The building now known as Liberty Hall has seen a lot of Lawrence history — 100 years of Lawrence history, to be exact. The celebration of that milestone is an appropriate time to reflect on the role a building, and the people who build and preserve it, can play in a community.
Buildings at the corner of what now is Seventh and Massachusetts streets didn’t fare so well during Lawrence’s turbulent early days. A building that housed the Herald of Freedom newspaper was burned by Sheriff Jones in his 1856 raid, and its replacement was burned in Quantrill’s 1863 raid. The first Liberty Hall was dedicated on the site in 1870 and became a center of Lawrence social and civic activity. J.D. Bowersock furthered the hall’s history by demolishing that building and replacing it with the elegant Bowersock Opera House, which was destroyed by fire in 1911.
Vowing that the building would never go up in flames again, Bowersock rebuilt the structure one more time, and the current concrete and brick building now is celebrating its 100th birthday, with performances of The Flaming Lips and a street party from 1 p.m. to midnight Friday in the 700 block of Massachusetts.
Over the years, as the Bowersock Opera House, the Dickinson Theater, the Red Dog Inn, the Lawrence Opera House, the building that now houses the reincarnated Liberty Hall has continued to serve as a community focal point, drawing a diverse group of local residents and students, perhaps numbering in the millions, through its doors. It was an opera house, a movie theater, a rock ’n’ roll venue and a dinner theater. Throughout its history it also has been a popular gathering place that promoted artistic endeavors, political engagement and community interaction.
The current facility continues to serve all of those roles. It is a movie theater and a performance venue that also is available for private and public functions of almost every description. The community owes a huge debt of gratitude to David and Susan Millstein, Liberty Hall’s current owners, for the role they and the late Charlie Oldfather played in returning this community landmark to its rightful role. The building was vacant and in disrepair when Oldfather and the Millsteins purchased it in 1985 and put significant resources into restoring some of its original grandeur and energy.
It’s been an eventful century for a grand structure that holds a lot of memories for several generations of Lawrence residents and visitors. We share the hope of Liberty Hall’s owners that “we can get another 100 years” out of this landmark structure in the heart of Lawrence.