Historic house creates rift on campus


An old house scheduled for demolition has some members of the Arkansas State University faculty stirred up, and the issue threatens to drive a wedge between the new administration and the campus community.

This isn’t just any old house, though; it’s the one built by the first A-State president, V.C. Kays, in 1936-37. Some members of the faculty and other longtime ASU supporters see the action as a insult to the institution’s heritage.

The Kays house is one of 19 brick houses scheduled for demolition in April to make room in a 2-block area on the eastern side of the campus for sorority housing. In January the ASU Board of Trustees approved the project along with capital bond funding to pay the estimated cost of $8.2 million for site preparation and construction. Included will be four sorority houses for 20 members each.

The administration last week threw a bone to opponents, though it was more of a chicken wing than a hambone, offering the 4,401-square-foot Kays house for sale through a sealed bid process. A legal notice was published in Sunday’s Jonesboro Sun offering the house for sale and removal by April 25, specifying a deadline of next Tuesday for bids.

David Handwork, director of planning, design and construction for ASU, took a Sun reporter, photographer and me on a tour of the Kays house Friday afternoon.

One obvious conclusion is that this beautiful and historic house is in bad shape, that it has been neglected for years. ASU calls it “deferred maintenance,” and all of us who own homes know what that means. Too often we put off needed repairs until there is a crisis.

The Kays house has been unoccupied for about 18 months. Previously it had been used to house key members of the faculty or staff, such as the director of the Arkansas Biosciences Institute most recently.

To be fair, ASU has only owned the house since 2004, when ASU bought it as part of a 35-acre tract from the Kays Foundation, which had been originally formed to provide residential housing to faculty and staff. The intent of the purchase was to use the property to expand student housing.

As the houses on the property aged, the houses became less attractive to faculty and staff members, and the foundation rented it to anyone, but the income generally was used to the benefit of the university. ASU has continued that practice.

In early February ASU notified residents of 19 homes in the area that they’d have to move by March 31.

Handwork was involved in determining whether it was feasible to restore the Kays house, and he said the study stopped when the estimate reached $400,000. That doesn’t include another $250,000 or so that would be needed to make the building handicapped-accessible for any university purpose.

That sounds like a lot of money, but each sorority house will also be expensive. A better question is what the Kays house could be used for if restored in place, and I’m not sure that has been fully discussed.

For one thing, the sorority project calls for a row of four houses facing Aggie Road. The Kays house is not conducive for use as a sorority house so it has to go to make that happen.

The house itself has two stories, with the top story consisting of three bedrooms. It also has a full basement, with another bedroom down there. But the basement shows signs of having had water damage in recent years.

That would certainly have to be corrected, and Handwork said the clay-tile roof would also have to be replaced because it’s leaking in several places. Much of the outside masonry is also in need of repairs, and the same is true of many of the windows.

In other words, the exterior would need a major overhaul.

However, that would be simple compared to moving the house. All the bricks would have to come off, and the house would have to be separated from its basement for transport. Although it’s built with tons of hardwood, I can’t imagine moving the top two floors intact.

Besides, just moving the house off its foundation would destroy a considerable part of its historical value. President Kays built the house at his own expense during the Great Depression. Historical accounts of his 33-year tenure credit him with taking a newly created agricultural school in 1910 and transforming it into a 4-year college, then nurturing it through the Depression and early war years.

Those who knew Kays said he might be seen behind his desk or as commonly out on campus showing someone how to mix concrete.

The Kays house is a symbol of that connection to the past, and not enough thought has been given to what demolition of the house means to many members of the university community.

In response to an appeal from Scott Darwin, emeritus professor of German, to save the house, ASU President Charles Welch wrote that possible uses for the house had been considered “for a significant period of time.”

He also pointed out that the project has been discussed with ASU’s trustees, all whom are ASU graduates.

But the board is just one part of the campus community, and there was no public discussion about demolishing the Kays house until after the sorority project was announced. That kind of decision-making on a matter of historical significance creates an unnecessary rift.

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Roy Ockert is editor emeritus of The Jonesboro Sun. He may be reached by e-mail at royo@suddenlink.net.