Preservation group strikes deal to buy property near downtown

photo by: Courtesy: Lawrence Preservation Alliance/Katy Clagett

The Lawrence Preservation has a contract to purchase the red brick home at 904 Rhode Island St. The Turnhalle building, which is one of the oldest buildings in Lawrence, sits in the background.

Here’s your chance to own a house that is next door to a property known for beer drinking and gymnastics. Sure, there probably are plenty of chances to buy such a house in certain Lawrence neighborhoods, but this one is unique nonetheless.

The Lawrence Preservation Alliance has struck a deal to buy an 1880s brick home at 904 Rhode Island St. in an effort to save the old house that has been vacant for more than a year. The house is next door to the Turnhalle building, which is another property that LPA bought in recent years in an effort to save it.

The Turnhalle is significant for being perhaps the oldest community building in Lawrence — it was built in 1869 — but it has a quirky past to boot. From 1869 to about World War I, the building was home to Lawrence’s Turnverein club. The club had its roots in Germany and became the center of German-American culture in many communities.

The clubhouses also were probably the worldwide center for combination beer drinking and gymnastics activities. The club had an odd requirement that all men between 18 and 30 participate in gymnastics classes, under the idea that “a sound body led to a sound mind.” But nearly every clubhouse, and certainly the Lawrence one, had an active beer garden. I believe that was done under the idea of “you have to have something to wash down the bread.”

The Turnhalle building is at 900 Rhode Island St., and LPA bought it in 2012 after it was beginning to badly deteriorate. The group made some repairs that have added life to the building, and placed some legal covenants on the property that will ensure it can’t be easily changed or demolished years from now.

photo by: Nick Krug

The Turnhalle building is pictured at the southwest corner of Ninth and Rhode Island streets in this file photo from September 2012.

Relatively pleased with how that project worked out, the nonprofit LPA is trying to replicate the idea at 904 Rhode Island St., which is immediately south of the Turnhalle building. Dennis Brown, president of the LPA, said the group was concerned about the building for a variety of reasons. One is because it has been vacant for more than a year. Another is because there is concern that its nearness to the center of downtown could put it under some other pressures.

“I hate to use the word ‘gentrification,’ but we are in a situation with core downtown neighborhoods that people buy a property more for the location and not necessarily for the house that is on it,” Brown said. “That can create problems.”

The house had been owned by Rod Ernst, who also was the previous owner of the Turnhalle building. Ernst, a longtime downtown hardware store operator and owner of numerous properties across Lawrence, died in January. LPA had been discussing a deal for the house prior to his death. The preservation alliance put the property under contract with Ernst’s estate recently. Terms of the deal haven’t been disclosed, but Brown said the LPA won’t need to do any special fundraising to cover the purchase of the property.

The preservation alliance also doesn’t plan to do a lot of repairs to the house either. Instead, it will leave that to the next owner.

“It is a great old house with great bones,” Brown said. “But it is at the point in its life that whoever lives there next is going to have to do some significant work to make it nice again.”

The LPA’s main effort on the house is to place legal covenants on the property. The covenants, among other things, dictate the type of additions that can be made to the property, and ensure that the brick can’t ever be painted, the original windows must be maintained and several other architectural features of the house must be protected.

The covenants run with the property, meaning that even as the property is sold many times in decades to come, future owners still will be restricted in what they can change about the home. It is a powerful — and some would say aggressive — way to ensure historic preservation. It largely takes government out of the equation, which can rather easily change historic preservation guidelines and ordinances. City Hall, for example, can’t simply change these covenants. Such a strategy requires LPA to spend some money to buy the properties, but so far it has been able to come up with the needed funds in these two instances. It will be interesting to watch how frequently the organization uses the strategy in the future.

It also will be interesting to watch what happens to both properties. My understanding is the 904 Rhode Island house hits the market this week. Figuring out what will happen to the Turnhalle building likely will take longer.

photo by: Mike Yoder

In this file photo from Sept. 26, 2012, Dennis Brown, president of the Lawrence Preservation Alliance, is pictured inside the Turnhalle Building, 900 Rhode Island St.

LPA sold the Turnhalle building to East Lawrence developer Tony Krsnich in 2014. He didn’t have firm plans for putting the building back to use, but thought the main floor space — it has wood floor and a balcony — could create some type of destination use. He even briefly mentioned the idea of a mini-bowling alley in the basement. The Turnverein had one of those as well.

On Monday, Krsnich said he doesn’t have a deal pending to fill the building, but he does think there’s reason to be optimistic. He said the two major questions potential tenants ask about the property are related to plans to improve East Ninth Street and off-street parking that could serve the property.

Both issues are closer to being answered. Krsnich is still disappointed that the city did not proceed with a much-discussed plan that would have remade East Ninth Street into a new art-lined corridor. After a heated debate, commissioners instead opted for a more traditional street upgrade with some art elements. It is not what Krsnich wanted, but it could still help the Turnhalle project.

The second issue has to do with a privately owned parking lot that is across the street from Turnhalle. Potential tenants long have been interested in whether their businesses could have access to that parking lot, which is at the northeast corner of Ninth and Rhode Island streets. Krsnich has been working behind the scenes on that issue for awhile. A deal hasn’t yet been struck, but he thinks there will be good news on that front in the coming weeks.

As for potential uses for the building, he said there’s been some interest in a small-scale art gallery on the main floor or maybe even a museum use. He said people continued to be intrigued about using the basement for a beer garden or food use that pays homage to the building’s German-American history.


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