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Archive for Thursday, July 26, 1990

NEW BOOK TELLS HISTORY OF DOWNTOWN BUILDING

July 26, 1990

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Brick by historical brick, Carol Buhler Francis has put together the significant names, events and dates that are connected to the House building, which today houses Francis Sporting Goods and Jennings Daylight Donut Shop.

Francis set out to verify the historical significance of the building, 729-731 Mass., several years after purchasing it and being told it was the only downtown structure to survive Quantrill's raid in 1863.

She verified what she had heard by examining old insurance policies, fire run reports and news accounts.

But verifying the facts of Quantrill's raid wasn't enough for Francis, who runs a business that provides research, writing, editing, advertising and marketing services from second-floor offices in the historic structure.

The building had housed owners and merchants significant to the development of both Lawrence and Kansas. Francis wanted to give this history and that of the building a voice.

MANY VOICES are heard in "The House Building: My Search for Its Foundations", which Francis wrote. The book will be available for the first time between 4:30 and 7:30 p.m. Friday at a second floor open house to celebrate the building's 132nd birthday.

According to Francis' book, the nature of Josiah Miller is revealed through letters he wrote to his parents in the 1850s. Miller purchased the downtown lot in 1855 and later had the building constructed. The letters written by Miller reveal both a humanitarian who actively worked to end slavery and an opportunist who wanted to amass land in the territory that would become Kansas.

Miller and school friend Robert G. Elliott published the first Free-State newspaper in the territory. Miller also is credited with suggesting the state's current motto.

THE BUILDING'S next owner, Jacob House, also is the clothing merchant who was in his store when Quantrill's raiders descended on Lawrence. Only men were killed during the raid, and House is known for donning a woman's dress and bonnet in hopes of escaping the wrath of the raiding bandits, which he did.

After House died, his wife, Irma, subjected the building to its one major overhaul. In 1921 Mrs. House removed the third story, replaced the brick store front, repaired the second-floor office space and named it the House building with the identifying marker that remains today.

But Francis recounts the building's overhaul in a more engaging matter, slowly drawing it out through the perspective of the building.

The building is given the strongest "voice" throughout the book. Francis interviews the building in the first chapter, using this voice to run the readers through a colorful synopsis of its history that spans from the setting of its foundation before the Civil War up to today.

THE REMAINING chapters then provide documentation and a more detailed look at changes that took place in the building and the community in the more than 100 years that followed.

"I wanted to make this a readable history," Francis said, explaining her interview with the building. She said that sometimes authors are so intent on giving citations that historical books become dull.

Francis said she wanted to relate the building's history chronologically but in an engaging manner, and the off-beat use of the building as a source worked best.

Steve Jansen, director of the Elizabeth M. Watkins Community Museum, 1047 Mass., said he thinks that to give the building a voice was an ingenious way to make history come alive for people.

"The beauty is it's not a novel, but is conveyed in an engaging style typical of a fictional novel," Jansen said.

HE ADDED HE knew Francis didn't fit the prototype of a local historian but that he encouraged her to write the book because of her obvious commitment to bringing to the forefront the building's relevance to Lawrence and Kansas.

Francis also acknowledges not being educated as a historian. In fact, in the preface Francis states that she found history dull until being hired to put together newsletters for the Douglas County Historical Society in 1971.

Francis has bachelor's and master's degrees in journalism from Kansas University.

Francis has no real explanation for why she devoted 2 years to researching the building's origins and compiling the results in a book.

"I GUESS when you're refinishing woodwork," she said trailing off, "you become very close . . ."

Francis didn't finish the sentence. But her closeness with the building and its origins is apparent in the restoration she had done to the offices on the second floor a couple years ago and in the enthusiasm with which she talks about its former occupants.

And she admits that the interview of the building in the first chapter is more than a writing technique she decided to use.

The interview really took place, Francis said laughing, and while it went on it seemed very plausible to her that the walls in the building could speak.

And so, through Francis, they have.

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