The Chateau That Blake Built
March 11, 1893
In another environment, say the Loire Valley rather than the Kaw Valley, one might easily have mistaken KU’s original Blake Hall for the manor of a French nobleman, not the physics and electrical engineering building at a public university in the American Midwest.
Indeed, early twentieth century photographs of the Chateau Renaissance structure conjure up images of higher living instead of higher learning. Named after Prof. Lucien Blake, the self-styled best-dressed man at the University of Kansas in the 1890s and the only faculty member to employ a personal valet, the hall was an architectural reflection of the dapper and sophisticated pedagogue.
Unlike the popular professor though, his namesake structure attracted a legion of critics. Within months after its completion, one KU student paper called the building “a sorry looking structure” with a “chubby freckled face” that resembled a “speckled chicken.” Even as late as 1957, an article in the Kansan described old Blake as an “ugly white elephant.”
For decades, students and faculty alike mocked its perpetually unreliable tower clock – though the pigeons weighing down its hands were at least partly to blame for this deficiency. And for much of its existence, persistent rumors suggested that the building was hexed. But for nearly 70 years old Blake stood, enduring the slings and arrows of collegiate derision. When it was finally demolished in 1963, it went down not with a bang, but with a whimper.
Seven decades prior, on March 11, 1893, the Kansas state legislature appropriated $50,000 for what would become the building now remembered as “old” Blake. It was the brainchild of Lucien Ira Blake, who came to Lawrence in 1887 after having earned his PhD in physics from the Royal University in Berlin and serving two years as the chairman of the physics and electrical engineering department at Rose Polytechnic Institute (now Rose Hulman University) in Terre Haute, Indiana. Blake’s formal title at KU was professor of physics and astronomy, but he immediately began offering courses in electrical engineering as well.
Although there had been a Department of Engineering at KU since 1869, it had never offered a four-year electrical program until Blake arrived. “He at once,” a friend recalled, “put ‘pep’ into his department at KU. His labors were not confined to the classroom [and] he worked in overalls in the laboratory and shops with his students. He encouraged them to organize research and carried it on himself.”
During his first few years at KU, Blake held his physics and engineering classes mainly in unused sections of the original Fraser Hall, which he outfitted into makeshift laboratories. Though serviceable, these facilities were fundamentally inadequate for a department that had ambitions of becoming a regional or even national standard-bearer in these emerging fields.
Early on, Blake recognized the need for a dedicated physics building, and he used his powers of persuasion at every opportunity to influence the notoriously parsimonious state legislators to appropriate the necessary funding.
“There will be no recitation today, boys,” he once told a class. “I have the Legislative committee here today, and I am going to sock it to them.” According to one former acquaintance, Blake did this “every time they got into his hands” as “evidenced by the rapid improvement in his department and the large increase in the number of students taking electrical work.”
Using his “fine speaking voice” and legendary “push and energy,” Blake finally convinced the state in 1893 to grant the University $50,000 for the construction of a free standing physics and engineering hall, plus an additional $5,000 for supplies and equipment for the relevant disciplines. Dean Frank O. Marvin of the School of Engineering supported him in this endeavor, but Blake was the driving force for the physical construction of the building as well as for its architectural appearance.
According to the March 16, 1893, edition of the University Courier, “The new electrical engineering building will be built in accordance with plans drawn by Professor Blake to whose efforts this building will be a fitting testimonial, and to the work of this department it will be wholly devoted.”
The most apparent and striking attribute, for both good or ill, about the Physics Building (officially named for Blake in 1898) was the design. Some confusion on this issue remains to this day. All sources agree that Prof. Blake played a role in the exterior design of the building, and certainly the central role in the interior layout since the various rooms had to accommodate different sorts of experiments, lab equipment, and classroom space of which he was intimately knowledgeable.
One version of the story has Blake himself drafting a blueprint of a Greco-Roman-style columned building similar to present-day Lippincott Hall. Apparently this design failed to impress the March 1893 Student Journal, which noted that the plans contained “very little architectural beauty” and likened the design to a “tenement block.” A building with such a bland form “can have no cultivating effect upon the student who is associated with it for four years,” counseled the paper. “The artistic element should not be eliminated.”
More than 25 years later, another version of the building’s derivation cropped up in an article in the January 24, 1919, University Daily Kansan. This story credited Blake with drawing the “ground plan of the building,” though he was “aided by a young architect named Wells,” whom he had met in Wichita while giving University extension lectures.
