Wichita movie theater mogul Bill Warren isn’t holding back about his concern that the city will tear down iconic Century II, with its recognizable round blue roof.
The 68-year-old businessman and developer said he’s going to start by spending $100,000 in an advertising effort called Save Century II.
The city manager and the mayor, meanwhile, say the city has not decided on the building’s fate and that architecture is just one of multiple factors to be considered.
On Tuesday, the City Council approved a $294,000 contract for a consultant to explore a possible public-private partnership to replace or renovate the Century II Convention and Performing Arts Center, which is on Douglas, just east of the Arkansas River.
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Whatever the city does with Century II should be voted on by the public because of the importance of the building and the city’s spending on it, Warren said.
He gave a pointed assessment of what he describes as a three-year “plot” involving “greedy developers” to tear down what is widely recognized to be the city’s signature building. For some, it’s an architectural gem – the blue jewel.
With its circular shape and colored roof, Century II has been the city’s performing arts and convention center since 1969. The architects who designed it and saw the project through learned from perhaps the world’s most famous architect, Frank Lloyd Wright.
But the building doesn’t get the respect it deserves, Warren said.
“City Hall is full of culturally challenged barbarians,” he said.
“It’s Century II – the coolest building in the entire city – and they’re talking about tearing it down. Shame on them.”
Warren said he wasn’t taking personal aim at the mayor and city manager. “I think Jeff Longwell is a good mayor – a great mayor – and I think Bob Layton is a good city manager. But on this particular subject, they’re wrong, and I say that with all respect.”
‘Old and dated’
Not everyone values Century II’s form.
For some people, “it looks old and dated,” Layton said. “Most people come in here and don’t see the architectural design. So we know from a market study that some meeting planners are turned off by the simple appearance of the building.”
Layton said he understands that Century II is an icon. Still, he said, it has practical problems.
Century II “continues to lose market share” because some potential users see it as not efficient and modern enough for today’s conventions, Layton said. Inside, it lacks ceiling height and proper configuration, what Layton calls a “grid pattern of unobstructed continuous space.” It also needs improvements in electrical and communication infrastructure.
“There are people who have accused the city of having made up its mind to tear down Century II. That’s not correct,” Layton said.
It’s possible that the building’s interior can be modified to meet convention concerns, the city manager said.
The three major arts groups that use Century II – Music Theatre Wichita, the Wichita Symphony Orchestra and the Wichita Grand Opera – have all said that the continued deterioration of the building hampers their growth. There’s little functional backstage space, loading in sets and equipment is difficult, there’s not enough rehearsal space, and the halls of the building are not sound-proof. That means if a band is playing in the Exhibition Hall, people listening to Handel’s Messiah in the main concert hall can hear it.
Keeping the shape
Longwell, the mayor, said he understands that Century II’s roofline and shape are special.
“That’s Wichita, and I don’t want to lose that identity.”
So even if the city opts to tear down Century II and build a new center, Longwell said, that same iconic shape will be incorporated into a new building.
“We’re not going to lose that iconic emblem of Wichita,” he said.
But architecture isn’t the key issue now, he said. “Our focus right now is what does the revenue stream need to look like?” It’s too early for the city to present options to the public, he said. “We haven’t had enough public dialogue yet to look at all the options.”
There would be a benefit to having a center capable of drawing larger shows and being closer to the river, he said.
The mayor’s mother, however, said Friday that she thinks Century II is “fine where it is” and that it’s close enough to the water.
“I think he’s doing a great job as a mayor, but I don’t always agree,” said Pat Longwell, the mayor’s 78-year-old mother. “But I have a right to have an opinion … for what it’s worth,” she said, laughing.
“I don’t want to see it torn down,” she said. “It’s an iconic building. We’ve already torn down enough historic buildings.”
People flying into the Air Capital of the World “see the blue roof, and they know it’s Wichita,” she said.
“I’ve voiced my comments to Jeff that I think it ought to stay.”
According to the mayor, a new arts and convention business would tie in with other amenities and “synergy” along the river, including a pedestrian bridge and restaurant and outdoor patio.
“It’s going to encourage light development all the way up and down the river,” and it would be done purposefully, Longwell said.
