“No One Will Ever Tire Of Viewing It”
September 18, 1998
Originally called the Administration Building and renamed in 1938 after Frank Strong, the University’s sixth chancellor, Strong Hall is one of KU’s largest and most recognizable buildings. It also holds the less glamorous distinction of being the campus building that was most beset by construction delays, design changes, and financing frustrations.
First begun in 1909, Strong Hall came together in three torturously long phases and was not finished until 1923. This plodding, 14-year development resulted in the mustard-colored classical revival-style structure that now dominates the center of KU’s campus and serves as a colloquial synonym for the University’s administration. On September 18, 1998, during its 75th anniversary year, Strong Hall became the fourth KU structure to be listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
Enrollment at KU had mushroomed in the first few years of the twentieth century, rising from 1,200 in 1902 to 2,000 in 1908. This large influx of additional students began to tax the University’s classroom and office space, prompting Chancellor Frank Strong to petition the Kansas legislature to make a sustained and serious commitment to adding more buildings. In 1907, he declared that KU was faced with an “emergency” that could be dealt with in one of two ways: “Either to do away with the institution and hand it over to some other agency, which is unthinkable, or else adequately provide for its present and future needs.”
High on Strong’s list of needs was a new dual-purpose administration and classroom building. Two years later, the state legislators came around to agreeing with Strong, and voted unanimously to parcel out $50,000 in 1909 and another $75,000 the following year for the contemplated structure.
Strong and the Kansas State Board of Regents immediately set about shopping for an architect who could visualize and design what they believed should be a “monumental affair.” The new administration building, in their minds, would be “one of the largest and most beautiful … in the state,” and should “stand for a hundred years as the center of the University architecture as well as the University life.” State architect John F. Stanton seemed a logical choice, but according to KU historian Clifford Griffin, Strong and the Regents thought he was “incapable of doing their vision justice.”
To make up for Stanton’s perceived shortcomings, the Regents sought out prominent St. Louis architect Montrose Pallen McArdle to “assist” the state architect. And to avoid any raised eyebrows, they hired him on at KU in an adjunct capacity, made him professor of architecture, and paid him $2,400 a year with the understanding that the design of the new “ad” building would be his primary responsibility.
As Kansas Preservation later described it, “McArdle was to furnish the drawings for the building, supervise the construction, and deliver at least ten lectures on architecture in the school of engineering.” Rounding out this architectural dream team of sorts was Prof. William A. Griffith, head of the department of drawing and painting, and Olin Templin, dean of the College, both of whom would consult on the project.
McArdle’s original design truly was the “monumental affair” envisioned by Strong and the Regents, but perhaps a bit too monumental – especially in the cost area – for the Kansas legislature. His plans called for a grand “classical renaissance” structure, featuring a four-story central section for administrative offices, complete with a pillared façade and a massive domed, sky-lighted ceiling looking down upon a sixty-foot wide rotunda. On each side would stand two-story sections that would house an art gallery and classical museum; and framing those would be two three-story sections intended for classroom use.
According to the Graduate Magazine, “It may be said without exaggeration that the new building will be the finest College building in the country.” And furthermore, it predicted “the great rotunda will be the center of the University life and is designed to serve this purpose for the University of the future with its 10,000 students.” Total projected cost for this grand edifice was $500,000.
McArdle’s plan barely made it off the drawing board. Even before ground was broken, it became starkly clear that there would never be enough funding to make this majestic architectural vision a reality. KU unceremoniously scrapped McArdle’s plan in favor of a more toned-down design.
This replacement version, according to Griffin, “had the general form that McArdle had proposed,” yet “it lacked everything that gave proportion and beauty to the original: the dome, the pillars, the impressive northern façade, the harmonious connecting sections between the main part and the wings; and while the original plan called for stone facing, the actual facing was an unappealing terra cotta.” What resulted were plans for a “classical-revival” structure “evolved from the Beaux-Arts tradition,” as Kansas Preservation put it.