This design was also in the classical temple style of Lippincott Hall. However, according to the UDK, Old Blake ended up getting its Chateau Renaissance look because Seymour Davis, Kansas state architect, was so consumed by “professional jealously” after seeing Blake’s design that he purposely and vindictively drew up plans “as different from those of Wells [and Blake] as possible.”
Another explanation of old Blake’s derivation came when KU master’s candidate James Compton wrote his 1932 thesis on the building and quoted KU physics professor E.F. Simpson, one of Lucien Blake’s former students, on the controversy. Simpson recalled no bad blood or professional jealously between Blake, Wells, and the state architect, insisting that Davis “designed the façade of the building after a picture of a French chateau that Professor Blake had seen and liked.” KU historian Clifford S. Griffin has seconded this account, writing in his 1974 book, The University of Kansas: A History, that old Blake was “an imitation of a French chateau that Lucien I. Blake admired, a picture of which he had given to Davis.”
The genesis of its design notwithstanding, actual construction of old Blake was completed in March 1895, using limestone and brick faced with Berea sandstone from Ohio. Final construction cost came in at $58,000, a full $8,000 above the original appropriation. Unfortunately, there were no funds to continue the architectural styling on the back of the building. Thus, it was basically left blank, covered with plaster and imitation stone.
This economy was not as shortsighted as it sounds, since in the 1890s, there was no southern approach to campus and consequently, it was not deemed necessary to give the unobserved rear an elegant exterior. Nonetheless, with its steep roofs, turreted façade and giant tower clock peering across campus like an all-seeing cyclops, the original Blake had the distinction of being one of the most unique buildings on Mount Oread.
Although the word “unique” may have either positive or negative connotations, in the case of old Blake, the opinions were decidedly negative. For example, the Student Journal, which once predicted the building would give KU “perhaps the best facilities in the west for engineering,” ran an article on January 25, 1895 that characterized the “beauty of the new physics building” as having become “greatly marred.”
Two months later, the University Review suggested Blake’s sandstone exterior had developed a case of acne. “If there be no lotion that will remove these blemishes,” it continued, “let a screen be put before the building. The Regents should think twice before accepting unconditionally the sorry looking structure with its chubby freckled face, its one eye with a cross about it, and its monstrous hat.”
Tempers had apparently cooled by the time Blake was dedicated on November 22, 1895. The Kansas University Weekly of December 6 noted that it was “quite appropriate” that the formal unveiling “should occur so near Thanksgiving. The University now has one of the best buildings in the country for that department of work [physics], planned and constructed after the most approved modern ideas and equipped with every convenience.”
The equipage included a galvanometer for measuring electrical current, a “water purifying apparatus,” and a seismograph to register earthquakes. Indeed, according to the April 1916 Graduate Magazine, “Whenever an earthquake takes place in South America, in Italy, or Madagascar, it is automatically recorded on a scroll which shows its time, its relative intensity, and its exact period of duration.”
At the time of the building’s dedication, KU could boast an enrollment of 900 students, with 80 taking at least one course in physics. (According to University records only two undergraduates were majoring in physics in 1895.) This was, however, a program on the rise, and the new physics building bolstered the fledgling discipline. With two 30-seat classrooms, a 100-seat lecture hall, two laboratories, a library, and roughly a dozen smaller rooms for various engineering and chemical experiments – even space for a women’s gymnasium on the third floor – old Blake was certainly a welcome addition to KU.
Or was it? From nearly the very beginning, rumors swirled around the building to the effect that it was somehow “hexed,” a reputation that began with the building’s need for that $8,000 in supplemental appropriations. Part of the reason for this added expense was due to the fact that no iron could be used in the building’s construction since the metal would interfere with the sensitive galvanometers. As such, all the plumbing had to be made with copper, lead and brass.
But with all the precaution and added cost, iron nails inadvertently had been used in the building’s frame, and iron sash weights were employed for the windows. Thus, according to the Kansan, electrical experiments “went haywire” and the original pricey galvanometer was essentially useless. Not until a new movable coil device (unaffected by the iron) was installed years later were sophisticated electricity experiments possible.
Old Blake’s dubious reputation was further tarnished by the erratic performance of the building’s tower clock, perhaps the most common object of ridicule and opprobrium, and the plainest piece of evidence – especially to students who wanted to believe such things – that the building was born under a bad sign.
