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Lightning Strikes…Twice

March 22, 1898


Sometimes, one chance event can be the precursor to an even more unexpected occurrence. That as much as anything sums up the story of how KU gained the Fowler Shops, present-day Stauffer-Flint Hall.

On March 22, 1898, lightning struck the building that housed the University’s engineering shops and heating plant. The two-story structure, built in 1887 and known as the Powerhouse, burned to the ground. Not only were $30,000 worth of equipment for the Mechanical Engineering and Machine Departments destroyed, but also the boilers that supplied the University with heat and electricity. The damage left the entire student body temporarily in the dark and out in the cold.

As the University Daily Kansan later recalled, “The weather was cold, the legislature was not in session and there was no money in the university treasury. School was dismissed, and the prospects for its opening were not the best.” When the University announced that it did not have the resources to rebuild the facilities and purchase new equipment, the citizens of Lawrence quickly raised a $30,000 loan until the state legislature came back into session and could appropriate the necessary funds.

Because of the citizens’ generosity, classes resumed two weeks later after makeshift repairs were made to the heating plant: The formerly two-story building was “reconstructed as a one-story boiler house.” Engineering students, however, still lacked proper facilities, and the campus was still scarred with the charred remains of the ruined shops. To the University’s rescue came a most unlikely savior, a rare example, in a sense, of lightning striking twice.

George A. Fowler was a wealthy Kansas City businessman who inherited and managed his father’s meatpacking and ranching interests. His connection with the University came through his friendship with KU engineering and physics professor Lucien I. Blake, a fellow member of the Kansas City Country Club (and namesake of present-day Blake Hall). Shortly after the fire, according to the Kansas City Star, the professor recalled a conversation he had once had with Fowler, who told him that “young men who wished to apply themselves in the practical affairs of the world should have the opportunities given them in the colleges and universities.”

Fowler himself had an intimate interest in mechanical engineering and its applications in the packinghouses, and Blake decided to hit up his friend for a donation to help build the University a new power plant and engineering shops. After a ten-minute conversation at Fowler’s home in Kansas City, Blake returned to Lawrence with a check for $18,000, with only one string attached.

The single condition Fowler placed on his gift was that the University use at least $20,000 of the public contribution to purchase the most modern equipment, tools, and supplies, to ensure that KU’s engineering students be as skilled and prepared as possible upon entering the workforce. KU Chancellor Francis H. Snow gladly accepted Fowler’s donation, saying that “this unexpected gift is very gratifying [and guarantees] us a better building than we had hoped. The Regents would not have felt like putting up so complete a structure as this will be.”

Indeed, when the engineering facilities opened in February 1899, the freshly-christened Fowler Shops contained new boilers and engine-testing rooms; a forge-room and brass foundry; metal- and wood-working machinery; a number of sophisticated machines to conduct experiments with electricity; even a rifle range in the building’s basement.

Named as a memorial to George Fowler’s father, the Fowler Shops boasted the “latest and most perfect machinery” containing “all manner of high-speed engines,” noted a report in the Star. “It is the practical workshop for the students in electrical engineering and the system is the same as if the students were apprentices in a blacksmith shop or factory.” The Kansan glowingly remarked that KU’s School of Engineering would now be “much superior to many of the best eastern polytechnic schools, and the shops will also be larger. Old methods and old ideas have been cast aside and many new and interesting features will be noticed.” The only thing missing, it seemed, was George Fowler himself.

Fowler’s “modesty was so pronounced” that he declined every formal invitation to speak at KU or even to tour the shops that his money had built. It was the public attention and adulation that he most wished to avoid. According to the Kansan, “Out of gratitude for his generosity, he was asked to deliver an address at the [1898] commencement exercises. ‘How much money do you want,’ was his only reply. He was informed that $3,000 was the amount required to finish the building, and he sent it at once, but he never made the address at the university.” (As KU historian Robert Taft jocularly observed, “This excellent result might well be called to the attention of all prospective Commencement speakers.”)

The Star reported that, according to friends, the reason Fowler spent much of the year living in England was “to escape from those who have endeavored to force [him] to become part of a university demonstration.” Sometime after the dedication though, these sources predicted Fowler would “quietly slip into Lawrence and ask the foreman of the shops to show him around.” There is no record as to whether this prediction proved correct.

During World War II, the Fowler Shops briefly housed the ROTC and military science classes until the new Military Science Building was completed in December 1943. It remained in its original location until 1946 when the William Allen White School of Journalism took possession of the building and renamed it Flint (now Stauffer-Flint) Hall. The original inscription, however, remains etched in the tower’s north side: “Erected by the generosity of George Fowler of Liverpool, England – A gift to the young men of Kansas through his son.” Fowler’s generosity was further memorialized when, in 1949, the University built a “new” Fowler Hall, located just behind the present-day Art & Design Building along Hoch Auditoria Drive.

As for the University’s lightning-damaged 1887 Powerhouse, located just east of the present-day Dole Center, it was re-commissioned in 1922 as a sand and gravel storage facility and became known as the Gardener’s Shack. Those rather ignominious days will soon be behind it, though, as the Powerhouse is set to receive a much-needed and long-overdue facelift – to the tune of $3.76 million – and will become the new home for the Hall Center for the Humanities sometime in the spring of 2004. Considering that portions of its original walls still stand, it has the distinction of being KU’s oldest building; and by the look of things, it will remain so for a long time to come.

Another legacy of the original Fowler Shops remains on campus as well, and students, professors, and nearby neighborhoods are hourly reminded of its existence. The power plant steam whistle first blew at KU on December 9, 1899, as a means to announce the nightly curfew and, later, to give students a none-too-pleasant 7:45 a.m. wake-up call. On February 26, 1912, though, it became a way to indicate the end of class periods. “If the instructor isn’t through when the whistle blows,” Chancellor Frank Strong told students, “get up and go.” And from that day forward, students have complained that their professors habitually refuse to “stop on the toot” and professors have complained that their students fidget and squirm in their chairs in restless anticipation.

Everyone associated with KU can surely recall the first time they experienced the steam whistle. Yet few know that this earsplitting, heart-stopping claxon was made possible by a shy, but generous meatpacker’s son from Kansas City who may or may not have ever heard it himself.

John H. McCool
Department of History
University of Kansas

Source Notes

[Source Notes: For information on the Fowler Shops, see the following issues of the Kansas University Weekly: September 24, 1898, p. 3; October 1, 1898, p. 1; and October 22, 1898, p. 1-2. Also, the Kansan, February 6, 1907, p. 1, and the Kansas Alumni magazine (November 1955), p. 13. For information on George A. Fowler, see the History Scrapbook, vol. 1, p. 18, and vol. 3, p. 32, located in University Archives, 4th Floor, Spencer Research Library. For the steam whistle, see Kansas University Weekly, December 9, 1899, p. 1; the Kansan, January 29, 1910, p. 2; and the University Daily Kansan, February 26, 1912, p. 1. General information on the Fowler Shops can be found in Robert Taft, The Years on Mount Oread, (Lawrence, Kan.: University of Kansas Press, 1955), pp. 62-64, 167, 177, 185, 199, 204. And, Clifford Griffin, The University of Kansas: A History, (Lawrence, Kan.: University of Kansas Press, 1974), p. 192.]