After years of discussion, fate of Docking building still murky and contested

November 13, 2021 3:33 am
The administration of Gov. Laura Kelly recommended renovation of the partially used Docking state office building in Topeka and incorporation of a laboratory for the Kansas Department of Health and Environment into the project. This is an old photo of Docking. (Screen capture/Kansas Reflector)

The administration of Gov. Laura Kelly recommended renovation of the partially used Docking state office building in Topeka and incorporation of a laboratory for the Kansas Department of Health and Environment into the project. This is an old photo of Docking. (State of Kansas)

The Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Paul Post is a retired Topeka attorney.

The Legislature’s Joint Committee on Building and Construction met Oct. 11 to consider the ultimate fate of the Docking State Office Building. The committee recommended removing most of the structure, leaving a three-story facility primarily consisting of events space, and overruling a proposed slightly taller version of the building with more offices. The fate of the building appears to be in the hands of the State Finance Council, which will consider this proposal at a date yet to be determined.

This structure, first known as the State Office Building, has been the subject of discussion for a number of years now, going back at least a decade, when then-Gov. Sam Brownback’s administration began moving state offices out of the building and into privately held buildings on a long-term lease basis. Most agencies remained in Topeka, but others moved elsewhere. At one point, Brownback sought to have the building demolished, but that plan fell apart when his administration discovered that the basement of the Docking building held the heating plant for the entire capitol complex.

An expensive lease agreement with a developer who proposed an off-site heating plant at an estimated cost of close to $20 million was scuttled when the Legislature objected. That cost did not include the price to demolish the building, an expense that was never disclosed but estimated to be between $17 and $20 million.

The building was constructed between 1954 and 1957, and has at least a 100-year life expectancy. Several years back, bedbugs were discovered on one floor and worms were found in rusting pipes. While causing considerable consternation, neither meant that the building was unusable or structurally obsolete — only that the state has done a poor job of maintaining one of its properties.

In a 2011 article in the magazine Kansas Preservation, architect David Griffin wrote about the significance of the Docking building. He said it is “one of the first public buildings in Kansas (if not the first) to successfully apply the principles of the Modernist Movement,” with Modernism defined as a design language with an emphasis on form rather than ornament; structure and materials rather than picturesque constructions; and the rational and efficient use of space. Griffin said Docking “was an important building, at the time, and the quality of materials exemplifies this importance.”

In a 2011 article in the magazine Kansas Preservation, architect David Griffin wrote about the significance of the Docking Building. He said it is “one of the first public buildings in Kansas (if not the first) to successfully apply the principles of the Modernist Movement.”

– Paul Post

These materials included Vermont greenstone, a metamorphic rock harder than marble, cut limestone, and polished marble, with these materials being “handsome, durable, and easily maintained,” according to Griffin.

Griffin also noted that “the architects and the state were as interested in acknowledging and promoting the arts as in embracing ‘cutting edge’ technology.” Bernard “Poco” Frazier, a regionally famous sculptor who later did the statue of “Justice” in the Kansas Judicial Center, was commissioned to create low- and high-relief sculptures integrated with cut-stone wall panels on each wing of the building. These sculptures depict events in Kansas history and contribute immensely to the significance of the Docking building. Frazier was born in Smith Center, went to the University of Kansas, and became a professor of sculpture at the University of Kansas. What made him unique among sculptors was his amazing skill at producing beautiful art in several different sculpting mediums. He was skilled in carving marble, sculpted the limestone bas reliefs on the Docking building, cast in bronze (the famous bronze doors of the Campanile WWII memorial on the KU campus), and created ceramic hand-fired tile work on the facade of First United Methodist Church in Wichita. His style was unique and is embodied in the figures on the bas reliefs on the Docking building.

Frazier was determined to pay tribute to the nationalities of people who settled in Kansas. The figures on each of the four sides of the Docking Building acknowledge the Spanish, Germans, French, and British, all part of the rich history of Kansas, from exploration to settlement. Despite this significant artwork adorning the walls of Docking, the Brownback administration had no plans whatsoever to save these treasures.

Now, the State Finance Council is expected to take up the fate of the Docking Building. On Jan. 21, 2020, a report on remodeling and reuse options was prepared by the architect firm of Clark Huesemann and presented to the Kansas Department of Administration. An updated report was submitted on Sept. 1, 2021. These reports contained two alternatives: “Option A” for full remodeling of the structure and “Option B” for partial demolition (removing upper floors).

