Archive for Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Mass. St. metamorphosis: Looking at Downtown Lawrence’s ever-changing face

‘This used to be where everybody got everything’

A 1979 view of Jenning's Daylight Donuts, 729 Massachusetts St. Lids is located at 729 Mass. now.

A 1979 view of Jenning's Daylight Donuts, 729 Massachusetts St. Lids is located at 729 Mass. now.

June 17, 2009


It’s 5 p.m. on a Wednesday, nearly closing time for Rod Ernst.

He sits in his hardware shop near the putty knives, arms folded. Not too long ago, tool shops dominated downtown, he says. Now, Ernst & Son is the district’s sole tackle cache.

“Used to be one on every corner,” he says, rocking in his chair. “They’re all gone.”

Even though locally owned boutiques and eateries still reign downtown, the area often changes. The hardware stores, five-and-dimes and shoe shops of yore have been replaced by … well, everything you see today.

Locals have their explanations for Massachusetts Street’s ongoing metamorphosis: the economy, retiring store owners, or the suburbanization of the city. Perhaps the best way to understand how time can change a neighborhood is by looking at the scenery and shops that once defined the cityscape.

Lawrence, Kan., 1959: the Masonic Temple didn’t have its doors nailed shut, K-10 wasn’t a freeway and city commissioners convened at what is now Watkins Community Museum. One bridge spanned the Kansas River; there was no parking garage.

Helen Krische remembers the era well.

Krische, an archivist at the community museum, moved to Lawrence in 1961 as an 11-year-old who crossed the Kansas-Missouri border. At that point, she says, Vermont and New Hampshire streets weren’t developed. The Granada, adorned with lush velvet seats and curtains, showed classics such as “Carnival of Souls.” A set of grain elevators loomed at Sixth and Massachusetts, across Sixth from where City Hall stands today.

“It was the old cliché, ‘a simpler time.’ Things were a lot more accessible,” Krische says.

She recalls walking along Mass. Street, then a treeless avenue, and buying a Coca-Cola or Beatles album at one of the many five-and-dimes. But after the retail shops closed for the evening, downtown would clear out.


The nightlife aspect of Lawrence didn’t really come around until the 1980s, when Bob Schumm says Lawrence tried to turn itself into a “24-hour-city.”

Schumm has served on development committees and owned several restaurant enterprises downtown since 1970. The “entertainment” theme of Lawrence, he says, was suggested by a consultant in the ’80s. The idea was to bring people downtown every hour of the day.

Retail stores were already attracting the 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. crowd. The next step was bringing people to the district with bars and restaurants.

“I’ve seen a lot of change, really,” he says. When he first started business, only a handful of restaurants existed on Mass. Street. Maybe one per block, he says.

“By last count, there’s 42 restaurants downtown,” he says.

But the restaurant inundation of the past quarter-century hasn’t stolen downtown’s distinct feel, says Judy Billings of the Lawrence Convention & Visitors Bureau.

“There’s a flutter about retail businesses turning into restaurants and that this is beginning to become an entertainment district,” says Billings, director of the bureau. “That’s true, but I know bars and restaurants that have converted back to retail space.

“People are in the moment and they forget the history. It’s not a cookie-cutter, it’s not full of franchises.”

Instead, Billings says, the area is as authentic, eclectic and historic as can be. Such aspects draw both locals and tourists to the area.

But despite plenty of commerce, things change, she says.

“As long as I’ve lived here, we’ve always talked about how fragile our downtown is. Fragility has to do with those mom-and-pop businesses,” Billings says. “Things change, and they continue to change. Yet when you see an Arensberg’s close, everybody gets all upset.”

End of era

Long considered a staple of the downtown retail scene, Jack Arensberg sold shoes in Lawrence from 1958 until early this year. At one point, he says, there were at least five shoe shops in the 800 block of Massachusetts alone.

“This used to be where everybody got everything,” he says.

He thinks back to how the other shops closed: one was bought out, another store’s owner retired, another simply flopped. And after 50 years of business, Arensberg also decided to call it quits.

“I’m 81. I don’t want to do it anymore,” he jokes. “All of my friends have been retired for 15 years. I’m ready to join them.”

Across the street from the old Arensberg store is Ernst & Son, where Rod Ernst sits and brushes a hand over the stain on his right pant leg. Miles Davis plays on the shop stereo. Things used to be different around here, he explains.

