Photos by Barbara Higgins-Dover
Liberty Hall: A Cherished Piece of Lawrence Kansas History
Lighting and Technical Manager Rob Fitzgerald continuously works to prepare for the next function scheduled at Liberty Hall at 644 Massachusetts in Lawrence. His efforts assist in bringing, film, live performance, and social gatherings to the historic theater. Fitzgerald acknowledges and shares the community’s appreciation for the building and understands it to be a cherished piece of Lawrence history. Just as it has always been, visitors enjoy the theater’s beauty while utilizing the space for a variety of functions as Fitzgerald acknowledges. “People have always rented the theater from the time of Bowersock on for dances, weddings and parties.”
A Look Back - The Birth of a Theater
In 1856, The Herald of Freedom newspaper occupied a very different structure that was located on the corner lot where Liberty Hall stands. A large fire burned the Herald to the ground, paving the way for Samuel Edwin Poole to rebuild a new structure that same year, one that was to become a gathering spot for debates, town meetings and political speeches. Fitzgerald recounts, “In 1882 J.D. Bowersock purchased and renovated the building; he added another floor.” It soon became a theatrically themed opera house and well-known entertainment destination.
Remnants of the Past and an Introduction to Film
In 1911, the Opera House was re-designed with a lush Grecian influence and electric lights. This paved the way for early silent film and the production of “Birth of a Nation” showing in 1915. The first movie with sound, “The Canary Murder Case” played just a few years later. Despite the advancements and introduction of new technologies, the past dwells in some not so obvious places telling the story of what came before. Today’s visitors enter into the main lobby, greeted by hanging chandeliers, beautiful tiled floors, and marble staircases.
A walk up the steps leads to the second floor, where an arched, stained-glass window quickly comes into view and is the center of attraction on that level. Fitzgerald remembers finding the large window arch behind a boarded up wooden sided west wall. Its amber colored tones add richness and beauty to this part of the theater that leads to the balcony. Once in the balcony, up a few narrow steps and just behind a dark wooden door hides the remnants of an old stenciled ceiling design. The ceiling is what remains of an original room where African American audience members sat. Other hidden signs of the past include the chard remains of a burned stage floor visible from a basement stairwell. From there its apparent that new floorboards were placed directly on top of the of the old.
Liberty Hall has a past as diverse as the times it has lived through, from a Pre-Civil War era to Vaudeville to Disco and beyond. Changes in name, ownership and appearance vary greatly but reflect an ongoing desire to keep the building alive:
1854- Herald of Freedom Abolitionist Newspaper
1856- Liberty Hall opens for meetings, speeches and other community events
1882- JD Bowersock buys and renovates it as Bowersock Opera House
1930’s- Becomes the Jayhawker Theater until the 1950’s
1965- Opens again as the Red Dog Inn Night Club
1970’s- Opens as a Disco Club called Bugsy’s
1986- Liberty Hall re-emerges with major renovations to become a video store, theater and community gathering spot
According to Fitzgerald, “All kinds of entertainers have been here over these many years, Tina Turner, Al Jolsen, and lots of others.” Twenty first century musicians and performers of today stand on the same stage as did those of the past. Present day owners, David and Susan Millstein along with Fitzgerald continue to make improvements strive to continue bringing life back to a theater that has been through so much. The painted ceiling murals of ocean, stars, and sky add to the charm of the structure and help to give Liberty Hall the majestic status it once held.