As with Layton, Longwell stressed that all options for Century II remain open.
But Warren says he’s heard and seen enough to convince him that the city is determined to demolish Century II in favor of a new complex.
“You have folks who haven’t grown up here (and) pretty greedy developers who want to tear the whole thing down,” he said.
Nationally, convention business is declining, so it shouldn’t be such a driving force for the city, Warren said.
Warren, who has built massive movie theaters, said he has had his architects and engineers look at Century II and is convinced that the interior can be opened up and that the city either is wrong that it can’t be adequately modified or that the city doesn’t want to thoroughly examine that option.
Tearing down Century II and building something new would cost hundreds of millions of dollars more than keeping Century II and adapting its interior, he said.
“First of all, it’s a beautiful building” that can be saved “with some imagination,” Warren said.
“You have a bunch who can make a lot of money by tearing Century II down and building a bunch of new buildings and spending $450 million of our money.
“And I’m willing to put my money where my mouth is” through a campaign against the tear-down option.
Warren said he’s willing to spend $100,000 to start advertising his position on the issue. “That’s how strong I feel. This is a hot button for me. I don’t like the city to waste money, and I sure as hell don’t like it when they tear down a building like that.”
Wichita architect Dean Bradley has been studying and appreciating the building for a long time. As an architectural student at Kansas State University, Bradley was assigned to do watercolors of Century II when it was under construction.
On an overcast Thursday, Bradley stepped to a perch across from Century II – for a better angle to appreciate its form.
Century II’s architects – John Hickman and Roy Varenhorst – were interns under Frank Lloyd Wright. And the building’s design is definitely “Wrightian,” Bradley said.
The spire rising from the center of its dome, with squares and horizontal lines alternating along its vertical length, reminds Bradley of the spike rising from the Wright-designed Corbin Education Center at Wichita State University.
To Bradley, the blue roof represents the sky. The tan concrete signifies Kansas wheat. The openness reflects Wright’s preference for bringing nature into a building. It sits low on the horizon, allowing the eye to see the sky’s expanse. Its circular shape fits with the curve of the nearby river. Its balconies take people out into the air.
“It has a very logical reason for its look,” he said.
“I know people think of it as a flying saucer” as well, he said, but he doubts the architects were inspired by space-age design. Century II did happen to be built the same year astronauts landed on the moon.
As Bradley sees it, when you get far enough back and look at the skyline around Century II, it’s filled with rectangular structures.
“Then all of the sudden: this big, sloping, curved roof.” In a word, he said, it’s vitality.
At night, Century II’s arched windows glow. “It has a lot of character.”
And it’s especially dramatic when seen from the sky or by traffic buzzing along Kellogg, Bradley said.
If more people knew of the Wright influence, given Wright’s importance to architecture and history, it might make it more difficult for officials to choose to raze the building, he said.
Bradley says he understands that the building’s acoustics and landscaping could be improved. Kiosks or restaurants might be a nice addition, he said.
But it was built to last with terrazzo floors, with bits of marble embedded in mortar and polished. And there’s “real plaster” throughout the structure. “It will hold up for another 50 years,” Bradley said.
“I would oppose tearing it down.”
A deeper issue
It can be adapted, Bradley said, perhaps with additions to the south. “It just seems like we ought to be able to make this work.”
But Bradley knows that some architects don’t like the building’s design. He’s heard some refer to it as “The Blob.”
The way Bradley sees Century II, it’s not another boxy arts and convention center. “You can see those – ‘Anywhere, USA.’ ”
There’s a deeper issue, he said. “I think there’s a spin in favor of new construction. It’s a construction industrial complex” – a way for everyone to make money.
Greg Kite, president of the Historic Preservation Alliance of Wichita and Sedgwick County, views Century II this way: “That dome structure is a phenomenal structure in identifying Wichita and setting it apart. It’s not dated. I mean, it’s a chic building.
“For Wichita, it is our Eiffel Tower. It is something that no one else has. It is an elegant, stunning building.
“It’s beyond comprehension for me that it would ever end up heading that direction” – to demolition.
“That,” Kite said, “would just be insane.”
Contributing: Carrie Rengers and Matt Riedl of The Eagle