Lawhorn’s Lawrence: Enduring in East Lawrence

A long time.

In case you are wondering, Austin Turney reports that is how long it takes to mow his East Lawrence yard that is a little more than five acres.

“My son has convinced me we need to invest in a riding mower,” he says.

Pardon? Yes, Turney, who is 85, uses a push mower to care for this East Lawrence estate. Turney, however, notes that it is self-propelled.

“I don’t count the hours it takes,” Turney says of his mowing chore.

A single mowing actually is best measured in the number of days it takes. But that’s not bad, considering nearly everything else on this enduring property is measured in generations.

Turney’s home near 15th and Pennsylvania streets was under construction in 1863 when William Quantrill raided the city. He burned it down. It was quickly rebuilt, and since that time only two families have ever owned the structure, which is best known as the old house with the tower just down the road from the old East Lawrence greenhouse. (We really do give directions like we’re in Mayberry sometimes.)

“Two fathers and two sons,” Turney says of the grand number of people who have owned the property.

The first father was Samuel Riggs. He was the county attorney for Douglas County back in those tumultuous days, and eventually would serve as a politician and judge. Officially, the home is known on the National Register of Historic Places as the Samuel A. Riggs House.

When Riggs died in the early 1900s, his son took over the property. Then in 1931, Turney’s father, also Austin, purchased the four-bedroom, Italianate brick home — complete with a tower — for the grand sum of $5,000.

Turney was 2 years old at the time. Turney, an only child, lived in the house his entire childhood and until he graduated from Kansas University in the early 1950s. His career in accounting took him to Kansas City and then to New York and then to Connecticut, where he crunched numbers for a living.

Turney’s mother went on to live in the house until 1986, and then Turney took it over. As it had a few other times in its history, the home served as a rental property. Then, Turney and his wife, Ruth, returned in 1994. They were looking for a place to retire.Yes, this home — with its steep staircase and a yard that can swallow both man and machine — became the Turney’s retirement home.

Maybe it was the tower that sealed the deal. Or maybe not. If you have visions of Turney — who is probably best known in Lawrence for his eight-year stint on the Lawrence school board from 1997 to 2005 — sitting in the tower, overseeing the kingdom, you can erase them. These days, it takes a ladder and a desire to fit through a trap door to get to the tower.

But as a boy, Turney remembers there used to be a platform that housed a nice staircase that made for easy access to the tower. But then Turney’s mother discovered that the platform area had wonderful natural light. So, out went the stairs and in came a sewing room. Mothers, I contend, never have understood towers.

No, Turney came back to this East Lawrence spot for a reason that may be as outdated as Italianate towers: a love of place. In this world that has become so mobile and so fast, you could argue that few of us ever stand still long enough to really fall in love with a place.

But a few do.

“At the bottom of it, I’m just a very place-oriented person,” Turney says. “When I meet people, I always ask them where they’re from. It is important to me. As I thought about it, I realized this place had become a part of me, and this is the place that had meant the most to me.”

Certainly, it is a place that has changed. No longer does Turney’s pony graze in the yard, nor is he able to sit on the porch and look at a beautiful wheat field, and see the steam from the little train that took riders back and forth between Lawrence and the metropolis of Ottawa.

Inside the home, Turney can do what most of us can’t. In his living room — wonderful woodwork, period wallpaper, hundreds of books, and rugs of shag carpeting are the most distinctive features — Turney can walk over to the spot where his mother’s Victrola played “La traviata.” Or he can take a short walk to the other room and remember where the piano was, or the radio that he listened to when he ran down those very stairs on Dec. 7, 1941.

Turney understands that this isn’t how it works for most people these days. Most either have no chance or no desire to live in their childhood home and cover the same steps as their parents did. Whether that is how it will continue to work in this place is tough to say.

Austin and Ruth have one child, also Austin, and he lives in Lawrence and helps his parents greatly. But Turney doesn’t know whether he really wants to live in this house.

Thinking about what’s in store for your longtime home is the type of thing that could cause a fellow to worry. But Turney insists that it doesn’t cause him to fret.

“I tell myself that things have worked out since 1863 for this place,” Turney says, “so maybe things will continue working out.”

Maybe. After all, a long time seems to be standard time in this place.

— Each Sunday, Lawhorn’s Lawrence focuses on the people, places or past of Lawrence and the surrounding area. If you have a story idea, send it to Chad at