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"Speakeasy" open in downtown Lawrence; more on school boundaries near Rock Chalk Park


I think I’ve finally been to a speakeasy. I think. If you remember, we reported last month that paperwork had been filed for a new drinking establishment in the basement of 7 E. Seventh St. downtown, and we mentioned that the rumor was that the place was going to be a “speakeasy.”

It was just a rumor at that time because I checked and couldn’t find where the business filed an official speakeasy permit at City Hall (just an oversight, I’m sure), but now I can report that the speakeasy element is indeed true. I stumbled into the establishment recently. It is open. I think. As we previously reported, it is called John Brown Underground. I think. No, it's not the substance that I think was gin that is causing my confusion. It is the fact that the business has no signs, advertisements or anything else calling attention to its existence.

“It is not an exclusive club, but we’re definitely not advertising,” said Kate Brubacher, the bar’s manager. “We want it to be word of mouth. There is no sign out front and no plans for a sign out front.”

That makes sense. If there is one thing I’ve always said about John Brown, it is that he hated signs. No, that’s not it. A speakeasy, for those of you not familiar with the term, was a common phrase in the Prohibition era to describe an establishment that illegally sold alcohol, or whatever that substance was that was brewed in the bathtub. For those of you who sat in the back row in Kansas History class, let me clear up some confusion and say John Brown was not a Prohibition-era figure. He was a militant abolitionist, but the secretive theme does kind of apply to him. Smuggling slaves to freedom involved some hush-hush type of stuff. Plus, the bar is in a basement, so it kind of literally has an underground theme going. I could do further psychoanalysis on the name, but I think I’ll just let Brubacher try to explain the place.

“I think people are going to enjoy a completely different vibe than anywhere else in town,” Brubacher said. “It helps that we’re in a basement and we keep the lighting low. There will be lots of hospitality and no pretension. The idea is we wanted some place for the 30 and up crowd. Not a lot of screaming and pop music. We want to keep it kind of mellow.”

The establishment can seat 80, but there is twist to that as well. Forty of the seats are in a back room, whose entrance is cordoned off with a velvet rope. That room is available only by reservation or “invitation.”

In case you're still trying to picture where this establishment is, it's in the spot that formerly housed the Game Guy video game store. Because the location wasn’t already a bar, John Brown Underground has to meet the city regulation that at least 55 percent of its total sales come from food rather than alcohol. The city has that regulation to stop a proliferation of pure bar uses downtown.

At the moment, the business has a small menu including pretzels with mustard dipping sauce, a broccoli and cauliflower plate, a sack of nuts, a bratwurst meal and a burger meal. The establishment has a longer list of classic cocktails and some of them may require some explanation.

“We’re trying to get people reintroduced to some of those old-time drinks,” Brubacher said. “Maybe some of what their grandpa drank but they haven’t.”

The drink menu includes some easy ones to understand like a classic martini, a Rob Roy, and a Mint Julep. But there’s also something called a Pimm's Cup, which uses a British liquor similar to gin and is cucumber based. There’s also something called a Pisco Sour, a Sazerac, a French 75 and Prohibition Punch, which features gin and “barkeep secrets.” Perhaps you are in luck, though, and your grandpa drank Pabst Blue Ribbon, Hamm's or other such beer. Those and a few craft beers, plus some wine, also are stocked at the bar.

I’m not entirely sure of the ownership group of the new establishment. Lawrence developer Doug Compton owns the building and has been involved in the project. The city drinking establishment license lists Scott Elliott, a partner in The Summit health and fitness club at Ninth and New Hampshire streets, as an owner. (That might explain the broccoli and cauliflower plate.) But I haven’t been able to get in touch with him about the project.

UPDATE: I now have gotten in touch with Elliott, and he tells me he's opened the bar after having the idea for more than a year. He said he had seen some other speakeasy concepts open in other cities, and thinks patrons are searching for places that have a more mellow atmosphere and promote conversation and relaxation. Elliott said he and his staff will continue to make a few tweaks to the concept as they go. He said a small stage area will be used to host perhaps a jazz guitarist or horn player a few nights a week. He said the menu also will expand significantly in the coming days. But he doesn't plan on changing the strategy of making the place slightly difficult to find. "We had a couple of guys come in the other night who said they didn't really know where it was, but when they saw the front door, they figured they had to be in the right place," Elliott said. "That's what we want. We want people to experience that feeling of 'I've found it.'"

Brubacher said the business is open for lunch, has an afternoon happy hour and serves until 2 a.m. on many nights. But in traditional speakeasy fashion, the hours are subject to change.

In other news and notes from around town:

An article I wrote a few days ago is still generating some conversation in Lawrence’s real estate community. It was about how as the city grows to the northwest, new development is exiting the Lawrence school district and entering the Perry-Lecompton school district. We’re talking in particular about the area near Rock Chalk Park, which is just north and east of the Sixth Street and South Lawrence Trafficway interchange.

