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Spooner Or Later

October 29, 1994


When it first opened back in 1894, Spooner Library, as it was then called, was the 28-year-old University’s sixth building, designed by noted American architect Henry van Brunt in a style modeled after buildings in 12th century France. But though the architectural inspiration may have been ancient, the building itself was quite up-to-date for the time. Even Harper’s Weekly took notice, remarking that “In troubled Kansas has grown up an educational centre where can be found culture and learning of the broadest type.”

And when the rapidly expanding University quickly outgrew Spooner Library, the building gained new life and purpose first in 1926 as the Spooner-Thayer Museum of Art and then in 1978, as home to the KU Museum of Anthropology. On October 29, 1994, it became the first academic building at KU to celebrate a centennial of existence. In March 2008 the building was reborn as “The Commons”, a joint venture of KU’s Spencer Museum of Art, the Biodiversity Institute and the Hall Center for the Humanities. The facility still houses anthropology collections for scholarly research and serves as an interdisciplinary center for academic programs.

When the inaugural class of students entered the University in 1866, all library holdings were stored in KU’s only building, now remembered as Old North. Cast-iron stoves provided the heat for each of the three-story building’s ten rooms, one of which housed the University’s meager library. It contained, according to KU historian Clifford Griffin, “some reports of the United States Patent Office and a few miscellaneous volumes of no importance.” It was hardly an auspicious beginning for a library system that would eventually contain many millions of volumes and feature world-renowned special collections.

Six years later, in 1872, the library moved into the University’s newest and most modern building, the structure now remembered as Old Fraser Hall. But these accommodations also proved insufficient, for what KU really needed was a self-contained, freestanding library to meet the needs of its rapidly growing student body.

In this case, the University’s unlikely savior was Boston leather merchant and philanthropist William B. Spooner, who, though never having visited KU, was nonetheless much impressed by the stories his nephew – natural science professor and later chancellor Francis H. Snow – would tell him about this rising Midwestern seat of knowledge. As KU historian Robert Taft has explained, “Mr. Spooner died in 1880, but so long and complicated had been his will that the executor of the estate was not able to transmit the actual bequest to the University until the fall of 1891.” The actual amount was $91,618 and at the time represented the largest single bequest ever given to a state university.

Spooner placed no specifications or restrictions on what could be done with his money, so the debate over how the windfall should be spent began apace. Among the more inventive suggestions came from a newspaper called the University Courier, which wanted a streetcar system to be built up Mount Oread.

But in the end, the Kansas State Board of Regents intervened and decided to use part of the donation to build a permanent residence for the University chancellor, which by that time was Francis Snow himself. But at Snow’s request, the bulk of Spooner’s money (about $80,000) would be used to erect the University’s much-needed and long-awaited library, to be aptly named in honor of its benefactor.

Despite the availability of the state’s architect, whose services would be offered gratis, the University decided to hold an open competition for the design of Spooner Library. On April 7, 1893, the contract was awarded to architect Henry van Brunt of the Kansas City-based firm Van Brunt and Howe. The Harvard-educated van Brunt already had a lofty national reputation, both for his designs and his prolific writing on the aesthetic and practical value of architecture.

Back in the 1850s, van Brunt had been one of the first three apprentices of New York architect Richard Morris Hunt, the first American to study at the Academie des Beaux Arts in Paris. Van Brunt later went on to found his own architecture firms in Boston and Kansas City. Indeed, according to Lawrence architect John Lee, speaking to Kansas Alumni in 1994, “At the time he designed Spooner, he was one of the top architects in the nation, comparable to I.M. Pei today.” The Union Pacific Railroad depot in Lawrence on the north side of the Kaw (now a visitor center) is another van Brunt creation.

For the Spooner project, van Brunt decided to employ the Romanesque Revival style made popular by another famous American architect, Henry Hobson Richardson – so much so that it is often called the “Richardsonian” Romanesque style. This was an especially popular style for designing libraries and was based on the 12th-century architecture of southern France that sought to emulate Christian basilicas from as far back as the 4th century. In fact, van Brunt libraries once graced the campuses of Harvard, the University of Michigan, and even the city of Topeka, although they are no longer standing.

