Liberty Hall in downtown Lawrence holds so many years’ worth of stories and experiences that it’s almost as if the structure itself is alive. That’s why General Manager Dean Edington II refers to the building’s aura as “the spirit of the hall.”
Since its beginnings in 1856, the site where Liberty Hall sits today has been home to a number of businesses, including Bowersock Opera House in 1882, Red Dog Inn Night Club in 1965, and many others. Its stage floor has been no exception to the wear and tear the building has endured over the years.
After several years of evaluating areas of the stage, and facing delays due to the COVID-19 pandemic and an influx of events being booked, Edington and Liberty Hall owner Susan Millstein were eager to address issues in the structure of the floor.
They worked with Skip Shears, who operates Welcome Home Hardwoods LLC in Lawrence, to figure out next steps. It was clear that a detailed project would be needed to reconcile years of damage, and come mid-December 2021, the time was finally right to get started. Doing construction on a stage is tough because of its constant need to be in use, but they managed to find a sufficient timeframe between events at the theater.
The problem was found below the surface. Because the floor framing had become so damaged over time, the base was failing, which ultimately resulted in a failing support system underneath the stage.
They also found the floor had another floor almost entirely made of poured concrete underneath, which Edington said is “simply not preferred technology for flooring.” Combating the concrete floor, combined with huge steel brackets lodged awkwardly throughout, was the longest and most difficult part of the project, Edington said.
The reconstruction required help from several outside parties along the way, including Shears, Chris Miller, Anthony Dale and others. They took apart the floor in sections, stabilized and leveled the support systems, inserted a new subfloor and installed new flooring that matched the size of the existing floor. This way, the undamaged parts of the floor could remain while ensuring a solid foundation with an even look.
After six weeks of gritty work, the stage was completely rebuilt by Jan. 26. But it wasn’t quite celebration time yet. First, they had to get the floor sealed, which they didn’t have time for since shows were beginning to pick up pace again.
So Edington went into problem-solving mode again. He rented Marley flooring from the Lied Center to cover up the unfinished hardwood to just get them through those next couple of shows so that they could continue right after.
They were almost to the finish line this time when they ran into some supply issues, which further delayed the completion.
“I wouldn’t say that it was worst-case scenario, but it was definitely the most extreme case scenario of what could have happened,” Edington said.
But they were eventually able to obtain the needed materials to coat and finish the floor. The entire project was completed and the stage was ready for use on Feb. 19.
Because of this extensive project, which contributed to the preservation of one of Lawrence’s most iconic buildings, the Lawrence Preservation Alliance (LPA) awarded Liberty Hall with a Spring 2022 Preservation in Progress Award, which the organization announced Tuesday.
LPA has been recognizing individuals or groups in the local community who have led historic preservation efforts of buildings, structures or natural sites for roughly the past 10 years by presenting two types of awards, the Preservation in Progress award and the Preservation Achievement Award.
Presented to three or four individuals or groups during almost every season of every year, the PIP Awards recognize community members for individual projects that improve a structure or building, or act as catalysts for future preservation in Lawrence. Along with the Liberty Hall stage reconstruction this spring, LPA awarded two more PIP awards to two whole-house rehabilitations at 843 New York St. and 601 Louisiana St.
Generally, three Preservation Achievement Awards are given every other year during the month of May, which is National Historic Preservation Month, at an honorary event. They serve somewhat as “lifetime achievement” awards, according to LPA President Dennis Brown, as they honor community members who have dedicated several years of their lives to preservation work that maintain the culture of Lawrence.
Brown feels the preservation of historic buildings holds incredible value and meaning among Lawrence residents past and present.
“There’s great architecture in these buildings, but also there’s community history. And so anytime you have a community building, like a theater or a church, just think of all the stories there,” Brown said. “We want to remember and keep alive those stories of our community’s history.”
Historic Liberty Hall currently houses a concert hall, video store, La Prima Tazza coffee shop and an independent cinema theater.
“Liberty Hall is a special story for Lawrence,” Brown said. “So many communities have lost their historic theaters, or they’ve been repurposed and maybe they’re still in use but they’re not a theater anymore, so we’re really fortunate.”
In a rehabilitation project that took place in 1985-86, Susan Millstein and her late husband David collaborated with Charlie and Tensie Oldfather to purchase the historic building, and they revitalized it into what the community knows today as Liberty Hall.
The Millsteins received a Preservation Achievement Award from LPA in 2015 for fighting against plans that would have reshaped downtown Lawrence, and for their work preserving numerous downtown buildings. Susan Millstein has continued that work in the years following, including by leading the charge in this stage reconstruction effort.
Edington, in his 10th year as general manager, recalls being connected to Liberty Hall throughout his life. The purpose of the building, he said, goes far beyond providing entertainment to the Lawrence community.
“(Liberty Hall) was the pinnacle of live music performance when I was a kid, like it was the biggest and most prestigious place in town, so protecting and maintaining this building now is a huge honor for me,” Edington said.
“Everybody’s got a story about it, whether you had your first date there, rented a movie or attended a lecture. It’s for everyone, and it’s so welcoming. I love the place.”