‘I'm embarrassed about it’: Behind the scenes of what is left of Topeka's Docking State Office Building

Andrew Bahl
Topeka Capital-Journal

Docking State Office Building harkens back to the days when a state bureaucrat might kick back from a hard afternoon of balancing the books at the Kansas Department of Transportation and unwind with a cigarette — the building's ventilation and design were conceived with smoking in mind.

A wide range of touches throughout the building's interior are reminiscent of the days of "Mad Men" — not a surprise, given that the behemoth hasn't had a major refresh since construction was completed in 1957.

A faded portrait of the building's namesake, Gov. Robert Docking, sits in the building's lobby, eying what used to be a bank of pay phones.

The complicated system of pulleys that operate the building's half-dozen elevators has long been out-of-date, with cables beginning to fray.

Even the building's centerpiece — a 14th-floor observation gallery, providing a sweeping look at the statehouse and downtown Topeka — is effectively inoperable.

While the building has 12 floors of office space, its additional two levels are accessible only by stairs, meaning they are out of compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. And the stairwell is covered in asbestos floor tiles, which would need to be stripped down and replaced.

The observation deck on the 14th floor of the Docking State Office Building gives unique views of the Statehouse and downtown Topeka. It also has cracked glass and asbestos floor tile and lack of accessibility for the disabled.

But while mid-century design has made a comeback in recent years, there still isn't a plan to give Docking a similar revival. Lawmakers are weighing their options on the building's long-awaited renovation, with a final decision expected later this year on what form the retooled office building will take on.

Earlier this year, legislators finally approved $120 million in bond sales be used to fund the project. Current proposals would involve either a renovation of the entire building or a separate plan to reduce its size to three floors, with three new floors then added on top of the structure.

For state officials, the need to do something, anything with the building — thereby resolving a longstanding quagmire about what to do with the 64-year-old structure — is paramount.

"I don't think it's good stewardship to have a building in downtown Topeka right next to the Capitol in the state of disrepair that the Docking building is," said Sen. Tom Hawk, D-Manhattan. "I'm embarrassed about it. And I think everybody in state government should be embarrassed about it."

More:Lawmakers are weighing a decision about the future of Docking State Office Building. Here's what to know.

Docking largely dormant — for now

In 2016, the Legislature halted then-Gov. Sam Brownback's efforts to demolish the structure, with a plan in place to rebuild a power plant, which sits under Docking, at a lot several blocks north of the Statehouse.

Consultants and lawmakers later rejected the idea of tearing down the building. In the meantime, it has sat mostly dormant — a Topeka landmark, for better or worse. 

While the Department of Revenue has a handful of employees in the structure, they will depart in coming weeks. That leaves the Kansas Highway Patrol — which uses a first-floor office as a command center to oversee the Capitol Complex — as the main occupant.

An office space on the first floor of the Docking State Office Building houses the Kansas Highway Patrol. The agency is one of the few remaining occupants of the building.

Instead, it has been used for a variety of purposes. The Kansas Department of Health and Environment used a floor to store COVID-19 test kits and other supplies as part of its ongoing efforts to fight the pandemic.

Local law enforcement agencies will use the building for active shooter trainings and other drills, with splotches on the wall from errant paintball shots. 

And the basement is still where much of the dirty work of the Capitol Complex is handled. If you've ever been too hot or cold in the Statehouse, the sub-basement of Docking is to blame, as it houses the energy plant powering state buildings in the area.

Indeed, below ground-level is where Docking remains a happening place.

Facilities staff move back and forth between the Statehouse, using the underground tunnel connecting the two buildings. Workers make repairs on the power plant, which would almost certainly remain intact under any renovation. And deliveries still come in to make sure all state buildings are well-stocked on toilet paper and paper towels.

More:State government to commit funds for Docking building renovation, new KDHE lab

The power plant is in the basement of the Docking State Office Building. Huge pipes and miles of wire feed power, heated and cooled air to most of the state office buildings downtown.