Added to the initial report was the consideration of remodeling to include a new Kansas Department of Health and Environment laboratory. The existing lab, located at a former Air Force hospital building at Forbes Field in Topeka, is cramped and outdated. A new lab building is required, and the question is where to build it and at what cost.

The Huesemann report looked at both options: Building a standalone structure for the lab, or including it in the proposed Docking building renovations. The report included cost and timeline comparisons:

A: Include the lab in a fully renovated Docking for the price of $154,556,516.

B: Include the lab in a Docking that has the top seven floors removed, $139,504,097.

C: Build a standalone lab for a cost of approximately $57,000,000..

The full Docking renovation to include the KDHE lab would take approximately three years to complete, partial demolition and KDHE lab inclusion would require approximately three and one-half years and the standalone KDHE lab proposal would span more than four years from start to finish. The Joint Committee on Building and Construction opted for a standalone lab.

The Joint Committee on State Building Construction backed a recommendation from Sen. J.R. Claeys that the Docking State Office Building be brought down to three floors and renovated as an event center, or a new three-floor center be built on the site. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Why not fully renovate Docking and include the lab? One reason is the fact that several influential Topeka real estate owners do not want to “compete” with a remodeled state office building. On Sept. 3, 2021, Whitney Damron, paid lobbyist for the City of Topeka, sent a letter to the Shawnee County legislative delegation, stating that “the City would prefer the see Docking renovated with Option B (the removal of the upper floors) with the KDHE lab located in parking lot 4, due to the additional number of employees and investment in the downtown area as well as renovation that complements, rather than harms, existing downtown investment and potential future projects.”

The problem with this assertion is that the City of Topeka’s governing body never voted on this proposal. Rather, this was done solely by the city manager. Not only did this decision run afoul of the city’s governing charter, which rests policy decisions such as this with the mayor and council, not the city manager, but it didn’t take into account the interests of stakeholders other than downtown business owners and landlords.

For example, the Shawnee County Historical Society was never consulted or asked its position concerning partial demolition of the Docking Building. The society has now stated that it favors full renovation of the structure. The Docking Building has obvious historical characteristics, but the Topeka Landmarks Commission was not asked to comment on this proposal either.

The Topeka city manager, while once favoring full renovation, has now decided to listen to these private landlords. Perhaps our Kansas and Topeka leaders would do well to consider the taxpayer first, rather than “landed interests.” Including the KDHE lab within a remodeled Docking would completely eliminate the cost of a new lab structure. Going forward, the state would be charged with maintaining one building, not two. The remodeling and repurposing of Docking will save the taxpayers the cost of partial (or even full) demolition. Existing leases for state offices are honored, with perhaps the upper floors of the Docking building being “mothballed.”

On Oct. 26, 1954, Gov. Edward Arn, along with other state and local dignitaries, broke ground for the Docking building. The citizens of Kansas in 1954 had the vision to build a modern, durable, and artistic office structure. As the Book of Proverbs states, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.”

What is the vision that Kansas and Topeka leaders have today, 67 years later, for the reuse and repurposing of this historically important structure? Have the people, i.e. taxpayers, been consulted? Sadly, it appears not.

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Paul Post
Paul Post

Paul Post is a retired Topeka attorney who focused on the areas of bankruptcy, family law, workers compensation, and small estates. He is past president of the board of directors of Kansas Legal Services, past president of the Topeka Area Bankruptcy Council, and past chairman of the Topeka Bar Association Public Service Committee. He was president of the Greater Auburndale Neighborhood Association, having resided in that neighborhood since 1980. Paul is a regular volunteer at the Cat Association of Topeka. He is an underwriter for the Sunflower Music Festival since 2004 and has been a member of the Sunflower Board of Directors since 2015 and president since 2018. He has been an underwriter for the Kansas Silent Film Festival since 2001. He is past chairman of the Topeka Group of the Sierra Club, Kansas Chapter, and was Kansas Chapter chair from June 2016 through January 2018. He is also a member of the Topeka Audubon Society. He is a member of the Topeka Landmarks Commission since 2014 and has served as vice chairperson. He has been trained and volunteers as a river guide with Friends of the Kaw and assists in group paddles and other events on the Kansas River.