Work began in earnest in 1909 and by November 1911, the first section (called the “East Ad”) had been completed and was ready to receive its first occupants. Seven departments promptly moved in, including drawing and painting, mathematics, history, sociology, economics, philosophy, and psychology, freeing up much-needed space in Fraser Hall. However, this relatively promising start was hardly a portent of things to come.
In 1911, the legislature provided only $42,500, enough merely to lay the foundation of the building’s large center section. And there it stood, skeleton-like, for another six years. Surveying the sorry situation in 1914, an advisory board called the unfinished structure “a reproach upon the state.” Yet not until 1917 did the University secure enough money to begin actual work on “Center Ad” and “West Ad.” The latter was finished by December 1918, though the former was not completed until five years later.
Not all were soured, however, on the embarrassingly slow advance of construction. On May 7, 1918, an upbeat article in the University Daily Kansan marveled at the process, proclaiming “Ye olde tyme pyramid builders have nothing on the present day builders of our new Administration building. They are handling a heap more stones and are doing it more easily… Material for the mighty pyramids may have been hard to obtain, but now, even in war times, no particular difficulty has been experienced.” Continuing in this Egyptian vein, the Kansan asked “And what was their old pile of rocks worth? With us it is considered a war necessity to give students a place where they can be educated, and that is why the work is being carried on so strenuously today.” The paper also reported “the bosses … are hard to pick out, for they are working as hard as anyone on the job.”
The University announced final completion of the long-awaited, 130-room Administration Building in December 1923. Its total cost came in at $644,730, nearly 30 percent above the originally planned half-million-dollar budget that had called for a much more ambitious structure. Nonetheless, the Graduate Magazine still deemed the new building “the most impressive state-owned structure in Kansas, next to the state capitol.”
Questionable superlatives notwithstanding, the building did achieve the functional essence identified by Strong 16 years earlier. It housed academic departments, classrooms and administrative offices, including that of the chancellor, as well as a chapel and auditorium on the third floor. The sculpted lions and terra cotta shields gracing the façade, while a far cry from McArdle’s original vision, were nonetheless quite elegant.
One thing it did not possess, though, was a proper name. So in 1938, four years after the death of Chancellor Strong, the Administration Building was renamed Frank Strong Hall (later shortened to Strong Hall). As Fred Ellsworth, longtime chairman of the Alumni Association put it, the building “is symbolic of Chancellor Strong; of large and balanced proportions, clean, unadorned and pleasing to the eye. No one will ever tire of viewing it.”
Throughout its history, Strong Hall has been much more than merely an administration and classroom building. During World War II, for instance, many of its rooms were converted into barracks to house 500 Navy machinists’ mates whom the University had agreed to educate. According to Griffin, given that “Navy authorities demanded that the group be kept together, in living quarters as well as classes, … the only building large enough and safe enough … was Strong Hall, the entire top floor and west wing of which were leased to the government.” And during the 1960s, the administrative offices in Strong were sometimes the target of student protests and sit-ins. “In recent years,” however, noted the Kansan, “Strong has been known more for its sweltering classrooms, impossible-to-open front doors, and as always, its mixed-up numbered rooms.”
Despite its flaws and thwarted grand design, on September 18, 1998, Strong Hall joined three other KU buildings – Spooner, Dyche and Lippincott (formerly Green) Halls – on the National Register of Historic Places. It was cited for its “significance as a somewhat eclectic interpretation of the neo-classical architecture,” according to Martha Hagedorn-Krass, the architectural historian at the state historic preservation office who helped prepare the nomination.
Whatever its technical merits, though, perhaps Strong’s true significance lies in its sheer venerability and its imposing centrality. Some however, including Griffin, see Strong’s virtue in other ways. “Two things about it were fortunate,” he writes: “It provided badly needed classroom and office space, and it did not set an architectural precedent.”
John H. McCool
Department of History
University of Kansas