Tension remains over what Docking replacement should look like

But the goal for officials is to fill the rest of the building with people, resembling the office's heyday where numerous departments, most notably KDOT, were inside.

Many stakeholders, including the Department of Administration, have indicated their support for a plan to shrink the building's size while creating a meeting and events space in the structure to be used by state agencies and the legislature.

Some state lawmakers appear on board with that plan as well.

"It doesn't provide as much space for state agencies but it provides something we can afford," said Rep. Marty Long, the Ulysses Republican who chairs the committee charged with recommending Docking's future. 

But the project remains a complicated subject. 

Some feel that retrofitting the entire building would allow the state to move agencies back into the Capitol Complex from private office buildings around downtown Topeka. Others argue this is a more expensive option, with potentially higher utility costs.

Tunnels under the Docking State Office Building are still used to transport supplies and equipment between the building and Statehouse.

And then there is the effect such a proposal would have on the downtown Topeka real estate market. Curtis Sneden, president of the Topeka Chamber, said many developers invested with an eye toward the stability and profitability that comes from having the state of Kansas as a tenant.

"We feel that there's a good solution in the middle somewhere that involves the use of the Docking building that doesn't necessarily bring 12 new floors of rehabilitated office space onto the market," Sneden said.

Hawk, the Manhattan Democrat, said he understood that logic and noted the Legislature benefited when downtown Topeka thrived.

But he added he would tend to support keeping all 12 floors of Docking available for future use, saying it would ultimately represent a savings of state funds.

"I just think my obligation is to the taxpayer before it is to the private landlords in Topeka," Hawk said. "And in that thinking, I think a better long-term solution is to finish out all 12 (floors)."

Previously:Kansas lawmakers lean toward full renovation of Docking building — but without KDHE lab

‘We're at that kind of critical moment’

Others argue there is merit in revisiting the potential demolition of the entire building.

Such a proposition could be tricky if the energy center is to be retained, which is a major reason why state officials are skeptical of the idea. But Sen. J.R. Claeys, R-Salina, said rebuilding from the ground up could help produce a structure that meets the goals of everyone involved.

Signs on an open office door reminds state employees of recent mask mandates for the few remaining Department of Revenue staff working on the second floor of the Docking State Office Building.

"I don't think the problem we have right now in state government or the lack of office space," Claeys said. "I think one thing that we do have a lack of near the Capitol is this event space for groups that want to be there."

State agencies have for years expressed frustration at a lack of event space in the Capitol Complex.

The largest spaces in the area are in the Memorial Building — itself an aging space, reminiscent of a high school gymnasium — and a 50-person room in the Curtis State Office Building. Even in the Statehouse, groups are often forced to have meetings in the halls during the legislative session because there is little room. 

And lawmakers have kicked around the idea of moving part or all of the Kansas Museum of History to the site as a way of increasing visitation. A new building could have more exhibition space and would be an additional attraction for tourists and school groups.

While the Department of Administration is satisfied its current proposal would create suitable meeting facilities, Claeys said starting from scratch could help ensure the final product makes the best possible use of space.

Located just west of the Statehouse is the Docking State Office Building. The building was constructed in 1954 and became operational three years later. Lawmakers are trying to decide on the best plan to replace the structure.

And with federal COVID-19 relief funds available to be used, the final cost might not be eye-popping, he said.

Previously:Topeka business leaders back Docking building renovation

But ultimately, Claeys noted the matter needs to be resolved, saying he is flexible on how that is accomplished.

He recalled one of his first votes in the egislature was when the Joint Committee on State Building Construction considered whether to confine Docking to the wrecking ball.

Almost a decade later, the issue is still there.

"Everyone has ideas, and some of them are great ideas and some of them are ideas that have really just slowed this process down," Claeys said. "But at the end of the day, we're at that kind of critical moment where we can make a good decision."

Andrew Bahl is a senior statehouse reporter for the Topeka Capital-Journal. He can be reached at abahl@gannett.com or by phone at 443-979-6100.