Air Capital Modernists: Schaefer Schirmer Eflin


Robert McLaughlin


Kansas State Historic Preservation Office


Regional Spotlight, Kansas
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Plains Modern Part Two
Postwar Architecture in Kansas


In October of 2020, in the middle of the Covid-19 Pandemic, the Wichita Public Library, likely the first Brutalist building designed in the state of Kansas, became the state’s first Beton Brut building added to the National Register of Historic Places. The Library nomination was rushed through, along with a separate nomination for the adjacent Century II Performing Arts and Convention Center by concerned citizens against the wishes of developers and City officials. The urgency was created by proposals to tear down both buildings to make way for a replacement Convention Center and a separate Performing Arts Center. The Library already sat vacant and was the first building to be razed to make way for the new facilities. Despite Brutalism sometimes creating buildings that were difficult to love, the Wichita Public Library truly had its own constituency and was believed by many architects and architectural enthusiasts to be the best Modern building in Wichita, Kansas’s largest city.

The Library’s design, which garnered an AIA National Merit Award, was created by the hands of skilled architects, Schaefer Schirmer & Eflin Architects. They were the most revered architecture firm in Kansas during the 1960s and 70s. Prolific and extremely skilled in designing Modernist architecture, they attracted the best talent to work in their offices. The Library became the breakthrough project for the young firm.

Meant to replace the 1915 Carnegie Library, still residing across Main Street, the new Public Library was designed in 1962-63, construction started in 1965 and the building was completed in 1967. The general shape is cruciform, including a single large rectangle with two smaller arms on the long, east and west elevations. It also features a full basement, main level, mezzanine, and upper level. The 90,000 square foot building is full of juxtapositions and contradictions: daylight & shadow, solid & void, heaviness & lightness, mass & space, vertical & horizontal, and concrete & glass. The monumental structure sits on a concrete podium elevated above the surrounding parking and streets. The library is very light-filled and airy for a Brutalist building. One enthusiast went so far as to call it “Brutalism Lite.”[1] The most significant feature of the library is its materiality, with the cast-in-place concrete structure both inside and out and the expansive areas of glass behind the concrete columns, defining the two great reading rooms to either side of the entry. The heavy “attic” or top floor seems to float over the reading rooms on legs of concrete. Even with the vacancy, the library remains in excellent condition and needs only minor repair and maintenance.

The firm of Schaefer Schirmer and Eflin felt so strongly about the quality of their finished project when it was completed that they hired Julius Shulman (1910-2009), famous California photographer of Modern architecture, to come to Wichita to shoot photographic images of the library.

Robert Schaefer and Henry Schirmer, Jr. founded Schaefer & Schirmer in 1957 in Kansas’s largest city, Wichita. Robert Eflin, who worked with Schaefer and Schirmer at the architecture firm of Ramey and Himes in the mid-1950s, was convinced to forgo graduate school while on his way from San Francisco to MIT. He joined the firm as a partner in 1960, and by 1962, the firm had grown to 10 full-time architects.[2]

Robert Jules Schaefer, known as “Schaef,” to those who knew him, was the son of J. Earl Schaefer, vice-chairman of Boeing Airplane Company and general manager of the Wichita Division. His father’s connections certainly were a help for the fledgling firm. “Bob Schaefer was the firm’s rainmaker. He knew everyone in town and was very adept at developing strong relationships…. Hank’s (Henry Schirmer’s) role in the partnerships was as the business manager, human resources manager, and quality control overseer.” While a partner at Schaefer Schirmer & Eflin, “Bob (Robert Eflin) contributed the design leadership for the firm.”[3]

Before the commission for the library, there were no Brutalist designs in the Schaefer Schirmer Eflin repertoire. In fact, the earlier designs, if anything, were International Style with a tinge of late career, Frank Lloyd Wright influence. Projects like the Fourth National Bank & Trust - Wichita Interchange Motor Bank[4] (1960-61, now Bank of America), Security Abstract & Title Co.[5] (1962), and the Wichita Clinic Addition (circa 1964, now demolished) were likely started before Robert Eflin became a partner in the firm. This may be the reason that none of them seem related to the Brutalist Style, Wichita Public Library.[6]

Not all the firm’s work in this time period was the Brutalist style. A few buildings used a Neo-Formalism vocabulary and are attributed to Robert Schaefer’s hand. Grace Memorial Chapel (1963-1964,[7] [8] sometimes called All Faiths Chapel at Wichita University, now Wichita State University) responded to the historic context of the red brick architecture surrounding it. There is a reverse slope stucco soffit that has segmental arches carved out, again in response to the surrounding campus. The pyramidal roof is reminiscent of Gunnar Asplund’s Woodland Cemetery Chapel and is capped by a skylight, pierced by a sheet metal spire with Wrightian overtones. The raised podium and formal nature of the building responded to the traditional quadrangle campus plan. Despite all these nods to the past the building is still thoroughly Modern.

