KU journalism project tells stories of historic downtown buildings

photo by: Mike Yoder

The Varsity Theater, 1013 Mass. St., currently houses Urban Outfitters apparel shop.

Downtown Lawrence’s old brick and stone buildings, some marked with names and dates from centuries past, are a call to the curious. And now, those wanting to know more about the storefronts, people and events that populated downtown’s historic buildings have an easy way to find out.

A University of Kansas journalism class, with the assistance of historical researchers, has been compiling timelines of buildings on Massachusetts Street and using them to create what resembles an online scrapbook of downtown Lawrence’s past. The Block-by-Block project provides information such as the origin of each building, past uses, ownership changes and architectural changes, as well as events that occurred — from fires to murders.

The Block-by-Block project, which is ongoing, began in spring 2017 as part of Journalism 302, an undergraduate research and reporting class. Associate professor Peter Bobkowski, who began the project, said he wanted his students to learn reporting skills, such as finding and verifying sources, and better understand the city they would call home while at KU.

“I got into this because I really wanted the students to have a greater appreciation for Lawrence and for downtown,” Bobkowski said.

The Lawrence Block-by-Block project is posted on the website for Unmistakably Lawrence, a campaign created by Lawrence’s convention and visitors bureau, eXplore Lawrence. The building histories are sorted by block and include interactive timelines with past uses, events and owners, as well as images of old photographs, documents and newspaper clippings.

Interested in more Lawrence history?

Check out the Journal-World’s “Dear Lawrence” community photo project from 2011. The full photo gallery can be viewed here.

Bobkowski said he got the idea for the project after seeing something similar in New York Magazine a few years ago that provided the history of a city block in Brooklyn. Staff at the Lawrence Public Library, Spencer Research Library and Watkins Museum of History have been helping students do research for the project. Bobkowski said the project has compiled histories for about 30 buildings so far. Ten of those histories can already be viewed on the Unmistakably Lawrence website, and Bobkowski said others will be added in the next couple of months.

Bobkowski said one of the more interesting stories that students have come across so far dealt with what is now Urban Outfitters, 1013 Massachusetts St. Because the marquee is still in place, the building’s past as the Varsity Theater may not be too surprising to passersby. But some may not know that it once had the highest seating capacity of any theater in town, with more than 1,000 seats, and once also housed a pipe organ.

The students researching the building also found that before it was a theater, a residence was located at that address that was the site of a double murder in 1870, where a family physician named John Medlicott was sentenced to life in prison for the killings. The building remained a residence until at least 1911, and the theater opened there in 1914.

The first 10 building histories on the site also include The Granada, Jefferson’s restaurant, and the Masonic Temple building that now houses Greenhouse Culture.

As far as how far the project will go, Bobkowski said he hopes to add more building histories to the Block-by-Block project every semester.


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