Groups propose that historic limestone barn owned by the city become community history center
photo by: Journal-World File Photo
Several organizations are proposing that the City of Lawrence turn a historic limestone barn that once served as a station on the Underground Railroad into a community history center.
The proposal was provided to the City Commission as part of its meeting Tuesday evening and later shared with the Journal-World. Five local organizations are backing the creation of the center, which would serve as an archival and digital research site. Steve Nowak, executive director of the Douglas County Historical Society and the Watkins Museum of History, said the center would preserve a nationally important Underground Railroad site as well as a link to one of Lawrence’s founding families and the community’s early agricultural past.
“The site is truly unique in Lawrence and worth preserving for public use,” Nowak told the commission. “Often historic buildings are preserved, but they end up without a vital and relevant function. The concept we propose avoids that fate by developing a future purpose for the site along while planning its preservation.”
The barn was built in 1858 and dates back to the territorial days of Kansas. The building, which has been modified and added to over the years, was originally the barn of abolitionist settlers Joel and Emily Grover. The two-story limestone building is now in the midst of a neighborhood at 2819 Stone Barn Terrace, but it was once a few miles outside of town and hid a group of people, led by abolitionist John Brown, who were escaping slavery in Missouri, as the Journal-World previously reported.
The city acquired the barn in 1980 and used it as a fire station until 2006. In recent years, the building has been used to store police department vehicles. The building was officially recognized as a site on the Underground Railroad through a National Park Service program in 2018, following the advocacy of a local historic preservation group, the Guardians of Grover Barn. The designation to the program, Network to Freedom, nationally recognizes the site and allows the city to apply for grants to preserve the building and create historic markers for the site.
In addition to Watkins, the other organizations supporting the creation of a community history center are the Lawrence Public Library, the Guardians of Grover Barn, the University of Kansas Hall Center for the Humanities, and the Institute for Digital Research in the Humanities, according to the letter to the commission. The letter proposes the building be used as a public historical research and digital storytelling center, which would bring together several archival collections and research services and make them available to the public.
“The barn’s story is an example of the value of recovering and making accessible lost histories — a major focus of the activity that would take place in conjunction with preservation of this important historical site,” the letter states.
Specifically, the center would house archives and research collections from the Watkins Museum and the library’s history collection under the care and supervision of a trained archivist, according the letter. It would also provide public access to resources and collections related to a digital storytelling initiative currently in the planning stage at KU’s Institute for Digital Research for the Humanities, in partnership with the Hall Center for the Humanities. Local organizations or community members could use the site’s digitization facilities to preserve their records and family histories and receive research assistance under the supervision of the archivist.
The city is in the process of constructing a new headquarters for the Lawrence police department, and once that building is complete in the coming months the department will no longer need to use the Grover barn site to store its police vehicles. Nowak said that at this time, the consortium is asking the city to postpone any new uses for the site until the group can develop a more detailed plan, seek out other partners and identify funding prospects. Once those steps are taken, Nowak said the group hopes to engage with the city in further discussion regarding a plan for the building.
Assistant City Manager Diane Stoddard told the Journal-World Wednesday that the city has not identified any immediate need for the building once the police vehicles are relocated. Stoddard said the topic has not yet been placed on a future commission agenda, but she said it would be a discussion at some point in the near future. The city estimates the police headquarters will be complete in December and that the facility will open in early 2021, according to Municipal Services and Operations Assistant Director Melinda Harger.