The Downing East Mortuary [9] (circa 1965, extant) explores a similar vocabulary as Grace Chapel, with flat segmental arches, this time rendered in brick, spanning openings in a brick arcade. A stucco band wraps the entire building to transition from brick to flat roof. A small pyramidal roof over a chapel sits asymmetrically on one side and a setback mansard roof sits on the other side as the only visible breaks to the otherwise flat roof.  Small courtyards to either side of the main entry separate the building from a busy avenue.

Other Brutalist projects by Schaefer Schirmer Eflin, built at the time as the library, include the American Savings Association[10] (1965, now Sunflower Bank), which explored Brutalism in a language of cut stone. Unique features include stone detailing at the base of the building that curves out of the surrounding paving, an overhanging upper floor and a half-circle stair tower with an open stair.

The Wichita YWCA [11] (1965-1966, now Salvation Army Shelter) used brick and concrete as primary materials. There are clear relationships between the library and YWCA with the entry portal and the finned window openings.


It was only natural that this firm would design and build buildings for the Aircraft Industry in the Air Capital of the World. Bob Schaefer had been a P-51 pilot[12], and his father was, after all, the head at Boeing. The new Wichita Airport built in the 1950s provided opportunity for many new buildings to support the private aviation industry. The firm designed the Cessna Aircraft Company - Delivery Center (circa 1960s, demolished) in a California Modern style similar to many Arts+Architecture Case Study Houses.[13]

The Cessna Aircraft Company – Engineering Research and Development Center (circa 1970s, extant) had a glass curtainwall exterior like many International Style buildings of the day. The building combined concrete cruciform columns similar the earlier library in an arcade protecting the glass with an exposed steel super-structure roof.[14]

Boulevard State Bank[15] (1970-1972, now Senseney Music), shows the firm beginning to transition away from Brutalism with another hybrid structure of concrete and steel. The building expressed a cantilevered and clear span steel super-structure resting on eight, 6’ diameter Brutalist concrete columns, two inset from the ends of each elevation. A projecting concrete stair with a round landing and half-round concrete screen walls, along with an oversized circular concrete core housing the vault and services, were obvious holdouts of the Brutalist phase and Le Corbusier. Still, the steel super-structure and perimeter curtainwall were clearly a step towards the late International Style and the Neue National Gallery in Berlin by Mies van der Rohe. This period also marks the beginning of the era when concrete became more expensive than steel construction.[16]

The firm designed the Pizza Hut Headquarters[17] (1970, now Summit Church), which was finished at about the same time. The project is purely late International Style with no traces of Brutalism. The fact that the Brutalist tendencies of the firm started and stopped with the arrival and departure of partner Robert Eflin in 1971 might not be a coincidence, but more a reflection of his influence in the designs.[18]

As part of the Kansas Community and Junior College Act of 1965, Schaefer Schirmer and Eflin received a series of commissions for new self-contained, 2-year, college campuses across Kansas. Butler County Community Junior College[19] [20] (circa 1966) was a series of buildings for each curriculum forming a true campus plan. Allen County Community College [21] (1966-1970) was a single large building in a brick and concrete Brutalist style. Seward County Community College [22] (1967-1969) was a hybrid design with the campus functions divided up by function into three buildings, wrapping a quadrangle and surrounded by a circular access road.

After a series of changes in the firm structure throughout the 1970s, including Henry Schirmer's exit in 1979, the current incarnation of Schaefer Johnson Cox and Frey & Associates, PA was established in 1984. Transitioning to the next generation of ownership in 2001, the firm moved to their present location inside the third modernist offices they designed for themselves. The offices share an atrium with the bank they designed next door. The exterior materials are concrete and glass, just like the library 35 years before. In 2011 the firm became known simply by its initials, SJCF Architecture.[23] [24]


[1] Dean Bradley and Robert J. McLaughlin, Interview about Library, December 2019

[2] “Wichita Silhouettes: Architect Joins Partners In Favorable Career Act,” Wichita Eagle, December 1, 1962, p. 15a.

