A big, historic building on Massachusetts Street is going on the market after 40-plus years of family ownership

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World photo

The House Building at 720-731 Massachusetts St. recently has gone on the market with an asking price of $1.975 million.

If entering the J.Lynn Bridal store in downtown Lawrence causes you to feel a bit like a hustler or a shark, don’t be alarmed (although I wouldn’t recommend writing those thoughts into the wedding vows.) The building at 731 Massachusetts St. was a pool hall for almost 30 years, after all.

The building and its next-door twin at 729 Massachusetts St. also have been a makeshift post office, a dry goods store, a clothing store, a piano store, a furniture store, a doughnut shop, a brewery, a hardware store, a bank branch, a pizza restaurant and several other ventures.

It would take a while to list them all. The big two-story structure, which is named the House Building, has more chapters than most. It is one of the oldest in Lawrence, having been found to be the only retail building on Massachusetts Street to have survived Quantrill’s raid in 1863.

The building’s next chapter, though, will be written by someone else. The building is officially on the commercial real estate market after members of the George and Carol Francis family have decided to end their more than 40-year ownership of the building.

The decision has been a tough one, as the building was a passion of the late Carol Francis, who not only did the years of research to confirm the building’s history, but actually wrote a book — “The House Building: My Search for Its Foundations” — about her quest.

“This was her passion and her dream, and we have taken it as far as we can,” said daughter Wendy Clay, who is part of the family ownership group.

If you are having a hard time picturing the building, its current occupants are J.Lynn Bridal in the south half of the ground floor space and Ruff House Art in the north half. The second story houses 17 small offices that are rented by a variety of businesses.

Longer-time residents, though, may still remember the building as home to Francis Sporting Goods. It was there from 1957 to 2015. Carol Francis bought the building in 1978 to ensure that her husband’s sporting goods store wouldn’t have to worry about getting kicked out of the space someday by a new owner of the building.

In addition to doing the historical digging — looking at lots of insurance records, abstracts and other documents — Carol oversaw a lot of physical work on the building. One of those 17 second-floor offices contains a lot of her finds.

On one wall is an ornate sign for J. House & Son, a relic from the 19th-century clothing store that was one of the first occupants of the building. On a shelf beneath the sign is a small wooden clothes hanger stamped with the J. House & Son logo, and next to it is an even odder wooden object — a piece of an approximately 4-inch wooden pipe that was buried underground in front of the building.

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World photo

Relics accumulated by the George and Carol Francis family during its 40-year ownership of The House Building in downtown Lawrence include an old sign from the 19th century clothiers store, a wooden coat hangar from the store, and old piece of wooden city pipe that was buried near the building.

In another cabinet are a few reminders of the building’s time as a downtown pool hall. From at least 1915 to 1944, the south half of the building was some variation of Wilson Billiards or Swede Wilson Pool Hall. During basement cleaning or some such work, Carol found an old pool ball from the establishment and a check. The check was from 1914 and was from Wilson’s Billiard Parlor to The World Company — the owners of the Journal-World at that time — for $25.20. (I offered to endorse the check and get it cashed, but that didn’t seem to work.)

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World photo

A pool ball and a check from 1914 are among the memorabilia the Francis family has from when The House Building previously served as a large downtown pool hall.

But a far simpler item is a favorite of April Dwyer, who is another of Carol’s daughters and who does much of the day-to-day management of the building.

“I love the Earl’s Pizza sign,” April said, pointing to a framed advertisement, “because we all loved Earl’s Pizza as a kid.”

Earl’s Pizza Palace was in the 729 Massachusetts spot from about 1961 to 1966, according to a list compiled by Carol. If you had more of a sweet tooth, you probably loved the space even more about a decade later. From 1978 to 1994, it was home to Jenning’s Daylight Donuts.

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World photo

A sign from when the building was home to Earl’s Pizza Palace in the 1960s hangs on an office wall in The House Building.

The Francis children — there are also brothers Jon and Jay — largely grew up in the old building, and also grew up with the certain set of rules that came with being the children of a local business owner of the day.

“We never got to go to Kansas City when we were kids because we owned a business downtown,” April recalls. “We had to set an example for everybody else in town.”

“We weren’t allowed to go into the Walmart in town either,” Wendy added.

Times are different now, and it is hard to predict what will be next for the building. The ground-floor retail space is currently occupied by two locally owned businesses. A sale of the property won’t necessarily change that, at least not immediately. A new owner would be required to honor any leases those businesses have in place at the time of the building’s sale.

The building currently is listed for $1.975 million by Reece Commercial Real Estate. Dwyer said the family doesn’t have an urgent need to sell the building and will look for the right type of buyer. She said solid ownership of downtown buildings was critical to downtown’s future health.

“Not to name names, but some people own a lot of the buildings, and some of them don’t keep up on the maintenance,” she said. “I think that is an important thing. We may not be millionaires, but our building is in great shape.”

Wendy said she hoped the building’s next owner would have a similar philosophy.

“Just take pride in your building, take pride in your downtown,” she said. “I would hate to see more bars and restaurants go in. I do want to say that.”

Ideally, the daughters said the building also would end up with somebody who appreciated Lawrence’s history and even the role their mother played in it. Carol was part of a group that decades ago vigorously fought proposals to build various shopping malls in the community, which opponents said would have ruined the character or retail viability of downtown.

“I was in tears when Wendy first brought up the idea of selling,” April said. “I just wasn’t sure I could pull the trigger.”

“We are excited to sell but also very nervous and emotional about it,” Wendy added. “We want it to go to somebody who understands about downtown and cares about its history.”


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