MU's Campus Writing Program adjusts to damaged Conley House

Wednesday, November 13, 2013 | 4:21 p.m. CST

COLUMBIA — A charcoal-gray cat lounged on top of a wooden desk in the front room of the Conley House, fixing its piercing green eyes on the front door. He's known to those who work in the building as Sal, though they don't know his original name or where he came from.

All they know is that Sal found a home when he climbed through a hole in the wall after a car crashed into the Conley House early Friday morning.

Since the crash, MU's Campus Writing Program, which is housed in the building, has been making do with half of its original workspace, structural adjustments and the possibility of scheduling changes.

The Friday morning crash resulted in two broken windows and structural damage to two of the offices on the first floor of the house. Writing Program Director Amy Lannin said the biggest concern was possibility of the second story collapsing after losing the support of one of the building's brick walls. On Wednesday morning, a large, wooden structure stood erect in the middle room of the building, giving additional support for the second floor. Office supplies have been moved to the other side of building, and employees are sharing offices.

Computers, telephones and the program's printer had to be rewired by MU's Division of Information Technology. Campus Facilities moved the thermostat to the other side of the house and ordered space heaters to keep the building warm enough for employees to work in while they repair the hole.

Lannin said she was told it would take months to fix all of the damage.

"When they moved us, it was with the understanding that it wasn't just temporary, but it would be for a very long time," Lannin said. "They haven't given us an estimate yet, and I don't think they really even know at this point."

The Conley House, built in 1868 and listed in the National Register of Historic Places, has housed MU's Campus Writing Program since 2005, Lannin said. She also said it contributed to MU's Top 10 ranking of universities with the best "Writing in the Disciplines" by U.S. News and World Report in spring 2013. The writing program regularly holds seminars, workshops and retreats for writers at the Conley House.

Lannin said program events may now need to be capped to a lower number of participants or may need to change locations. Writers will also not be able to drop in for the time being, though the program is working to develop walk-in hours.

"It's unfortunate because we really felt like we had gotten to a great place with the faculty seeing this as a welcoming, quiet spot," she said. "Some people felt like they were just hidden away. They could step out of time and space into a really good writing place."

The program held a writing seminar at the Conley House on Wednesday, and Lannin said the staff will evaluate the event's success to determine if they need to look at other locations for upcoming workshops and retreats.

"It's a nice way to ease back into hosting these events," she said. "Even little things like getting to the bathroom, because you have to go around and through so many things, will be different. So we’re curious as to how it’s going to work."

Lannin said she hopes the newly repaired space will generate new ideas on how to use that space while preserving the historic makeup of the house.

"We'll continue doing what we can and hope that this can turn into something great in the future," she said. "But we do hope people will stop by eventually and check out the Conley House, if they haven’t before, because this is a great treasure for this campus. They can even meet the cat."

Supervising editor is Allie Hinga.

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