[3] Sam Frey and Robert J. McLaughlin. Email Interview about Schaefer Schirmer Eflin with Sam Frey.

[4] “New Facility - Fourth National Bank, Interchange Motor Bank,” Wichita Eagle, August 30, 1960, p. 3A.

[5] “Firm to Add New Look to Courthouse Area,” Wichita Eagle, August 10, 1962, p. 1.

[6] “Schaefer Schirmer & Eflin” Firm Notes by Kathy Morgan, Senior Planner, Wichita Historic Preservation Office, (excerpts from Tihen Notes, WSU 1959-1979; Principal Obituaries; Bios and an interview with Joe Johnson), accessed May 12, 2020

[7] “Getty Library: Julius Shulman Archive (Search for Schaefer)” (Getty Museum), accessed January 22, 2020,

[8] “Construction To Start on WU Chapel,” Wichita Eagle, June 26, 1963, p. 1.

[9] “Getty Library: Julius Shulman Archive (Search for Schaefer)” (Getty Museum), accessed January 22, 2020,

[10] “Major Building Projects in Downtown Wichita,” Wichita Eagle, August 8, 1965, p. 5B.

[11] “YW Facility Plans Ready to Contract,” Wichita Eagle, December 5, 1965, p. 1C.

[12] Sam Frey and Robert J. McLaughlin. Email Interview about Schaefer Schirmer Eflin with Sam Frey.

[13] Matt Hamm and Robert J. McLaughlin. Phone Interview about Schaefer Schirmer Eflin with Matt Hamm.

[14] Ibid.

[15] “Boulevard State Bank to Relocate,” Wichita Eagle and Beacon, August 29, 1971, p. 1F.

[16] “Schaefer Schirmer & Eflin.”

[17] “Pizza Hut to Start Construction of New Headquarters,” Wichita Eagle and Beacon, March 24, 1969, p. 9C.

[18] “Schaefer Schirmer & Eflin.”

[19] “Getty Library: Julius Shulman Archive (Search for Schaefer)”

[20] “Feedback on 3 Schools: Butler County Community Junior College,” Progressive Architecture, March 1969, pp. 134-137.

[21] “ACCJC Wins Design Award,” Iola Register, January 25, 1971, p. 1.

[22] “Seward County Community College Area Technical School / General Information,” Wayback Machine / Seward County Community College Area Technical School, accessed June 14, 2020,  

[23] “Our History,” Company | Schaefer Johnson Cox Frey Architecture, accessed January 11, 2020,

[24] “Schaefer Schirmer & Eflin”


“Brutalism North America Timeline Before 1955 - 1980 and After.” #SOS Brutalism. Accessed November 12, 2019

“Brutalism.” RIBA. Accessed May 27, 2020.

KCmodern,, 2005-2020. 

Morgan, Kathy. “Schaefer Schirmer Eflin,” n.d. (excerpts from Tihen Notes, WSU 1959-1979; Principal Obituaries; Bios and an interview with Joe Johnson), accessed May 12, 2020.

Sachs, David H., and George Ehrlich. Guide to Kansas Architecture. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1996.

Schaefer Johnson Cox Frey Architecture,, 2020.

About the Author

Robert McLaughlin is a Historic Preservation Specialist at the Kansas State Historic Preservation Office. He is also principal of McLaughlin Design Associates and former member of the firm Bohlin Cywinski Jackson Architects. He is a co-founding board member of KCmodern, who promotes Modern architecture through education, preservation and advocacy in Kansas City since 2005. Recently, Mr. McLaughlin’s interest has expanded to researching Modernism across the state of Kansas. More recently, Robert penned a nomination to the National Register of Historic Places for the Brutalist, Wichita Public Library in Wichita, Kansas.

Contributors to this article are Chris Fein, AIA and Michael Grogan, AIA.

Special thanks to Mathew Hamm, AIA, Vice President and the staff of SJCF Architects for dipping into the firm archive and scanning images during the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic.

For more information on the Brutalist Wichita Public Library, you can view the National Register nomination here

Plains Modern is part of the Docomomo US Regional Spotlight on Modernism Series, which was launched to help you explore modern places throughout the country without leaving your home. Previous spotlights include Chicago, MississippiMidland, MichiganHoustonLas Vegas and Colorado. Have a region you'd like to see highlighted? Submit an article.

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Plains Modern Part Three
No Place Like Home: Modern Residential Design in Kansas