Downtown revitalization, 30 years later

The complexion of Sixth and Massachusetts streets changed completely after construction of a new City Hall began in the late 1970s, at right. The grain elevators were used when the area was a major shipping hub for the Santa Fe Railway and Jenny Wren flour was produced at the site. But the flour plant closed around World War II, and the grain elevators were shuttered in the 1960s, leaving an eyesore. The new City Hall, dedicated in 1980, changed all that. “It probably was the most important of all the decisions that we made about downtown,” said Bob Schumm, a downtown restaurant owner who was on the City Commission in 1980.

For decades, there was little question what lorded over downtown Lawrence — grain elevators.

Tall silos — numbering more than a half-dozen — dominated the northern end of downtown Lawrence like a bully dominates a dark alley.

“That whole area looked like it was from 1910, barely Industrial Revolution era,” said former City Manager Mike Wildgen. “It was like you were waiting for a little urchin to come out and say ‘Can I please have some more, sir.'”

Thirty years ago Monday, that all changed. City leaders on a Saturday in 1980 dedicated their new $3 million City Hall at Sixth and Massachusetts streets, and were convinced that they had struck a major blow for the health of downtown.

Three decades later, many still agree.

“It probably was the most important of all the decisions that we made about downtown,” said Bob Schumm, a downtown restaurant owner who was on the commission in 1980. “It made people feel secure to put money into their businesses and buildings downtown.”

The current crop of City Hall leaders plans to celebrate the moment. City commissioners will host a reception at 6 p.m. Tuesday at City Hall to commemorate the anniversary. Cake and punch will be served, and commissioners hope to take a photo of all past mayors and commissioners of the city who can attend.

They’ll also display some photos of what the area around City Hall used to look like. The city purchased the site along the river from members of the Hill family. The area once was a major shipping terminal for grain along the Santa Fe Railway, and was the production site for the once-famous Jenny Wren flour. But by 1978, when the city began construction of City Hall, all that was just a memory — and an eyesore.

The flour plant closed around World War II, and the grain elevator closed sometime in the 1960s, said Stephen Hill, who was an owner of the property. His family’s Lawrence Paper Company also had left the site, and the Bowersock Mills and Power Co. was one of the few businesses that really operated on the property.

“People have no idea that area once was the industrial heart of Lawrence,” Hill said.

Today, people may squabble over whether City Hall is the heart of downtown. But it certainly is a magnet, even if it is just to pay your water bill.

“City Hall is a destination,” said Mayor Mike Amyx, who owns a barber shop downtown. “It brings a lot of people to downtown. I’m sure glad that we had people with vision who saw the importance of putting that building there.”

Hill said a lot of the credit should go to former City Manager Buford Watson. Hill said Watson pushed for the site as a way to kickstart the northern end of downtown, which at that time had no Free State Brewery or trendy restaurants or boutiques. Instead, it mainly was home to an old bus station that Schumm said could best be described as “scuzzy.”

“Buford Watson was a political genius,” Hill said. “He and the City Commission at that time made some very far-reaching and bold moves to clean up that whole part of town. And I’d say they have paid off.”