“The mix is changing,” he says. He takes a somber approach to his shop’s eventual fate. After he retires, business at Ernst & Son will likely be done.

“Like so many businesses downtown,” he says. “That’ll be the end of it.”


Mark Kostner 8 years, 7 months ago

I moved out of Lawrence in 1980 and had made several visits to Lawrence during trips to Kansas City over the years, but they were always too brief. The last time I came to Lawrence, last Thanksgiving, I decided to stay a couple of nights in town. It was great, I loved it and want to come back. Downtown Lawrence is an entertainment district and there were a lot more restaurants and nightclubs. I live in Las Vegas and the trend right now is to build neo-downtowns that look like downtown Lawrence instead of big box shopping centers. Back in the 1980's I used to wonder why Lawrence fought so hard to keep malls out. Now nearly 30 years later, malls are hulking dinosaurs and cities are trying to build places that have the flavor of downtown Lawrence. As a visitor, the thing I thought it did need was more lodging. My choices were Spring Hill, where I loved my river view room, and the Eldridge. Otherwise, it was Iowa Street or the Turnpike gate. It would have been nice to have more choices and at least one economy place, especially now.

50YearResident 8 years, 7 months ago

Looks like there was a parking problem back then too. Bussiness did quite well downtown in those years. The picture must have been taken during rush hour. I moved to Lawrence in 1954. This picture brings back some fond memories. That is when there was a Woolworth, Penneys and a Montgomery Wards all downtown plus many other local stores too numerious to list here.

birdsandflowers 8 years, 7 months ago

I go downtown maybe 4 or 5 times a year to buy Jayhawk apparel and an occasional visit to a couple other types of stores. Otherwise, there is nothing there in which I'm interested. A lot of the stores have too high of prices, cater to a small, specific clientele, do not have a large selection, and I hate plugging a meter. Yes, there's the parking garage, but when you want to run in and check a price or availability of something, who wants to waste time parking blocks away in a garage or driving around the block for a spot to open then rummage around for change to plug a meter. Especially, when you're going to be in a store maybe 10 minutes tops. It's too much of a hassle.

Instead of plugging meters, why don't they get rid of them and add a small percentage to the tax base for downtown businesses similar to what they are doing with the new shopping area at 6th & Wak. I know, then there's the issue of downtown employees parking there all day -- honestly, my idea didn't extend that far. If someone agrees with this idea go ahead and tag team and address any other issues.

I would also love to see Lawrence do something along the river. We could have a beautiful environment developed there that could include fine dining, entertainment, and shops, maybe even a small outdoor amphitheater.

theno1jhawk 8 years, 7 months ago

Oh how I miss Jenning's Daylight Donuts! That picture brought back many fond memories.

8 years, 7 months ago

You are right birdsandflowers, take out the meters & you'll never find parking! Always amazed me that business owners were SO STUPID that they park in prime parking as well as let their employees park there too. Have seen employees go out & plug several meters in front of the business where they are working. Next time you can't find parking at least 1/3 of the block or lot will be employees so call businesses on it when you see it happening.

middleamerica 8 years, 7 months ago

Downtown does NOT have a parking problem!

Why do we think this area is special? Most of the romantic/nostalgic aspects of downtown Lawrence are a direct result of the space existing as a WALKABLE area - one of the few that is not dominated by cars in this town. Despite this fact, there are plenty of parking spaces and even a parking garage to allow automobiles to co-exist with pedestrians and cyclists. Yes, it is more difficult to find a spot directly in front of the store/restaurant you are visiting than it is at 27th and Iowa (although there you STILL have to walk a mile or so through a parking lot), but that is what makes downtown what it is. Enjoy the few extra minutes of exercise, fresh air, and people-watching that it takes to walk a half mile.

Walk or take the bus downtown if you don't want to bother circling the block or parking a few blocks away from your destination. Adding more parking only encourages further automobile use and makes a downtown district no different from any "historic" strip mall.

esteshawk 8 years, 7 months ago

I remember downtown in the 70s and it wasn't anything special. I attribute much of the current activity to the rehab of Liberty Hall and Free State Brewery (formally the urine drenched bus stop). It seems much activity has sprung from that corner, leading to the Eldridge rehab a couple years back. Borders downtown is not a big box - Wal Mart is a big box. Borders unfortunatly did send a few bookstores out of business, but it is a great use for downtown. A parking shortage is a great problem to have, and definately keep the meters; the purpose of those is to keep turnover in parking spaces. Finally, one of the best things Lawrence has done is to keep Mass St open to traffic. How many generations have cruised the strip? And there's the feeling when you get "rock star" parking in front of the store you're going to.

mmiller 8 years, 7 months ago

This is a fascinating article. I live in Oskaloosa. When I'm not out biking the highways of Jefferson County, I spend my time in Lawrence. Lawrence is a phenominal place to live, work and play. This is a 28-year-old's perspective mind you. I don't mind visiting Kansas City either. It's a fun place, too.

