|City/Town: • Topeka|
|Location Class: • Government|
|Built: • 1954 | Abandoned: • 2021|
|Historic Designation: • National Register of Historic Places (January 20, 2022)|
|Status: • Abandoned • Endangered • Private Property|
|Photojournalist: • Emily Cowan|
Throughout the 1940s and early 50s state agencies were housed within the State Capitol building and other private buildings throughout the city. As time went on the idea of a single, modern state office building was becoming more attractive to officials. $2 million in funds were secured over the course of 1945-1949. The perfect location was a plot of land just southeast of the Capitol Building that had private estates on it. These were demolished to make way for this new stately building that would eventually become known as the Docking Building.
Kansas State Office Building
Construction started officially on the building on October 26, 1954 with architect John A. Brown and Robert Slemmons creating a 4-winged, 13- story Modernist structure. A groundbreaking ceremony was held by Governor Edward Arn and seven members of the state office building commission as well as John and Robert. The materials used in its construction are of elegance and class, Vermont greenstone, cut limestone, and polished marble. The building was considered a trailblazer for the Topeka community in terms of architectural thought.
Harmon Contractors took the credit for completing the the thirteen-story, steel-frame building in March of 1957. After a hefty bill of $9,566,498 and an additional $500,000 used for a surface parking lot. At the time of its completion, the Kansas State Office Building was the tallest building in Topeka.
On the outside of each wing is a limestone carved bas relief panel created by ” Bernard “Poco” Frazier. Frazier was a prominent artist in the area making art and sculptures for numerous buildings including the statue of “Justice” in the Kansas Judicial Center. When creating the panels for each wing of the Kansas State Office Building, Frazier was adamant about paying tribute to some of the most prominent nationalities that settled here in Kansas. The figures on each of the four sides of the Docking Building acknowledge the Spanish, Germans, French, and British.
Additional bonds equating to a couple hundred thousand were issued in 1955 to further assist with construction. Warren W. Shaw was chairman of the State Office Building Commission to oversee the construction of the building. He detailed some rooms as having moveable partitions, fully automatic elevators, a special telephone system connecting the building to the rest of the complex. Shaw had pointed out that state agencies were scattered all over Topeka occupying privately owned facilities that the state pays rent to. Noting that citizens who might need to do business at multiple agencies/branches of government would have to travel a mile or two at minimum between buildings and search for parking at each spot. A central building where all agencies could be hosued without the government paying rent was highly praised. Strange to think in 2022 we are now on a path right back to that era as this building sits in limbo.
Upon completion, a two-day open house was held March 16th and 17th of 1957. Tours of the brand new building were held to the general public and at that point most of the offices had already moved in. Two of the most notable features of the entire building are that of the 360-degree observatory near the top floor and the tunnel that leads straight to the State Capitol. The tunnel doubled as a shelter for tornados as well as a bomb shelter, common for the time period post-WW2.
As most know by now the building was not always called the Docking Building, starting off as simply the Kansas State Office Building. But how did it become known as the Docking and why? Its namesake is Robert Blackwell Docking the 38th Governor of the state of Kansas. He was inaugurated on January 9, 1967 – January 6, 1975. Taking after his father George Docking who was the 35th Governor of this state. But unlike his father, he would set two records being elected 3 two year terms and then beating that record by being elected a fourth. After retiring he move back to Arkansas City where he later passed away on October 8, 1983.
In an effort to honor his great duty as a public servant to the state Governor John Carlin renamed the building to the Docking State Office Building. Holding a dedication ceremony on January 9, 1987, twenty years after his first inauguration. Gov. Carlin, Lt. Gov Tom Docking, and Merideth Docking, Roberts widow, all stood outside on a snowy and chilly day as the brand new letters were unveiled on the sides of the structure. A gathering of around 150 persons was held inside after in which the Docking family was greatly praised.
The demise of the Docking State Office Building has been something of a long discussion over the last decade. In 2007 a $77 million recommendation for gutting the building and rebuilding it from the inside out was made by the Department of Administration. It had recently been rated poor on a standardized assessment but legislators and administrators were concerned over the 1,500 misplaced workers due to a renovation. Also proposed was a $86 million implosion and reconstruction of a new building elsewhere.
The building was slowly vacated during Gov. Sam Brownback running. His administration began moving state offices out of the building and into restored/privately held buildings downtown. Brownback also tried to have the building demolished but was denied when it was discovered that the basement of the Docking building held the heating plant for the entire Capitol complex. A “solution” was proposed of building a new heating plant off site but was estimated to cost around $20 million which the legislature denied.
Preservationists seeing a looming cloud of possible demolition instate roadblocks. During 2016 the Topeka Landmarks Commission with Rosin Preservation worked to list the building on the National Register of Historic Places which was later accepted on January 20, 2022. Most buildings have to be listed with the cooperation of the owner but this isn’t the case with public buildings. Per the NPS website, any public building can be listed by any interested persons with or without the cooperation of the owner.
Back in 2021 the building made headlines when two plans were presented to The Joint Committee on State Building Construction. The first of those plans is one that most preservationists and history lovers all over the city have backed, a $1o0 million renovation and bringing it up to city codes. The committee had left the use of the building to the State Finance Council making it eligible for federal dollars through the American Rescue Plan Act if it were to be remodeled.
The other option, one backed by the committee is to demolish the top nine floors of the building and rebuild with three, implementing historic details salvaged from the demo. The State Finance Council would be able to use this three-story building for whatever they see fit, events, office space, etc. While it wasn’t ever confirmed, during Brownbacks administration it was estimated to cost $17-20 million just to demolish the structure.
In December 2021 the proposal to reduce the building to three floors was accepted by Governor Laura Kelly and Republican lawmakers, leading preservationist groups to kick into high gear trying to ensure the saving of the building. Plains Modern, a group aiming to be the voice that saves the Docking Building filed a petition in the Shawnee County District Court in May 2022 to seek reconsideration of the plans to remodel. Their argument is that the plan to reduce it to three floors skipped procedural requirements. While the fate for the Docking seems to be sealed after years of uncertainty it is still just as hard to see our buildings disappear across the county. We will continue to see this pattern of destruction every half a century and all the years in between as long as we keep building cheap and paying no mind to the unique, built-to-last, and stately architecture we once cared about. Read the full report on the legal case and condition of the building put together by Plains Modern and their constituents below.
This is a Government Secure Building, all pictures were obtained with permission. Do not attempt to enter.
Gallery Below of the Docking Building
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