Plans filed to expand historic Turnhalle building at Ninth and Rhode Island; site would become performance venue

photo by: Mike Yoder

The Turnhalle Building at 900 Rhode Island, is pictured on Thursday, Sept. 27, 2012.

What is generally thought to be the oldest community building in Lawrence has new owners — and new plans to become a performance venue on the edge of downtown.

Plans have been filed at City Hall to expand the Turnhalle building, 900 Rhode Island St., as new owners seek to turn the old stone structure with its historic stage and balcony into a performance and event business.

The new owners of the building haven’t yet publicly identified themselves, said Patrick Watkins, a Lawrence attorney who is representing the owners. A newly formed corporation, Turnhalle LLC, has purchased the property. The corporation paperwork filed with the state doesn’t yet identify the owners of the corporation.

But Watkins said the new owners are local business owners, who soon will become public as they seek incentives from Lawrence City Hall to rehabilitate the Turnhalle property, which dates back to 1869.

“It will be remarkable,” Watkins said of the coming project.

The plans filed at City Hall give just a glimpse of the work that is scheduled to happen on the building, which was built as a gathering spot for the German-American organization known as Turnverein.

The newly filed plans call for an approximately 1,700-square-foot addition to be constructed along the east edge of the building, near the alley that serves the neighborhood. Watkins said the addition will house an ADA accessible entrance, restrooms and other such features that are needed for a modern building but very difficult to construct in the historic shell of the stone building.

Watkins also said the addition will include a full kitchen and a “green room” area to host performers and other people who would use the building as an event space.

Watkins said the new owners are still finalizing the concept behind the performance and event space business that will be located at the site.

“I think they are open to a range of culturally significant events,” Watkins said. “We know this is part of a residential neighborhood. It can’t necessarily house the wide range of music performances you can in downtown.

“But they want it to be a community space. Everything from theater to independent movies to music.”

The building’s history certainly has been as a gathering spot. In addition to hosting traditional club meetings and functions, the Turnverein also used the space for gymnastics. The club had an odd requirement that all male members between 18 and 30 years old participate in gymnastics.

As such, the main floor has a large amount of open space that could be used for events, plus the room already has a bit of a stage and a small balcony.

The lower level of the building — which some of you may remember as the former home of Free State Glass — is thought to have hosted a beer garden. Records indicate the Turnverein was one of the few organizations allowed to serve beer during Prohibition, due to a cultural exemption granted for the role beer played in the German community. Plans for how to use the lower level of the building are still being considered, Watkins said.

Watkins said the team of historic preservation architects working on the project — led by Lawrence’s Stan Hernly and Mike Myers — now believe the lower level of the building didn’t actually exist originally but was added later through what was surely a complicated process to build new space beneath an existing building.

Apparently a beer garden was much desired.

“They had some conviction about it,” Watkins said.

The new owners have some conviction about rehabilitating the entire building, Watkins said. He said the project already qualifies for a 45% federal and state tax credit, due to the building’s historic significance. That will help with funding for the project. However, Watkins said the project also intends to seek a property tax rebate through Lawrence City Hall’s Neighborhood Revitalization program. The new owners will have to publicly identify themselves through that process.

Watkins said there is a tremendous amount of work needed at the building.

“It really is a miracle that it is still standing,” Watkins said.

Indeed, the Lawrence Preservation Alliance was very concerned that the building may fall into ruin. It purchased the building in 2012 from then-downtown Lawrence hardware store owner Rod Ernst, whose ancestors were members of the Turnverein organization

The Preservation Alliance did some emergency repairs to stabilize the building. It then sold the property to Tony Krsnich, a businessman who created the Warehouse Arts District in East Lawrence and is an expert in using tax credits to rehabilitate old properties. He made other structural repairs to the building, while trying to find a tenant for the unique space. Recently, he sold the property to the Turnhalle LLC group.

The Lawrence Preservation Alliance will continue to play a role in the project, Watkins said. A covenant placed on the property ensures that the LPA will review any plans for an addition to the building, Watkins said. The LPA also owns a parking lot that is basically across the street — north of Ninth Street — from the Turnhalle. LPA will sell that lot to the Turnhalle owner, upon completion of the project, Watkins said.

That lot could be critical in providing parking for any commercial venture at the Turnhalle, which otherwise is mainly next to old residential homes. The property also is only about a block east of the main downtown area, which includes numerous public parking lots.

Watkins said he expects the project to go through its various levels of approvals this fall and for construction to be underway throughout pretty much all of 2023. He said the team of architects and preservationists already are getting excited by the prospects, noting work has begun with an Oklahoma vendor who will be restoring all the old windows of the building.

“We are going to preserve everything,” Watkins said.

If you are interested in the unique building, check out this photo gallery the Journal-World published back in 2012, and also an article from the same time that I wrote after talking with Rod Ernst about the history of the building.


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