Dennis Brown can start to imagine what the old 1869 Turnhalle German hall in East Lawrence will look like once it is restored.
Now, the public has its chance to turn its imagination loose at what is considered Lawrence’s oldest community building.
“When you think of Lawrence buildings like Liberty Hall or the Eldridge Hotel, it takes some vision and hard work to get to what they have, but once you do, you’ve really got something,” said Brown, chair of the Lawrence Preservation Alliance. “This building has so much potential.”
Area residents can see it firsthand at two scheduled open houses. Brief presentations and free tours will be offered of the Turnhalle building, 900 Rhode Island St., from 10 a.m. to noon on Saturday and again from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. on April 21. Presentations about the building and its German history will be given by Dennis Domer and Frank Baron at 10:30 a.m on Saturday and 2:30 p.m. on April 21.
The Lawrence Preservation Alliance is asking community members who have any old photographs of the Turnhalle building, 900 Rhode Island St., to bring them forward.
Dennis Brown, LPA chair, said the group is especially interested in any photos that have known dates so LPA can begin to see how the building looked at different time periods. The building was frequently used for weddings in the German-American community, and Brown is hopeful Lawrence families have photos from those sort of events.
People with photos can bring them to the scheduled open houses, or contact the LPA through its Web site, lawrencepreservation.org.
The stone building for decades houses a relatively hidden piece of Lawrence’s history. The German-American social club Turnverein used the building as its gathering place from 1869 up until the days of World War I, when German-Americans often withdrew from community activities. In its heyday, the building hosted gymnastics competitions — a favorite activity of the club — and also had one of the few legal beer gardens in the city during the days of Prohibition.
But in recent decades, the building had started to deteriorate. The Lawrence Preservation Alliance signed a deal to purchase the building from longtime Lawrence businessman Rod Ernst in September, and has since raised about $45,000 in grants and donations to begin stabilizing the building.
LPA leaders hope to be in a position by late summer to offer the building for sale to a private group or organization that will abide by a special deed requiring the historical elements of the building to be maintained.
Who that buyer will be, though, is still unclear. Brown said LPA would prefer the building not be used for residential purposes because that may require too much alteration, and it would go against the building’s history of being an open, community-oriented place.
Brown said he sees potential for the building to be used as commercial space on its ground floor, and perhaps some sort of community or performance space on the main floor, which includes hardwood floors, a stage and a balcony.
“What it has going for it is that it is one of the prime historic properties in the city, and its location is incredible,” Brown said. “It is right next to downtown.”
The building is one block east of the Ninth and New Hampshire intersection that is undergoing major redevelopment with a new hotel, a multi-story apartment building, and below-ground parking garages.
Before LPA gets serious about finding a buyer, the group first has hired Lawrence-based Treanor Architects to complete a historic structures report of the property. The $30,000 study will prioritize the list of repairs needed to protect the property.
The LPA has applied for $129,000 worth of grants from the Douglas County Heritage Conservation Council that would be used to replace the building’s roof and make other structural repairs.
Brown, though, said LPA doesn’t expect to be in a position to make all the repairs needed to the building. Instead, it hopes to identify the major issues a new owner of the building would need to address.
All the restoration work — everything from refinishing the woodwork to installing new mechanical systems — will be up to the new owner, and likely will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, Brown said.
Brown said LPA — which is still doing fundraising for the project — is optimistic the right buyer ultimately will be found. Brown said he is even holding out hope there is a buyer who can find a use that will allow the community to get a glimpse at the important role the building once played.
Brown and historians who have researched the building said it is a good example of the role German-Americans played in settling the Midwest, and how the group sometimes had to struggle to keep their Old World culture alive in America.
“It is a great example of an old building that really hasn’t been altered much,” Brown said. “But it has a much bigger story to tell than even that.”