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Preservation Alliance seeking owner for city's oldest community building; city to award funds from Varsity House dispute tonight

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Maybe the idea of a social club built around gymnastics and beer will make a comeback. (Fortunately, I've already got a pommel horse with a cup holder.) Or maybe it will be something else, but the search is now officially on to find a user for East Lawrence's old Turnhalle building.

The Turnhalle building at 900 Rhode Island St. is thought to be the oldest standing community building in the city, built in 1869. For decades it housed the German social club called Turnverein, which had a fantastic beer garden but also had the rather odd requirement that all male members between 18 and 30 participate in gymnastics.

The Lawrence Preservation Alliance purchased the old stone building in late 2012 in an effort to stabilize what had become a deteriorating structure. Now, LPA president Dennis Brown tells me stabilization of the building is expected to be completed by May, and the LPA has officially put the building on the market.

The historic preservation organization is asking interested buyers to submit proposals detailing how the building will be used. The eventual buyer also will have to abide by a preservation easement that prohibits certain defining characteristics of the building from being changed.

But just what type of user can be found for a building whose main floor includes a stage, a balcony and an old wood floor that used to house gymnastics equipment?

Brown said that is what the group hopes to find out through the RFP process, which will start evaluating proposals on March 10 but will run until a buyer is found.

Certainly, though, preservationists have some dreams for the building. A German deli in the basement and an event space and gallery that highlights some of Lawrence's significant German history would be ideal, Brown said. The RFP does state that extra consideration will be given to proposals that keep the building open to the public in some way.

"We're thinking event space, gallery space, meeting space, maybe even a business incubator," Brown said.

The RFP process also makes it clear that the group won't make the sale price of the building the most important consideration in selecting a buyer. The LPA has an approximately $86,000 mortgage on the building, Brown said. LPA has spent about $300,000 on the project thus far, including the mortgage and a $125,000 cultural heritage grant received from the Douglas County Commission.

Brown said LPA hopes to be made whole on the project, but recognizes that may not be likely given that any future buyer will face significant costs to make the building viable.

LPA's work on the building, which will reach its peak this spring, mainly has been to stop water infiltration into the structure. That will include major work to the roof and around the building's foundation.

It will be interesting to watch what type of proposals the LPA receives. The purchase of the Turnhalle building has been the largest project undertaken by the LPA in recent years. Brown noted that the plan always was for LPA to stabilize the building and then find a new "preservation-minded owner."

"We're talking to a handful of people right now," Brown said of possible buyers. "They're all local, but the word is being spread into Kansas City and also to groups across the country that are connected to other Turnvereins. If at the end of the process, we had five serious proposals to consider, we would be pleased.

"It is a big project, and I think it will take a big plan."

People interested in submitting a proposal or learning more can go to the organization's website at lawrencepreservation.org.

In the meantime, I've got my own research to do. What goes better with the high bar: a pale ale or a dark stout? And how the heck do you hang on with just one free hand? And spills? So much to learn.

UPDATE: This talk of the Turnhalle building has renewed some questions about the future Lawrence's Free State Glass. For years, Free State Glass had its studio in the basement of the building. But that changed in Septembers when Free State was forced to move from the building because of a mold problem that had developed in the basement.

I talked Tuesday with Dick Rector, a co-owner of Free State. He said the future of the business that has gained national attention for everything from glass paperweights to chandeliers is still uncertain. He said the business has been able to move all of its equipment to a new location, but he said that location is just being used storage of the equipment. Rector said he didn't have a timeline for when the business may set up a new studio space to start blowing glass again.

"We have relocated all our stuff and have had some people want to buy the business, but I don't really know what will happen yet," Rector said.

In other news and notes from around town:

• Lawrence city commissioners at their meeting tonight will hand out some historic preservation money.

If you remember, Lawrence builder Thomas Fritzel's handling of the old Varsity House in the Oread neighborhood created quite a stir in the historic preservation community when he dismantled the house as part of the process of moving it a few feet to accommodate his apartment project. That uproar resulted in Fritzel — at the city's insistence — making a $50,000 donation to the Douglas County Community Foundation for historic preservation efforts.

Part of that agreement was that the City Commission would have a say in how those funds would be spent. At tonight's meeting commissioners are set to approve a recommendation that distributes the $50,000 to three community projects:

— $16,000 to the city of Lawrence to help restore the Breezedale neighborhoods monument sign near 23rd and Massachusetts streets.

— $2,970 to the Castle Tea Room, 1307 Massachusetts St., to repair windows and a porch on the historic building.

— $31,030 to the Watkins Community Museum of History, 1047 Massachusetts St., to repair windows on the building.

Click here to see a full list of the 10 projects that were considered for the money. Commissioners meet at 6:35 p.m. today at City Hall.

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  • Comments

    Nick Combs 9 months, 4 weeks ago

    Chad, what ever became of the dispute between Freestate Glass and the LPA? When last reported, it sounded like the basement was basically condemned due to mold from the leaking roof and Freestate Glass had been booted out. Has the basement been fixed?

    Chad Lawhorn 9 months, 4 weeks ago

    Hi: See the update I just posted above. Thanks, Chad

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