Perhaps you haven’t been out there for awhile, but there is new home construction underway in that area. A housing development called the Oregon Trail development will have a mix of single-family and townhomes, with about 100 units overall. I’ve gotten calls from people who are worried those new homes aren’t in the Lawrence school district, despite what they may have been led to believe by real estate agents. Well, don’t worry. Those homes are in the Lawrence school district. As I pointed out in the original article, it is the area immediately east of Rock Chalk Park — which is where the new apartment complex approved by the city last night will be — and the area north of Rock Chalk Park that is in the Perry-Lecompton school district. The Oregon Trail development is south of Rock Chalk Park and the apartment complex. But the boundary lines in the area are jagged, so it will be important for homebuyers to do their research in the area.

It will be interesting to watch how much pressure Lawrence school district officials get to rethink their position on not allowing a large number of students from that area to transfer into the district. Superintendent Rick Doll has said if that area develops, homeowners should expect to send their kids to Perry-Lecompton schools. It has become clear to me that there are several real estate officials in town who are concerned that the area north of Rock Chalk Park will be hard to develop if homebuyers are told that their kids can’t go to the nearby Lawrence schools.

One scenario is that the area north of Rock Chalk Park just doesn’t develop. But that could be problematic at City Hall. The city is spending $22.5 million on infrastructure in the area. That’s a sign that it wants the area to develop. If the area doesn’t develop, it could be particularly problematic to the city’s desire to get significant amounts of retail development in the area. One of the reasons retailers have given for not wanting to locate in that area is because the number of homes near the intersection isn’t yet great. The area north of Rock Chalk could accommodate hundreds of homes, but only if you can sell them to people who want their kids to go to the Perry-Lecompton school district.

All this may end up being overblown. There may be a lot of people who will want to their kids to go to the Perry-Lecompton school district once they learn of the benefits of a smaller school and the door-to-door busing service the district will offer students. Either way, it seems like the area is ripe for an education campaign, a political campaign, or both.


Clark Coan 3 years, 8 months ago

A new Thai restaurant will be opening in the former Freebirds space. The signs are already up for Baan Thai. Most Thai restaurants are expensive, so I hope this one isn't. Don't really need more bars and restaurants downtown. Need a grocery store and drugstore.

Hey, what happened to the pedal bar? Did that fad come and go like so many?

I have yet to see someone hitchhiking testing the proposed ride sharing system.

Curtis Lange 3 years, 8 months ago

I've heard nothing but good things about Baan Thai from those that have eaten at their other locations.

Beth Ennis 3 years, 8 months ago

There is a Baan Thai in Leavenworth. Don't know if it is the same owners or not. The one in LV is not expensive.

Chad Lawhorn 3 years, 8 months ago

It is the same restaurant that is in Leavenworth. We had a little something about it in Town Talk a few weeks ago, but I'm planning on talking with the owners soon for a more complete report: http://www2.ljworld.com/weblogs/town_talk/tags/thai-restaurant/

Bruce Bertsch 3 years, 8 months ago

Why should USD 297 reconsider? This same scenario is true in Wichita where it has grown into the Goddard, Maize and other districts.

James Roper 3 years, 8 months ago

Huh. "Fake speakeasy" news trumps the police killing of a distraught teenager in Ottawa, KS last weekend. Or did I miss the LJW's coverage of this past Saturday's killing of 18-year-old Joseph Jennings by Ottawa cops? As his parents pleaded with cops to not shoot their son? Perhaps their flak jackets wouldn't have protected them from his BB gun?

Richard Heckler 3 years, 8 months ago

What's wrong with children attending school in the Perry LeCompton school district? We Lawrence taxpayers cannot afford more schools and the long list of expenses that come attached.

The real culprits behind this concern are local home builders and all those connected to the real estate industry.

Is there something wrong with the Perry-LeCompton school district? Most likely not.

If these students attend the Perry-LeCompton schools state tax dollars will go to Perry - LeCompton school district. What's wrong with that?

The residential home building industry and bankers should pay closer attention instead of assuming they can steam roll over the taxpayers and elected officials.

Are we talking extortion? Is it time to call in the FBI?

I will vote no on a new school for the local special interests.

Curtis Lange 3 years, 8 months ago

Think the problem is that most people see smaller school districts as 'inferior.' While this may or may not be true, school districts cross city lines all over the place. We have it here in Olathe too. On the eastern edge, students attend Blue Valley schools which is seen as an 'Overland Park' district. With the way Olathe is growing, it wouldn't surprise me if more students aren't eventually forced to attend Gardner schools and Spring Hill schools. I also have a friend in Lenexa whose son attends school in the Olathe district.

Scott Morgan 3 years, 8 months ago

Ez to check out state standards, also ez to think as a parent, can my son or daughter make the school cheer-leading team, hoops team, make the debate team, play some minutes in a high school football game when 250 kids show up for tryouts.

Lot's of good things happen at small schools. Same thing with big schools.

Doug Weston 3 years, 7 months ago

"The residential home building industry and bankers should pay closer attention instead of assuming they can steam roll over the taxpayers and elected officials."

They don't assume they can steam roll...they KNOW they can. Because every time they want something, either individually or collectively, our public officials roll over. Install fake grass in violation of city ordinance, ah, we'll let it go this time. Forget to get a required lighting study, shame on you, but go ahead. Ignore a promise you made regarding a historical house you were supposed to preserve, here's a slap on the hand. I could go on, and on... Once development takes off in that area, it will be incorporated into USD 497. Anyone willing to bet that it won't?

