A recent report of the renovation of a gas station designed by modern master Ludwig Mies van der Rohe makes a nice point of departure for viewing an issue here in my little neighborhood.
Just down the block from the new Dillons store, another neighborhood business is looking to redevelop – our Kwik Shop – generating lively discussion on the neighborhood googlegroup. There are a number of legitimate planning concerns. But one hurdle for the project is its need to receive the blessing of the Historic Resources Commission’s (HRC’s) “environs review.” This is a strange and unique requirement of Kansas law, and one that I have always found troubling when it isn’t borderline absurd.
The Kwik Shop case belongs to the latter category. I am a supporter and promoter of historic preservation, and a believer in architectural design that is respectful of its context. But there is a reason that Kansas stands alone in its environs review statute, and it’s not because everybody’s out of step but dear old Kansas.
For example, here’s a recommendation from the staff report on the Kwik Shop environs review: “Fuel island design should be compatible with the environs. Gas canopy columns should have brick enclosures.” Brick enclosures on a gas station canopy? Justified by the environs? I don’t believe there is a single gas station canopy in Lawrence that has brick-clad columns. In fact, I’m not sure such a thing has been built anywhere since, say, 1925. And it was anachronistic then.
If any building type demands modernist architecture, surely it’s the gas station, as Mies’ building, above, demonstrates. Now imagine those black columns custom-welded from steel plates covered in nice red brick. No, don’t do that.
Returning to the mundane realm of Mass Street, this is the historic fire station which has created the need for environs review, and its neighbor, a former gas station…with steel columns standing there all naked, supporting the canopy. Like, well, a gas station.
To me the whole process is sort of embarrassing, and a poor use of the time and effort of staff and especially of the volunteers who sit on the HRC. I want to apologize to the HRC members, who are going to have to evaluate this redevelopment as if anything that happens to that site can possibly diminish the fire station any more than its neighbors of the last five decades have done.
Please don’t think I’m asserting any architectural value in the design of the Kwik Shop. It’s going to be no better than any of its neighbors, and worse than many. But the fire station is an anachronism in its “environs,” a lone survivor of a long gone time. It’s coexisted for decades with a typical mid-twentieth century shopping strip. And we are now going to assert that one new building across the street will “significantly encroach on, damage, or destroy the landmark ?” That’s strange.