The Other Kansas

On the third Saturday in October I was in Putrajaya, the newly constructed capital city of Malaysia; on the fourth Saturday I was in Topeka, the strangely desolate capital city of Kansas. It’s a toss-up which place I found more exotic. Topeka ultimately made me happier—but then I like Kansas. I know it’s a red state—enemy territory in an as-yet-undeclared civil war—used by social critic Thomas Frank as the symbol of everything wrong with American politics in his book What’s the Matter with Kansas? And New Yorkers still write the state off as that dreary black-and-white dust bowl in the Wizard of Oz.

But I was there to check out an art exhibit housed in the coolest new building in Topeka (perhaps the only cool building in Topeka). It wasn’t a new museum designed by a name-brand architect, or even a university library or government hall. It was just a ministorage facility—the most beautiful ministorage facility I’ve ever seen. And the work on display inside the corrugated metal-lined storage bins was good art, heartfelt and well executed.

Flex Storage Systems was built by an enlightened developer, Diane Botwin Alpert, and designed by a terrific architect, Josh Shelton, of the Kansas City firm El Dorado Inc. Together they wanted to create something that would alter the surrounding landscape and reverse the flow of a decades-long downward spiral. The 128-unit storage facility, which opened in April 2004, sits next door to a glorified junkyard called Joyland and across the street from an abandoned K-Mart store and a sad-sack business called Fresh Start Auto Credit: Second Chance Finance. It’s the first new commercial development in the Highland Crest neighborhood in roughly 20 years. The area lost its underpinnings when Forbes Air Force Base closed down in the early 1970s, and the modest private homes there were snapped up by real estate speculators who turned them into rentals. Alpert’s hope is that she can lease the adjacent site to a restaurant and, bit by bit, restore the area’s dignity and real estate values. “Mixed-use will stabilize the neighborhood,” she says. “But you can’t do retail until the area is stable.”

In the diffused light of a slow Midwestern sunset, Shelton and I walk around the building—a low rectangle topped by a giant, almost heroic sloping shed roof. He lovingly describes every material, every nook, every edge. While the architecture world is full of practitioners who fetishize industrial materials and use them in homes and stores, Shelton has applied those same materials to an industrial project with the kind of obsessive attention to detail that he’d employ for a residential project. “The structure and roof comes from the VP Buildings Inc. catalog,” he says. To the standard-issue frame he’s added a big expanse of translucent Polygal to bring daylight into the facility, corrugated steel walls, and corrugated garage doors in four rich, subtle colors. “Uniclad has always been my favorite corrugated,” Shelton says. “It’s got curves to it, not crimped at all.” And then there are the details, like a strip of light hidden in the soffit above the doors, the squishy neoprene that seals the edges of the corrugated walls, and cedar on the roof overhangs.

I’d met Shelton on a trip to Kansas a year earlier, and he’d been sending me occasional progress reports on another one of Alpert’s Topeka projects, a low-income housing development she was hoping to build in the same neighborhood. At the moment that project is on hold. I had assumed Alpert was from Topeka, one of those anomalies I meet occasionally—someone who is both civic-minded and has a taste for good architecture. Alpert is actually a Kansas City attorney who decided to take over management of the properties her father (an expert neurosurgeon but amateur investor) had acquired over the years. She is a surprising combination of chipper Midwesterner and reflective Jewish intellectual. And her projects embody both qualities: they are upbeat but exceptionally thoughtful.

Alpert took over her family’s real estate holdings because she figured it would give her more time to raise a family than her corporate law job. But she found herself tending to a dying strip mall. It didn’t give her much pleasure and barely paid the taxes, so she decided to replace the strip mall and commissioned a marketing study. She learned that her best return on investment would not be retail, for which she could charge $3 a square foot, but self-storage, which would yield $12 a square foot.

While generally regarded as a safe investment, self-storage is not a particularly glamorous business. There is something a little unsavory about it. Storage units have lately doubled as meth labs, and the Self Storage Association has posted an FBI memo on its Web site explaining how to tell if one of your tenants is the next Timothy McVeigh. But Alpert figured there was a way to transcend all of that.

Before she turned her attention to her family’s Topeka holdings, Alpert had purchased and restored one building, a two-story commercial structure in the Crossroads neighborhood of Kansas City, Missouri, an area on the fringes of downtown that has emerged in the last five years as a gallery and restaurant district. Alpert hired El Dorado as her architect for renovation and worked closely with Shelton, who gave the building a stripped-down postindustrial aesthetic.

“So I got a phone call from Diane,” says Shelton over beer and artichoke dip at a microbrewery in Lawrence, halfway between Kansas City and Topeka. “She asked, ‘What about doing a self-storage facility?’”

“I could hear the silence,” Alpert says, continuing the story. “But I said, ‘Now, come on. You’re always talking about the mundane and about simplicity. Are you walking the walk or just talking the talk?’”

How the art show, Moving In Moving Out, came about is harder to explain. Apparently it was not one of those maneuvers where you bring in art to pump up a property’s cachet. (It’s not likely art would have that effect on a Topeka ministorage anyway.) It started with Jim Woodfill, a Kansas City artist who often collaborates with El Dorado. He was brought in to design the facility’s sign, an elegant type treatment using four signature garage-door colors. Woodfill saw the sign as “this exercise in looking around the neighborhood.” Then a Kansas City curator, Hesse McGraw, took a look at Flex and said it would be a great place to exhibit art.

The artworks housed in the Flex lobby and in a dozen of the storage units (from October 22 to December 18) represent the artists’ and organizers’ sincere efforts to understand and interpret the visual culture of Topeka. Kansas City photographer Mike Sinclair was given the task of shooting photos around Topeka that he posted, one a day, on a Web site accessible to exhibit participants. The artworks grew out of online discussions inspired by the photos. Sometimes the connections are obvious: the ubiquitous flashing arrow signs on Topeka’s commercial strips turn up in several artworks and become the unofficial icon of the exhibit.

While it’s hard to say whether Topeka would voluntarily embrace the flashing arrow as its symbol, or whether the exhibition has anything to do with how Topeka sees itself, it’s undeniable that the developer and her collaborators are sincere in their affection for and fascination with the city. And it’s possible—although not inevitable—that building a self-storage facility that has the accessible élan of, say, Renzo Piano’s Menil Collection in Houston, might be a catalyst for similar gestures.

So in October I traveled to the other side of the world and back. I visited Kuala Lumpur’s Petronas Towers and the Malaysian prime minister’s office in Putrajaya (which looked like the sort of place where the Wizard of Oz might hang his hat). But on my Saturday night in Topeka, I landed in a bowling alley featured in one of Mike Sinclair’s photos. I drank Budweiser, ate a greasy burger, and watched local teens hit Day-Glo bowling pins with fluorescent orange bowling balls. At that moment I wasn’t in a red state, or a black-and-white state, but a polychromatic and complex state—and I was sure that nothing was the matter with Kansas.

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