The only ones remaining in the US besides Spooner are the public libraries in Cambridge and Dedham, Massachusetts, and in East Saginaw, Michigan. While it may seem a bit odd to design a church-like library, Florida State University architecture professor Robert M. Neuman (’70) once told Kansas Alumni that it is likely van Brunt saw libraries and churches in much the same way, namely that “Each is the heart of its community.”

According to Griffin, van Brunt saw the design of Spooner Library as “an effort to continue the process of adapting the more attractive European architectural styles to American needs, moods, and ideas.” Van Brunt often lamented that America did not have its own unique style of architecture, and thus he saw Spooner and other projects as part of a “’patriotic experiment’ which included at least a ‘dim prophecy of the new civilization’ rising in America.” He was not the only one who saw Spooner as a portend of brighter days ahead. The University Courier predicted that, when completed, it would be “the handsomest structure on Mount Oread” and would be “built in the latest and most modern style.”

The three-story limestone and red Dakota sandstone structure was truly a sight to behold when it was formally dedicated on October 10, 1894. In addition to filling a dire University need by providing space enough to hold up to 100,000 library volumes (KU had a mere 20,000 at the time) and housing reading and study rooms, library offices, and classrooms, Spooner was an architectural marvel, and not merely to Kansas eyes.

Harper’s Weekly lauded the building and its architect, who ignored “the old idea that a library is only a storage room or depository for books.” He, instead, has “erected a building simple in construction, convenient, adequate in its detail, and thoroughly modern in design.” Spooner merely confirmed, according to Harper’s, that “the University of Kansas stands high among the State universities.” The Library’s exterior inscription, “Whoso Findeth Wisdom Findeth Life” (Proverbs 8:35), seemed particularly fitting for this church-like shrine of learning.

At the dedication, attended by academic dignitaries and luminaries from throughout the state and nation, the keynote speaker was Dr. Cyrus Northrup, president of the University of Minnesota. “It is a well known fact in regard to the state of Kansas,” said Northrup, “that we never know what she is going to do next.” He congratulated the people of Kansas on their good fortune at having so modern and beautiful a library; after all, students could read and study under the warm glow of electric lights in Spooner, only 13 years after the invention of the light bulb. Northrup then added: “A benefactor outside of the state has built this building, and it remains for the people of the state to flood it with books, every room as full as it can hold….”

This was indeed the task at hand. When Spooner was dedicated, the University’s actual holdings were far from impressive; in fact, they were downright paltry for an institution that, since 1894, had boasted a Graduate School and offered the PhD degree. The library was, according to Griffin, the “University’s greatest shame,” and it could not attract the best students or retain top faculty without superior (or, at the very least, adequate) research facilities. Kansans had indeed taken President Northrup’s advice to heart and flooded Spooner with books, yet despite reaching the building’s maximum capacity of 100,000 volumes by 1915, KU’s holdings were still markedly deficient.

“We have a fairly good working library in most departments,” wrote Professor Frank H. Hodder, chairman of the Division of Libraries, in a 1920 letter to KU Chancellor Ernest H. Lindley, “but we fall far short of an adequate research library in all departments.” Furthermore, added Hodder, Spooner Library was “about as badly planned from the standpoint of lighting and of library administration as it possibly could have been. It is obviously the most ridiculous thing on campus.” He concluded his missive by warning, “We cannot make anyone think we have a great university as long as we are compelled to show this library.” KU was “starving intellectually” … for want of adequate library facilities” and only a solid financial commitment from the state legislature to construct a new, larger library could sate the University’s appetite.

