Preservation group purchases Turnhalle building in East Lawrence

An 1869 building in East Lawrence has been purchased by the Lawrence Preservation Alliance in an effort to save the structure that once was the center of the city’s thriving German-American community.

The Turnhalle building at the southwest corner of Ninth and Rhode Island Streets.

Leaders with the LPA announced Tuesday that they had finalized a deal to purchase the Turnhalle building, 900 R.I., from Lawrence businessman Rod Ernst.

“To us, this is the most significant, currently threatened historic structure in all of Lawrence,” said Dennis Brown, president of the LPA. “If you could tell us that we could get whatever property we are most concerned about, we would pick Turnhalle.”

Currently, the building houses Free State Glass and various other businesses.

From its construction in 1869 to about 1920, the building was home to a German-American community organization called Turnverein. But as World War I broke out, the German-American group became less active.

Ernst’s grandfather Philip Ernst bought the building in the mid-1930s after the organization had become defunct. Rod Ernst said Tuesday that the decision to sell the building was difficult.

“I have emotional ties to the building, so I hated to give it up,” Ernst said. “But it got to the point where it was going to take a lot of money to save a lot of the exterior. This group will have better access to public money and donations than I would.”

Brown said the LPA hopes to restore the exterior of the building, stabilize the entire structure and then find an appropriate user who will buy the building to create an attractive commercial use for the property.

Brown estimated it would cost $750,000 to $1 million to fully restore the building both inside and out. The LPA plans to stop short of that, but Brown said he didn’t have an estimate on how much the preservation alliance may have to spend on the structure.

“We will put in $30,000 to $40,000 worth of repairs that we think probably should have happened, like, yesterday,” Brown said.

Beyond that, Brown said other cost estimates are yet to be developed. He said the project undoubtedly will be the largest undertaken by the Lawrence Preservation Alliance.

“We’re taking a leap of faith, but we don’t think we’re jumping off a cliff,” Brown said. “We think this property has so much going for it historically and commercially, that we believe we’re in good shape. We just know we have a lot of work to do.”

Terms of the deal weren’t immediately disclosed, but Brown said Ernst structured the deal very favorably to the preservation alliance.

“The purchase price and the terms reflect his understanding that we have go a lot of fundraising to do, and a lot to get fixed,” Brown said. “All along he has said the history of the building must be preserved.”

Brown said the LPA will seek to place special preservation covenants on the property so that future owners will have to preserve the structure.