From movies to weddings, plans filed for one of city’s oldest buildings to become event hall, restaurant on edge of downtown

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.

Plans are accelerating to convert one of the oldest buildings in Lawrence into an an event hall and restaurant on the edge of downtown.

Owners of the historic Turnhalle building — an 1869 stone structure at 900 Rhode Island St. — have filed plans to construct a small addition that will aid in converting the first floor of the building into an approximately 300-person event space and the basement into a restaurant.

“We think it can handle a variety of events,” said Patrick Watkins, a local attorney who is representing the Lawrence owners of the property. “We think everything from independent movie nights to weddings to concerts to theater.

“Hopefully it will invoke some of the civic intentions that are part of the building’s history.”

If so, break out the leotards. The Turnhalle building has one of the most interesting histories in Lawrence — unless you know of other places that so frequently combined gymnastics and beer.

The building was the home to the Lawrence chapter of Turnverein, a longtime German club that had an odd requirement that all male members between 18 and 30 participate in gymnastics classes.

To old Germans, the idea isn’t odd at all. The Turnverein was founded in the early 19th century when Germany was still occupied by Napoleon, and gymnastics were a way to bring young men together and run them through drills that, not coincidentally, often involved handling a staff-like object that was similar in size and shape to a rifle. By the time the group arrived in Lawrence, the gymnastics requirement fell under the idea of “a sound body led to a sound mind.”

The other part of the building was easier to understand — a beer garden. This was a German organization, after all, and a beer garden was a necessity for cultural reasons. Seriously. During Prohibition, the organization was allowed to keep its beer garden through a cultural exception in the law. (Is it still a party foul if you spill your beer while on the high bars?)

I’m not expecting exactly that type of activity once the building is restored, but the building will have a dual purpose under the proposed plans. The basement of the building will add a commercial kitchen and restrooms, and will include an open dining area. The approximately 835-square-foot addition on the back of the building will help make the building ADA compliant.

A concept for the restaurant — such as whether it will serve German food or go some other direction — hasn’t been determined. But Watkins expects it will be a freestanding restaurant on some nights, while on others it will be reserved for use as part of an event that is happening on the main floor.

Watkins thinks the main floor of the building will be among the most unique in Lawrence. It already has a balcony and stage, both of which will be preserved. The room is full of old wood that will be brought back to life, and it is all surrounded by the stone walls of a building that some historians believe is the oldest community building in the city.

“It is a grandiose hall,” Watkins said. “It is an amazing open space, and when it is restored, it will really speak for itself.”

It has been waiting a long time to speak. The basement of the building was occupied by Free State Glass Studio when the Lawrence Preservation Alliance purchased the building in 2012. But the main floor was empty. It has been empty for a long time. Watkins said he’s not sure when the main floor was last regularly used, but he suspects it may have been in the middle of the last century.

The Lawrence Preservation Alliance purchased the building to save it from further deterioration. It invested in a new roof and other basic needs. Tony Krsnich, developer of the Warehouse Arts District, bought the property from LPA, but was unable to develop a feasible use for it. It is now owned by Turnhalle LLC, which is led by Lawrence residents Zarif and Mamie Haque. They have been fairly quiet about ownership of the building, but I’m working to set up a time to talk with them about this project and others in Lawrence.

photo by: Mike Yoder

Touring the second-floor balcony area in the Turnhalle Building, 900 Rhode Island, Thursday, Sept, 26, 2012, from left is Karl Gridley and Mike Goanz, both with the Lawrence Preservation Alliance and Dick Rector of Free State Glass.

photo by: Mike Yoder

Mike Goanz with the Lawrence Preservation Alliance, surveys the interior of the Turnhalle Building at 900 Rhode Island in this 2012 file photo.

Zarif Haque is the chief executive and founder of Draiver, a technology company that has created a new system for delivering vehicles around the world. That’s a big deal for the auto industry, and the company appears to be doing well in terms of new investment and interest. The company is headquartered in Overland Park, but Haque is very much in Lawrence and showing up in the real estate scene.

Watkins said the purchase of the Turnhalle building is very noteworthy because the project comes with a lot of challenges.

“It really is a gift to the community to have owners who are willing to take a risk and make such a significant investment,” Watkins said

The property sits on the eastern edge of downtown Lawrence, but on a block that is full of single family homes. The property itself basically has no parking, but has use of a parking lot across Ninth Street. That lot won’t be enough to meet the needs of many events, and the owners are counting on people using public parking in downtown on those occasions.

The project also will need to fit in well with the homes that surround it. The site plan indicates the restaurant and event space likely would include a liquor license, but Watkins said it has no plans to be a traditional Lawrence bar.

“Everybody is aware that this building sits on a block of residential,” Watkins said. “They have every intention of being great neighbors. The entire project itself is sort of a community-minded endeavor.”


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