Originally the tower timepiece kept excellent time.
But by the 1910s, the Graduate Magazine admitted that “the clock has seen better days.” (Even KU’s fickle hourly steam whistle, which first blew in 1912, seemed a model of punctuality by comparison.) Although the Blake clock was “connected electrically with the seismograph clock downstairs,” noted the April 1916 Graduate Magazine, “its gears are so worn and its cogwheels so warped that it runs only spasmodically – and unwillingly. However, it furnishes much harmless entertainment to the uninitiated.” Naturally, the clock’s mechanical missteps provided no shortage of excuses for tardy students.
Factors beyond the clock’s operating controls also contributed to its irregularity. “Pigeons sat on the clock hands,” according to an article in the March 19, 1974 Kansan, “causing the clock to slow down or speed up at certain times.” Greasing the hands so the birds would slide off provided some help, but not enough. For “several years the hands were stuck at 8:25,” according to this same Kansan article, and then one day “the clock ran for three hours and stopped.”
As with many of the University’s nineteenth-century buildings, old Blake eventually proved inadequate to serve KU’s skyrocketing enrollments following World War II. In 1949, for instance, KU’s student body numbered more than 10,000, of which 1,100 were enrolled in physics courses. There were nearly 100 undergraduate majors in physics, plus 35 physics graduate students requiring space and equipment to conduct complex research and experiments.
More astonishingly, 18 faculty members shared a single office in Blake that year. The overcrowding made it clear that Blake had outlived its usefulness, at least for the Physics Department.
In 1954, the University officially decided to retire old Blake, moving Physics into the newly constructed Malott Hall. A half-hearted attempt to remodel the abandoned building was made in 1957, but according to Howard Compton, assistant state architect, the bids ran “way beyond the money available.” As a result, the venerable though less than universally loved structure remained largely vacant until 1963, when it was finally razed.
In its place, indeed on its exact foundation, KU constructed present-day Blake Hall. Authorized by the state legislature in 1961, this $750,000 six-story structure was completed in 1964. Although “new” Blake contains more classroom and office space than the building it replaced, it lacks the character, panache, and architectural imagination of its predecessor.
The demolition of old Blake occurred around the same time that the University was finalizing plans to tear down old Fraser. Although the decision to eliminate the latter aroused numerous expressions of public outrage, the passing of old Blake appears to have elicited little protest.
“The razing of Blake occurred during the same spasm of destruction that destroyed old Fraser,” noted Dennis Farney, past president of the Historic Mount Oread Fund, in a 2003 interview, “and it may be that people were so preoccupied with the threat to Fraser that they tolerated the impending loss of Blake.”
Or perhaps generations of ridicule had diminished old Blake’s value, as evidenced by Griffin’s assessment of the building: “Esthetically [it] left everything to be desired,” it was “meretricious in its exterior” [i.e., tawdrily and falsely attractive] and was “by far the most dissonant” structure on campus.
For whatever reason, the original Blake was doomed to become “old” Blake. When its hour of need came, no one spoke loud enough for the building’s preservation – and it was destroyed.
John H. McCool
Department of History
University of Kansas
Chancellor Wescoe’s comments about the plans for new Blake, and a helpful summary of its structural attributes, can be found (also in the 1963 file) in a KU News Bureau press release dated May 15, 1963. A short summary of Blake Hall’s early interior accoutrements can be found in the 1901 edition of the Jayhawker yearbook, p. 60. Also beneficial is Clifford S. Griffin’s The University of Kansas: A History (University Press of Kansas, 1974), p. 183, 185, 424.
For more information about Blake Hall’s namesake, Prof. Lucien I. Blake, see this author’s article for February 23, 1895, titled “Water on the Brain,” at: http://www.kuhistory.com/proto/story.asp?id=14
Prof. Blake also figures prominently in my story on the Fowler Shops (present-day Stauffer-Flint Hall), the money for which was secured by Blake from his friend, Kansas City businessman George A. Fowler. Titled “Lightning Strikes … Twice” and dated March 22, 1898, it can be found at: http://www.kuhistory.com/proto/story.asp?id=57
Many thanks to Dennis Farney, past president of the Historic Mount Oread Fund, for his helpful insights into the history and eventual razing of old Blake Hall.]