Richard Heckler 3 years, 8 months ago

Lawrence,Kansas need a plan that realizes the largest majority of stake holders not the local 1%. Why is city government allowing the real estate industry to set policy? one new development after the other?

The largest segment of stakeholders in Lawrence,Kansas by far and away are the individual homeowners of Lawrence,Kansas.

We need a plan that realizes the more the city expands outward the more all sorts of taxes and crime and air pollution will be increased.

We also need a vision that realizes that the Lawrence,Kansas quality of life is being threatened by the increased crime rate which is directly connected to unchecked and irresponsible growth. More cops and an expanded LPD budget cannot and will not stop crime growth.

Reckless Growth Increases Taxes, Air Pollution and Drains Our Wallets

Sprawl Cost Us All http://www.sierraclub.org/sprawl/report00/intro.asp

Most demographic and market indicators suggest that growth and development across the country are moving away from the suburban and exurban fringe and toward downtown. http://www.nbcnews.com/id/30810275/#.UlUyt2Tk8Wc

Local Corporate Welfare - http://www.pbs.org/moyers/journal/01182008/transcript.html David Cay Johnson – What exactly is TIF? http://www.democracynow.org/2008/1/18/free_lunch_how_the_wealthiest_americans

America is Over Stored http://www.newsweek.com/id/112762

Arts and Economic Prosperity http://www.artsusa.org/information_services/research/services/economic_impact/default.asp

Next Decade Has Bleak Growth Prospects http://www.reuters.com/article/2010/01/03/us-usa-economy-dismal-idUSTRE6021LK20100103?feedType=RSS&feedName=businessNews&utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+reuters%2FbusinessNews+%28News+%2F+US+%2F+Business+News%29

James Roper 3 years, 8 months ago

Thanks, LJW! I check this site so infrequently, I clearly missed your coverage!

Richard Heckler 3 years, 8 months ago

We taxpayers might want to remain focused on the upgrading of our current stock of schools before taking on more debt to satisfy the out of control housing industry.

Wasn't it the housing industry and the financial industry that put the USA economy and the world wide economy into disaster?

How many want a repeat of such reckless notions?

Let's take care of our existing supply of schools first.

EJ Mulligan 3 years, 8 months ago

No sign on the speakeasy/drinking establishment. So when we're downtown and decide to grab a drink somewhere, we'll be sure to think of the John Brown place...exactly last (after everywhere else that has a sign). That's going to work well (sarcasm).

Richard Andrade 3 years, 7 months ago

I'd love to walk around with you downtown sometime- you seem to be limited to only visiting establishments with visible signage. How do you handle this- do you just make decisions visible half-block by visibile half-block? Personally, I just remember places regardless of signage, but that's just me.

Brian Yeager 3 years, 7 months ago

You do know what a speakeasy is? You just read an article with its location. You're now "in the know." Not sure if trolling or least aware human ever.

Clark Coan 3 years, 8 months ago

Only those "in the know" will drink there. Maybe we should rap three times on the door to gain admission.

I'm still predicting a new elementary school and fire station in the vicinity of the Rock Chalk Park is on the horizon. Sprawl and rampant residential and commercial growth never pay for themselves. Only industrial growth does.

Greg DiVilbiss 3 years, 7 months ago

I understand how you can make the case that residential growth does not pay for itself (Not saying that is accurate or not) but how does Commercial Office and Retail they pay the same property tax rate as industrial and in fact those properties are generally appraised at a higher valuation.

Would love to know your thoughts Clark.

Shane Rogers 3 years, 8 months ago

So. If families aren't going to be able to send their kids to the Lawrence schools in those areas.....then why is the City of Lawrence paying to create the infrastructure?

Ned Wolfsosoon 3 years, 7 months ago

Small town schools don't employ as many Marxists, so to Lawrencians, that is a bad thing.

Richard Heckler 3 years, 7 months ago

About the "speak easy"….

"There will be lots of hospitality and no pretension. The idea is we wanted some place for the 30 and up crowd. Not a lot of screaming and pop music. We want to keep it kind of mellow.”

"The establishment can seat 80, but there is twist to that as well. Forty of the seats are in a back room, whose entrance is cordoned off with a velvet rope. That room is available only by reservation or “invitation.”

I guess the Chamber/ developer type crowd now has their private venue ………. enjoy yourselves.

Greg DiVilbiss 3 years, 7 months ago

There is nothing wrong with smaller school districts, the problem is that these homes are virtually next to Lawrence Schools. Time how long it takes to get to Perry-Lecompton, how much fuel, oil, exhaust, wear and tear will there be on the roads?

I thought you were for neighborhoods where you can walk and shop and go to school eliminating the need for as much traffic and cars on the road. This does the exact opposite of Smart growth and actually increases sprawl that you oppose.

As it stands now this is growth at the edge of town, where growth has to happen especially if infill development is opposed, as seems to happen in this town more often then not.

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