If you ask me which Kansas "city" I spend the least amount of time in, as far as entertainment, that would be Topeka. Topeka, in my opinion, is, well, how should I phrase this....a dump. There, I said it. There isn't anything, absoultey NOTHING, that attracts me to that city. It's a smorgasboard of chain restaurants, malls, retail stores, and on and on. Yes, Lawrence has chain stores too, but not near the amount Topeka does. Sorry if I've offended any Topekans or fans of Topeka. It's just how I feel.

Lawrence is an exciting place. As the article mentions, there is a unique energy about Lawrence. I feel it the moment I enter the city limits from the north. It's beautiful, and as I a musician, a place I can play my music (I play on the Steinway Grand at Signs of Life on Mass...sorry...shameless plug).

I also enjoy the restaurants downtown. They're unique. There's something for everyone. There's Milton's (very very good food), The Mirth, Mad Greek and so much more. These places rock!!!

And I'm sure some of you reading this are thinking "well, he's just another one of those liberal college student who plays music with the other hippies on Mass St." Interestingly, I am a Washburn Grad, and I don't consider myself remotely close to the Liberal mindset (not that there's anything wrong with that...each to his or her own...I respect all political views, opinions, etc.). I'm more middle of the road, borderline Conservative. Figure that one out. ;o) As far as the musicans on Mass -- I think it's way cool and just adds to the energy of the Lawrence experience!


average 8 years, 7 months ago

One thing that has kept downtown, besides avoiding the mall, has been that the Kansas Turnpike operates the way it does.

Had I-70 been a freeway, encouraging local traffic, the development pattern common nationwide from the late 1960s to present would have been more prevalent here. Eight ugly truck-stop exits of highway-oriented schlock between Tongie and Lecompton. In other words, Columbia, Missouri.

pimarkos 8 years, 7 months ago

I grew up in Lawrence, Ks. and lived there until 1940. In the early thirties, on Saturday night, my father would drive us to Massachusetts Street and we would park just about in front of Ober's Mens Store and watch the people walk down the street. Usually someone we knew would go by and we would visit with them, then we would drive up to the Round Corner Drug Store and honk for service. We would enjoy ice cream sodas for .15 cents each. I don't know if ANY of the stores that were familiar to me are there any longer, but the town was always busy and there was a lot of activity. We had Kress Co, Woolworth, Weavers, Drake Bakery, Vanity Beauty Shop, Jaedeke's Hardware, Penney's, Schleifer Meat Market, Pine's Grocery Store and on and on....I have not been able to get to Lawrence for almost 10 years, so I am sure there have been even more changes in that length of time. It is still my hometown, and I am proud of it.

Charlie Dominguez 8 years, 7 months ago

I have lived in downtown Lawrence for about a dozen years. And like all the rest of you, I love living here and especially on Mass street. Having said that, I must be frank and tell you that the one aspect, the one elephant in the room is the chronic homeless begging, staggering and hanging out downtown and which is hurting the downtown area, significantly.

Yes, Lawrence is liberal in its thinking of caring for all; but this city cannot afford the homeless industry that has been created by those who gain from more homeless "cases". The more homeless, the more case workers, the more funding request, the more of our dollars are sucked away from our parks and public programs that not only benefit our children but provide greater community for our families.

Are you aware that on average, there are 18 police calls to the homeless shelter per day?!

Until we move the homeless from downtown, I am like many others, don't feel safe downtown and definitely will not allow my children to be down there with panhandlers and filthy mouth drunks who have no respect for those in our community.

If we only do the easy thing and speak "for the homeless rights", then we loose downtown and that tax base we use to help others. I sit on several boards that deal with homelessness and waht we have been informed of is that you just don't end up is a long road to get there. And we just can't afford to solve the federal problem...

maxcrabb 8 years, 7 months ago

So even one person who admits they try to stay away from downtown can name two businesses they like... downtown!

Obviously, it works.

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