser Committee had a poem he had written, titled “In Defense of Fraser Hall,” published in the Kansas City Star. (See right hand column.)
Such heartfelt sentiments were repeated time and again. Some, like Sollner, felt that Kansans were too quick to break with the past, so eager to achieve vaunted “progress” that they were fast losing their appreciation for their own history. Others believed that this apparent obsession with what is new and modern was a distinctly American psychosis.
In any event, once contractors began inspecting Fraser Hall, they became “convinced with each passing day,” according to Kansas Alumni magazine, “that the problem confronting them” was not of a sentimental or historical nature, but merely “a matter of keeping Fraser standing long enough to evacuate the people, furniture, equipment, and salvageable artifacts.” One faculty member spoke for many when, in a letter to the Journal-World, he said: “Those of us who do not dream pleasantly about Fraser, but must work in it, are counting the days until we are moved out. It’s plain, simply dangerous to be there, and everybody’s luck runs out sometime.”
The professionals concurred. George Champney, who owned the wrecking company charged with Fraser’s destruction, told the Topeka Capital that it was in “the worst condition of any building he [had] wrecked in his 20 years in the business.” And he also noted that he had “never been afraid to demolish a building before, but Fraser gave him a scare when several large rocks fell out of the wall and landed near where he was standing.”
According to Kansas Alumni, when the building’s furniture was removed, the floors and walls contorted to such a radical degree that it was as if “the furniture had been holding Fraser together.” Moreover, “when the wreckers got to the foundations, they found no real foundations – just continuations of the rock walls about 12 inches below the basement floor. They were not resting on a layer of stone, but were merely in earth, just as if Fraser had been built on top of the ground.” With its dry-rotted beams, cracked and split walls, disintegrated mortar, and myriad other structural problems, the decision to raze Fraser seemed more inspired every day. The “deconstructionists,” as they were called, were being proved right.
Thus, in August 1965, Old Fraser finally came down after 93 years at the University of Kansas. Very little of the building itself was salvageable, although some of the interior woodwork, doors, windows, and paneling were used to finish the Centennial Room in the Kansas Memorial Union. Its name, however, did live on in its replacement, today’s New Fraser Hall.
John H. McCool
Department of History
University of Kansas