Although the fund-raising campaign to save the historic Kays house on the Arkansas State University campus got off to a rather slow start, it’s in full swing now, and leaders of the effort hope to pass the $100,000 mark in April.
That may be a stretch, considering that the total now is around $30,000, and even $100,000 is only about 20 percent of what will be needed to save the house and put it back into use. But Dr. Clyde Milner, director of ASU’s heritage studies program, says that $100,000 would be enough to do some critical exterior work on the first ASU president’s house and should convince the university’s administration that the project has widespread support.
Also significantly, it could open the door to additional sources of financing. Last year the Historic Preservation Alliance of Arkansas placed the house on its list of 10 "Most Endangered Places" in the state. Placement on the National Register of Historic Places would be helpful.
All this came after revelation of ASU’s plans to demolish the Kays house and 18 other brick houses in a 2-block area on the eastern side of the Jonesboro campus to make room for a cluster of sorority houses. University officials didn’t consider restoration of the Kays house, built in 1936-37 by the first A-State president, V.C. Kays, to be financially worthwhile.
During a tour of the house last spring David Handwork, director of planning, design and construction for ASU, told me that a feasibility study stopped when the cost estimate topped $400,000. Further, making the building handicapped-accessible for any university purpose would probably cost another $250,000, he said.
That’s a lot of money, but the sorority row project will cost more than $8 million, which will be paid for with capital bond funding.
A lot of ASU alumni and supporters didn’t want to see the Kays house razed, if only because it’s one of the few early landmarks left on campus, but the key question was: If you save it, how could it be used?
University officials went so far as to advertise the house for sale, with the understanding that the buyer would have to move it — a nearly impossible task — and got no response. Demolition of the other houses started, but the fervor of opposition to tearing down the Kays house finally won it a reprieve.
It helped that a new Jonesboro campus chancellor, Dr. Tim Hudson, came on board with an open mind about the issue and a good appreciation of history. He and ASU President Dr. Charles Welch agreed to spare the house until June 1, 2013, so that a fund-raising campaign could be effected.
And that’s where the Kays House Preservation Steering Committee was formed, to be chaired by Milner.
Milner also had an idea about how the restored building could be given new life, one that would enhance his own program and give another boost to the university’s growing reputation for historic preservation.
The main floor would include an information and visitors’ center for Arkansas Heritage Sites, including a display on V.C. Kays’ life and role in saving Arkansas State College in the 1930s. The solarium would be turned into a meeting room and reception area.
The second floor would house the offices of the Heritage Studies doctoral program, along with offices for Heritage Sites and Arkansas Delta Byways. That would free space currently used in the Dean B. Ellis Library for university archives.
The basement would house offices for graduate students and faculty members involved in these program.
Putting these related facilities together in one beautiful old building would not only benefit the various programs but also give the university another unique attraction and a mechanism for preserving the culture of Northeast Arkansas. If ASU doesn’t, no one else will.
University committees are notorious for working with "all deliberate speed," and this one certainly hasn’t broken the mold. I can say that because I’m one of the 35 or so members, and I’ve been on quite a few academic committees previously. This one also includes quite a few community members, meaning people who don’t work for ASU.
To begin with, you can’t find any time convenient for all 35 members to meet, and I had conflicts for the first couple of gatherings (yes, even retired people can stay busy).
Nevertheless, the committee chairman and other core members produced an excellent 4-color flyer that lays out the many good reasons why the Kays house should be saved and also includes a pledge form. Milner and his wife, Dr. Carol O’Connor, last month hosted a couple of kickoff events, during which most of the $30,000 in pledges were received, including one from the chancellor and his wife and another from the ASU Faculty Association.
The flyer is now available and will soon be mailed out to potential supporters. But meanwhile, I’ll be glad to mail one to anyone who sends me an e-mail request, as I’m sure Clyde (firstname.lastname@example.org) or any other member of the committee would. Donations are tax-deductible.
That reminds me: I need to send my pledge form in, too.
Roy Ockert is editor emeritus of The Jonesboro Sun. He may be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.