By the early 1920s, with Spooner filled to the rafters with over 150,000 books – far beyond its intended capacity – the University capitalized on a rare spurt of munificence from Topeka legislators and began something of a building boom, which included funds for a new, much larger facility that would, in 1924, become Watson Library. Spooner was, in a sense, out of a job and sat vacant for two years. In March of 1926, though, the building was recalled to life and made into the University’s art museum, featuring the extensive and eclectic collection presented to KU by Sallie Casey Thayer back in 1917. From ceramics and glassware, to Chinese and Japanese paintings, Byzantine weavings, and Spanish brocades, the Thayer collection was showcased in the newly dubbed Spooner-Thayer Museum of Art, its home for the next 50 years.

By the 1960s, though, it became abundantly clear that, just as the University’s library holdings had outgrown Spooner, so too would its swelling art collection. And so in 1978, Spooner would surrender its holdings to the larger, fancier accommodations of the Helen Foresman Spencer Museum of Art, again finding itself vacated and facing something of an identity crisis. Yet Spooner has always been, and will always be, much more than the collections it holds or the services it renders the University. It is a piece of history, a landmark even, not only for the people of Kansas and the University community, but also for people nationwide. And no surer validation of this occurred than when on July 15, 1974, Spooner Hall (then still home to the art museum) was entered on the National Register of Historic Places.

It was not long, however, until the University granted Spooner a third lease on life by renovating it and opening it again in 1979 as home of the KU Museum of Anthropology, which contains more than a million prehistoric archaeological specimens and ethnographic items that had been previously kept in the basement of Blake Hall. Unfortunately, as of October 20, 2002, KU administrators have decided that the anthropology museum will no longer be open to the public, although, according to Dr. Mary Adair, interim director of the Museum, “All of the collections will remain in Spooner and will be available for teaching and research.” But despite the fact that Spooner’s anthropological collections will be accessible only to students and faculty, the entire KU and Lawrence communities can take pride in the intrinsic historical value and beauty of the structure itself.

These were indeed the sentiments of the Historic Mount Oread Fund and the Spooner Hall Centennial Celebration Committee as members began planning in the early 1990s for Spooner’s 100-year anniversary. Since 1894, the building’s interior has undergone numerous renovations to bring it up to contemporary safety standards, but aside from periodic repairs, its exterior has not changed – a fact that is both an aesthetic advantage and a structural disadvantage, as its red sandstone is definitely showing its age.

In any event, on October 29, 1994, the University celebrated Spooner’s 100 years on campus by having an open house during what was then homecoming weekend, featuring special events and extensive photographic and architectural exhibits charting its long history. The biggest attraction was the unveiling of an 8-foot bronze sculpture in front of Spooner titled “Water Carrier.” Created by San Carlos Apache artist Craig Dan Goseyun of Sante Fe, New Mexico, and a former student at Haskell Indian Nations University, it may be thought of as a 100th birthday present for Spooner Hall.

Whatever the future holds for Spooner, we can be assured that how to best preserve this historic place will be firmly in the minds of generations to come. As Kansas Alumni has remarked, true to its architectural origins, “Spooner indeed has inspired religious devotion from conservationists, who treasure every detail.” One of those is Ward Harkavy (’70), who, in 1979, championed Spooner’s cause when the University was debating what, if anything, to do with the ancient building.

Despite its age and flaws, he said, “A stroll through the building doesn’t speak of inadequacies. It speaks of respect, much as an old church would. It feels, smells, and looks like a university.” Then as now, “Whatever the University decides to do with Spooner Hall, it must be done with respect for that rare feeling it generates: the feeling that learning can take place there.”

John H. McCool
Department of History
University of Kansas

Source Notes

[Source Notes: A wealth of materials can be found in the Spooner Hall Building File located in University Archives, Spencer Research Library. Of particular interest are the following: Courier-Review, October 18, 1894, pp. 13-18; University Courier, April 13, 1893; Kansas Alumni (October 1979), p. 14; (October-November 1994), pp. 4, 19-22. See also, Clifford Griffin, The University of Kansas: A History, (Lawrence, Kan.: University of Kansas Press, 1974), pp. 182-183; and Robert Taft, The Years on Mount Oread, (Lawrence, Kan.: University of Kansas Press, 1955), pp. 58-60.]